Tag Archives: fortune telling

Paper Fortune-Teller – An American Childhood Classic

--Informant Info--
Date of Performance/Collection:
Primary Language:
Other Language(s):

“When I was in elementary school, my friends and I used to make this folded paper-contraption, kind of like origami, that was supposed to tell fortunes. Basically, you had to fold a standard piece of loose-leaf, like, 10 times. On each of the folds you would write numbers and colors, and then on the inside flaps, you would write some kind of fortune, like who you would marry or where you would live or what your job would be–or even all of the above.  One person would be the one to ‘move’ the paper contraption back and forth, while the other person would choose the numbers/colors. For example, the if the person chose 3, you would move the paper back and forth 3 times before stopping on the configuration that showed the colors. Then they would choose the color, and the person would read the fortune underneath.”

Context: The informant, ER, is student was born and raised in the United States, specifically Los Angeles, CA. She was a very outgoing and enjoyed doing lots of fun activities with her friends, including making lip-synced music videos and playing quirky games. This game was something that ER and her friends did a lot, repeating the fortune-telling over and over again in order to hopefully get a fortune that was favorable. However, only a few of the friends were capable of constructing the contraption, so you had to ask them to make one for you if you need wanted one of you own.

Analysis: Based on the insights of ER, I can see the how this game is an important piece of children’s folklore that tell us a lot about our culture and the way that children see the world and their lives. With this particular game, we can see how children want to grow up and know more about their future and what they would be like. There is always a level of uncertainty for the future throughout our lives, however, the amount of control that we have over our future as a young child is much less than when we become older and more mature. Children are always anticipating what the future holds for them, and this game is a way to bring some wisdom to this struggle and help them alleviate the uncomfortableness of the uncertainty. Another example of a children’s folk game that involves fortune-telling is a game-called MASH. This game involves writing down lists of various components of one’s future, like spouse name, job and house style and use a specific number to determine which of components on the lists will be your future.

Along with this, the fact that only a few people had the ability to manufacture the paper object, it also created a bit of a power dynamic between the children that want to participate in the game, and those who are able to provide this game. Another interesting fact about this game was the fact that I also grew up with this, despite the fact that I live across the country in Rhode Island. This is demonstrative of the how children across the country are sharing their traditions and customs with each other, and disseminating it moreover. For another version/purpose of this paper device, see Mechling, Jay. Folk Groups and Folklore Genres. Edited by Elliot Oring. pp. 105.

Coffee Grinds – Predict the Future?

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Greek
Age: 78
Occupation: Retired
Residence: Carmel
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/21/19
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

The informant was telling me how Greeks used the dregs from coffee grinds to read the future:

Informant: In some cultures they read tea leaves, but in some cultures they read coffee grinds.

Me: huh

Support: dregs from the coffee

Informant: They took the dregs turned over a little cup and turned it three times, and then they read the inside of the cup – what dripped out – and read what they would see “oh your gonna take a trip, oh you’re gonna get married, oh this or that”

Support: they always said I was going to get married, but here I am!



The Informant is a Greek woman who was born in the United States. She currently lives in Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA. Though she was not born in Greece, her parents immigrated to the US and she was born into a very Greek community in Phoenix, AZ. The performance was held during an Easter party, in front of her younger sister, who provided supporting information, as well as me.

This was completely new to me, as I had never heard of this ritual and only faintly heard of the tea leave predictions. I think it is really interesting how different cultures share so many similar traditions and patterns, and while they are similar they are also very different. It also raises questions about why cultures come up with these practices, seeing that they are not always accurate, but fascinating nonetheless.


--Informant Info--
Nationality: Japanese-American
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: Arcadia, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: February 11, 2017
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Japanese

Aubrey is a Japanese-American currently attending ELAC. She plans to transfer to UCSD to pursue a bachelor’s in Marine Biology because she intends to protect the marine environment with her university education. She enjoys drawing, watching anime, attending sports games with her dad, and playing with her dogs.

Original Script

So every morning on New Year’s Day, Japanese people would go to a shrine. They would toss in yen in this, like, designated area where you’re supposed to toss yen. And then you ring this large bell, bow, clap your hands twice, and you pray for good luck…And also some people choose to buy these small papers with messages called o-mikuji and some papers have really good luck, some papers have really bad luck. The papers that have good luck you’re supposed to keep so that the good luck will stay with. And the papers that have really bad luck, you’re supposed to tie them on a tree that’s in the shrine area so that the bad luck can stay away from you.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant first performed this ritual at a Shinto temple during her trip to Japan on New Year’s Day in elementary school. She remembered this custom because she enjoyed fortune-telling practices and the concepts of second chances and casting away bad luck on a tree.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant in my house.

In Japan, people perform these actions—ringing the bell, bowing, clapping twice—at temples for various reasons. The three main reasons are to draw the god’s attention, to ward off spirits, and to express their gratitude and respect for the god. Found in various temples and shrines throughout Japan, o-mikuji are strips of paper that grant fortunes ranging from a great blessing to a great curse. They predict one’s chances with various aspects of life: health, love, success, etc. However, when the prediction is bad, it is custom to fold the strip of paper and attach it to a pine tree. This custom originates from how the Japanese character for “pine tree” (松 / matsu) sounds like the characters for “to wait” (待つ / matsu), with the concept being that the bad luck will wait by the pine tree.

My Thoughts about the Performance

I found the Japanese custom for praying at a Shinto temple interesting, because I never knew what the reasons were for people ringing the bell, bowing, and clapping. I also thought the idea of placing bad luck in the form of strips of paper, or o-mikuji, on pine trees amusing. I did not realize that this custom was built on a sound pun, but I appreciate the fact that the custom provides several chances to a person for good fortune.

돌 잔치

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Korean
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence: California
Date of Performance/Collection: April 27, 2013
Primary Language: Korean
Other Language(s): English

In Korea, a child’s first birthday is called 돌 (Dol), and is celebrated extravagantly with many guests and festivities. From what I learned from my parents and upperclassmen, this celebration dates back to much older times. The reason that the first birthday is so celebrated is because during the time period, babies did not often live long enough to become one year old meaning that when they did survive, it was almost a miracle. This tradition continued on, celebrated by each family for each of their children. Back when I lived in Korea, I went to my younger cousin’s 1st birthday. Almost the entire family was there, along with friends, neighbors, and loved ones. My cousin was wearing traditional Korean clothes, which is known as a hanbok. The thing I remember most is actually one of the key traditions: the fortune-telling ritual. It is the most memorable part of the celebration, when many items including money, yarn of string, rice cake, books, noodles, etc are laid out in front of the child. The adults urged the child to pick up an object out of the many objects displayed before him. The reason for this was that when the child picks up an object, it is an indicator of what kind of person the child would be when he grew up. Indeed, each item was symbolic for a particular future. For instance, the yarn of string symbolizes longevity while the rice cakes symbolize good fortune and strength. Picking up a pen or book would indicate the child would become a scholar, while picking up money means that the child will become wealthy. Everybody eagerly waited for my baby cousin to choose and cheered when he finally picked something up. After this, the guests went up to play with the baby. They gave gifts to the parents to congratulate them and were very much jubilant and cheerful. The food, too, was very traditional. In front of the baby was set a mountain of rainbow colored rice cakes. This was meant to symbolize prosperity and good fortune for the baby. In addition, there were fruits and seaweed soup as well. Seaweed soup is actually a symbol for birthdays and is traditionally eaten every birthday starting with Dol. It was truly not a quiet, reserved party. Everybody was talking, enjoying themselves, and having fun with the baby or talking to the parents about how much they wished good fortune for the baby’s future. Shortly after, the guests began to leave after having blessed the family and given them gifts to commemorate the special day. This day was ultimately very important to me because in my eyes, these events were a time when many relatives, even very distant relatives, would come together. Regardless of where they were or how much had changed, they decided to come together to celebrate the healthy child and to have time to catch up on each others’ lives. If anything, it also was a symbol of how much the parents treasure their beloved child and the hopes that they have for the child they are raising.


--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese
Age: 16
Occupation: High School Student
Residence: Arcadia, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/28/2013
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Chinese

My sister told me that when she was young she played a game called MASH.  The game involves two people and requires a sheet of paper.  One person (who acts as a fortune-teller) sets up the sheet with the letters MASH on top.  M stands for Mansion, A stands for Apartment, S stands for Shack, and H stands for House.  The fortune-teller asks the other person, who is the main player, for the name of three boys or girls.  These are written on the left edge of the paper.  The fortune-teller then asks the player for three dream occupations and writes them down below the names of the boys and girls.  After that, the fortune teller asks for three dream vehicles and puts them under the list of occupations.  The fortune-teller asks the player for a number from 1 through 10.  They then write down the number in the center of the paper.  The fortune-teller takes this number and starts counting along the letters MASH, reversing direction every time they hit M or H on the end.  When the fortune-teller reaches the number, they cross out the letter they land on.  The process is repeated until one letter remains.  This letter indicates what sort of housing the player will have in the future.  The same counting method is used on the list of boys and girls to determine who the player is going to be married to.  Counting off on the list of occupations determines the future job, and counting off on the vehicles determines what the player is going to drive in the future.  When this information is obtained, the fortune-teller announces the results as such:
“So you’re going to live in a (x), and you’ll be married to (x), you’ll be working as a (x), driving a (x), and you’ll have (x) children!”

My sister learned this in primary school from other girls, and recalls obsessively playing it.  She thinks part of the appeal of MASH is that it seems to greatly simplify the future and put in the players’ hands.  She says that there are other variants she remembers as well.  In addition to the above information, sometimes the fortune-teller will also divine the marital status of the  player to the boy/girl selected through the counting process, by counting off a list involving such relationship statuses as “married, divorced, widowed, dating.”

I agree with my sister’s thoughts on the fortune-telling aspect of this game.  It’s a really simplified approach to telling the future.  It reminds me of fortune-tellers that children would make in order to answer all sorts of Yes/No questions through simple factors (like a number or color, depending on the format of the fortune-teller).  I find it interesting that this condenses the idea of futures and really gives the player agency (for example, you could pick 3 very expensive cars and 3 high-paying occupations and guarantee yourself a pretty positive future in this game).

擲筊 – Fortunetelling Blocks

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Taiwanese
Age: 43
Occupation: President of an electronics company
Residence: Newport Beach, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: April 14, 2012
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): English, Taiwanese

擲筊 (Bwa Bwei) Blocks and the Different Responses擲筊 (Bwa Bwei) is an ancient from of fortune telling. My informant, a Buddhist, uses these wooden blocks as a way to ask Buddha questions. Bwa Bwei comes in the form of two curved red blocks; one side of the block is flat and the other is round. The blocks are thrown onto the ground and the way they land represent different answers. In figure A, one lands on the flat side and the other lands on its round side. This represents a "yes" answer. Both figures B and C represent "no" answers, but have different meanings. For figure B, Buddha is angry at the question being asked. For figure C, Buddha is laughing at the question. The blocks have to be thrown three times and get the same answer all three times in order to be a confirmed answer.

My informant told me about this ritual when we were visiting a Hsi Lai Temple, a Buddhist worshiping center.  She told me she had learned this from a monk when she was little girl attending Temple.  She uses this method to answer a lot of personal and financial question.  An example of questions that she was ask are “Will this business deal be good for the company?” and “Will my daughter get into college?”  I asked her if she truly believed that Bwa Bweis revealed the best answers and possibly, the future.  My informant replied that for her, they have never been wrong.

I think that this form of fortune telling is a way to emphasize and support the idea of destiny.  Since the questions asked tend to be ones that reveal what will happen in the future, the answers seem to suggest that the future is set in stone and is just waiting to happen.  At the same time, I also view this practice as a stress reliever of sorts since the questions are usually associated with stress-inducing topics.  By getting an answer, the person no longer has to really worry anymore since the result is inevitable.