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Saju: My fate in stars and linesAncient Chinese astrological tradition thrives in modern Korea
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승인 2013.08.26  09:26:06
페이스북 트위터
▲ A copy of the author’s palm reading, full of meaning for those with eyes to see Image courtesy Kristine Bialik

“1989, February 14, 4:30 a.m.”

This, the time of my birth, and the lines in my right palm were enough for the saju reader to read my past, present, and future. As he rolled ink onto my open right hand and began consulting dusty Chinese texts, I wondered what he could possibly tell me. When I left over an hour later, it turned out there was quite a lot.

I learned about saju from a co-teacher, who had used a saju reader to choose her children’s names. When I learned they did general readings, I had to try it for myself.

Saju, also known as the Four Pillars (for the year, month, day, and hour of birth), is said to reveal many things about a person, from personality and health to relationships. A form of astrology, saju is based on the Chinese lunisolarcalendar and the Chinese fortune-telling practice, “Bazi.”

In the Chinese calendar, ten “heavenly stems” and twelve “earthly branches” combine and rotate to create a 60-year cycle. Each pillar (year, month, day, and hour) uses binary characters (a heavenly stem and earthly branch) to create a set of four pillars and eight characters unique to a specific time of birth. These combine to signify different arrange-ments of the “5 Elements” of the universe: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.

Though originating in China, the four-pillar method became popular in Korea during the early Joseon period. By the 18th century, saju had spread throughout the country, becoming entrenched in many Korean cultural practices. Tradi-tional Joseon dynasty weddings, for example, included a rite where the groom’s father would send the groom’s saju (date of birth) to the bride’s family.

Saju is still an important aspect of Korean culture today. Readings are consulted before wedding ceremonies and other important events and saju readers not only serve as divination experts, but also as therapists and guidance counselors.

Saju professionals can also be consulted when Koreans make weighty decisions, especially at major life events. Exams, the naming of one’s progeny, marriage proposals, and even business decisions are all reasons to visit a saju reader.

▲ Image courtesy Kristine Bialik

My taekwondo instructor said he visits his saju reader every lunar new year to get a reading on the upcoming year, but general consultations can be given at any time. I went for just that, along with my wonderful co-teacher, who helped translate from Chinese to Korean to English.

According to my saju reader (though not in these words), I’m going to be an old maid and eventual middle-aged cougar. I received everything from predictions (“you will bear a son”), health admonitions (“be careful with your large intestine”), general advice (“sleep with your head toward the east”), and possible fashion advice (“blue and green are good colors in your life”).

While some were arguably predictable (“you will love your children”), other details were shockingly accurate. The exact year I started dating my first boyfriend was pinpointed and the saju reader knew that I was older. This wouldn’t be spectacular, but the year was a little later than would be expected for adolescents, pitting the odds of a cultur-ally informed guess against him.

The two health concerns he stated were the only two things I’ve visited a doctor for in the past year, and the two hobbies he said would be important in my life (climbing and planting) are activities that are very important to my parents and I grew up doing them.

As with any mystic practice, there will be those who believe and those who are skeptical. Saju still serves as an important resource for many Korean families, but critics of the practice have existed since its introduction.

Prominent Joseon scholar and writer Seo Geojeong wrote, ““If the year, month, date and hour of birth are the sole determinants of a person’s fortune, we end up with a mere 518,400 different fortunes.” A large number to be sure, but one that is eclipsed by the larger population.

As for the ultimate accuracy of my reading? Well, time is the final teller of all fortunes. Until then, I await the “big change” coming my way at 26 and just to be safe, I might just sleep to the east.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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