As a kid, whenever Andrew Wang would encounter a problem, his mom would take him directly to the fortuneteller for divination readings. It was the family’s de facto way of solving problems, and a safe place to vent and process life’s events. In adulthood, he carried on the tradition into his own life, consulting fortunetellers whenever he was at a frustrating junction in his life — like getting into a university or finding a job. The sessions are quite straightforward: you present a problem or a question, get a prediction, and maybe buy an amulet or two for good luck. For many years, this system worked nicely for him.
But when Wang, now 32, and his American husband hit a snafu in their relationship, and his husband requested that they go to couples therapy, Wang was very reluctant.
“We have this ‘saving face’ culture embedded in our mind,” he told VICE. “So it was very hard for me to take the first step.”
Unlike his husband, who grew up going to psychotherapy sessions in the United States whenever he was faced with a problem, Wang just didn’t know what to expect. He remembered that the first session was very uncomfortable.
“When the therapist asked ‘How do you feel about this?’ I was like, I don’t know what I feel about this because I had never been asked [that],” he said.
He told the therapist: “Feel is a very abstract thing to me. I feel it’s unfair.”
“No. Unfair is not a feeling,” Wang recalled the therapist saying. “Do you feel angry? Do you feel sad? Do you feel irritated?”
“It felt like I was being examined with a magnifying glass,” he said.
In the West, fortunetelling, tarot cards, and shamanic encounters are considered part of an underground, New Age subculture. But Taiwan has Confucian, Buddhist, Indigenous, and Taoist roots, and going to a psychic to process a broken heart, consulting tarot cards, or soliciting the services of a shaman to ask for a cure for depression is very normalized in mainstream society. Especially within conservative circles, folk healers are usually the first source of therapeutic relief for people who are struggling or just need someone to talk to.
“The role of the therapist used to be fulfilled by a shaman,” said Lily Wen. Wen is an Indigenous Taiwanese chef and her late mother was the last shaman of the Taromak tribe in Southeastern Taiwan. She recalls people going to her house looking for her mother, and no matter what the issue — whether it was depression or a headache — her mom would prescribe plants as the cure.
“She would give them plants and tell them to bathe with it, or tell them to smoke it,” Wen said.
Folk therapies and psychotherapy are not exactly analogous, but in Taiwan, the former is often used in the same way that psychotherapy is used. People go to fortunetellers to share their experiences and hope for a fix.
“Most people who participate in folk therapies or go to fortunetellers know these things aren’t psychotherapy. Instead, they are just looking for a way to heal themselves,” said Nien-ju Wu, a freelance clinical psychologist in Taiwan. “But you can’t say that these older, original forms of therapy don’t also have healing effects.”
Psychotherapy — in the Western sense — is still a relatively new concept in Taiwan, introduced in the mid-20th century, but only promoted at a nationwide level through a series of mental health campaigns in the 1990s. Of course, psychotherapy and folk therapies are not mutually exclusive and some people will sign up for both.
“I have clients who also go to therapists, but they come to me first,” said Inan Yang, a fortuneteller at Taipei’s Longshan Temple Street Underground shopping mall. “Taiwanese people really believe that there is a past life and that it will reflect on this life’s results. So they want to know the reason and the result.”
The reliance on superstition and the supernatural to deal with mental health problems was especially prevalent in generations past. Dr. Mian-Yoon Chong, a professor of psychiatry at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital and president at the Taiwan Academy of Psychiatric Epidemiology, recalls that when he was a medical resident in the 80s, people would bring their deities with them into the psychiatric ward, and were generally skeptical of Western medicine.
“Taiwan was a wilderness when it came to mental health,” he said, noting that in the 30s, people who displayed psychotic symptoms were by default just put in asylums. “But in the 1980s, Taiwan had a five-year mental health plan. In 1989, the mental health legislation was passed, so there was a revival of mental health services.”
While nationwide mental health campaigns brought a general sense of awareness to the topic, a 2017 survey by the John Tung Foundation showed that 53.2 percent of people still feel that mental illness is stigmatized in Taiwan.
To understand why going to a psychic is a lot more socially accepted than seeing a psychotherapist, one has to understand the Taiwanese worldview. According to 2005 data from the CIA World Factbook, 78.5 percent of people in Taiwan follow either Buddhist, Taoist, or Confucian beliefs. Within all of these belief systems, there is the concept of past lives and a destiny, which are predetermined based on birth time and place.
“If you don’t believe in it, the fortunetelling system wouldn’t work for you,” said Gladys Tsai, a freelance producer in Taiwan. “The bottom line is that you have to accept the idea that there are previous lives and future lives.”
Tsai, who has sought the services of both fortunetellers and psychotherapists in Taiwan, said she understands the appeal of both. Fortunetellers, she said, gives people a path to follow, and psychotherapy forces one to examine themselves.
“Therapists use an enlightenment method, so people can talk about themselves or about other people. They say their problems out loud and they solve the problems themselves,” said Yang. “But for fortunetellers, we mostly just look at one’s birthday and lay out what phenomena will happen. We give suggestions.”
Like Wang’s first therapy session, it’s uncomfortable for many Taiwanese people to talk openly about their mental issues and feelings — because it feels like something is wrong. It’s much easier to be given a prescription or a clear path. In folk therapy sessions, you are not compelled to talk about your feelings; you simply have to show up.
“Confucianism has a great impact on this,” said Der-Yan Andy Han, a clinical psychologist and professor at Taipei Medical University.
“Confucianism promotes self-cultivation. So when people have symptoms like worry or depression, they will think it is because they have a moral problem.”
Price and convenience is another factor.
“To go through psychotherapy is quite difficult,” admitted Wu. “Every month you have to pay a set fee and then you have to look at the unpleasant things within yourself and you are dissected. It’s not something that’s immediately fulfilling.”
A session with a fortuneteller or a shaman has a one-time fee, whereas therapy requires commitment and recurring sessions. Folk therapies are also much more widespread throughout Taiwan and can be found at night markets, in underground malls, or at a family friend’s house. Almost everyone knows someone with a fortuneteller. Finding and committing to a therapist, on the other hand, requires much more work — emotionally and literally.
“I don’t think that a fortuneteller can replace therapy,” said Karissa Chen, an American-Taiwanese writer based in Taiwan. Chen has seen a therapist before, in the U.S., and also has a longtime family fortuneteller in Taiwan. “But I think as a stand-in for someone with advice and someone with worldly knowledge — a fortuneteller scratches that itch.”
With globalization and more awareness surrounding the merits of psychotherapy, both folk therapists and psychotherapists are now working together to improve mental health resources in Taiwan.
“From psychotherapy, we derive a lot of skill sets and techniques,” said Olivia Wu, a divinator at Light Program Red House, a wellness center in Taipei. Wu specializes in readings based on the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text heavily endorsed by Confucius. She said that she is open to incorporating psychotherapy techniques into her sessions.
Some say that the two disciplines can even be complementary. Chong, the psychiatrist, gives an example of a 1999 earthquake in Taiwan that killed more than 2,400 people, which resulted in a lot of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“A lot of these shamans came in and helped them calm down their spirit,” he said. “It was fascinating. It’s not bad.”
Ya-ju Yang, a psychologist in Taichung, said that sometimes, fortunetellers will even refer clients to her.
“By the time [the clients] come to me, they’re quite serious cases already. They’ve just been wandering around,” she said.
As for Wang — to his surprise — going to couples therapy really helped improve his relationship with his husband. He said that while talking about his feelings was strange at first, he eventually began to look forward to his sessions and embrace the process. After 12 sessions, he is no longer embarrassed about going to therapy.
“Personally, I find that therapy has more results. It’s tangible,” he said. “With fortunetelling, it’s more abstract. Sometimes I’m not quite sure if it’s true but sometimes, some words are just really enchanting.”
Clarissa Wei is an American-Taiwanese journalist based in Taipei. Follow her on Twitter.