At 8:19 am on March 23, Mercury will be in retrograde. Retweet to get away from [the bad fortune brought by] the retrograde,” is what popular horoscope blogger “Alex” posted on the morning of March 23. In just one day, the short message was retweeted over 60,000 times, accompanied by nearly 5,000 comments. Many followers exclaimed that they had been affected – they were scolded by their teacher, did something stupid in a test, or lost something. They hoped their bad luck would go away once they retweeted the post.
Astrologers like Alex are rapidly winning fans in the Chinese online community, where their customers feel they need help to ease their daily stresses and struggles, treating the advice they receive as something akin to a therapy session.
“Most [young] people know what their birth sign is – but this was not common here five years ago,” Ren Yongliang, founder of the popular horoscope app CeCe, told NewsChina. He launched his app in 2011 and has more than two million registered users – and it’s growing by some 3,000 every day. In October 2017, the app was given funding to the tune of 192 million yuan (US$29.5m) from a popular Chinese matchmaking website. “The growth [in the number of CeCe’s users] has been increasingly obvious in the past two or three years... Young people like to have their fortunes told by the app when they are about to date, make new friends or attend a job interview,” Ren said.
A survey by the China Youth Daily in August 2017 found that 70.3 percent of 2,033 respondents said they knew many people who liked reading their horoscope through their star sign, rather than using the traditional Chinese animal-based zodiac.
Of course, it is no more than hocus-pocus, yet still astrology is becoming incredibly popular with Chinese young people, especially online, and it has become a growth industry promising fat profits, just as in the West. According to incomplete statistics from IT Juzi, a provider and analyzer of internet company data, 66 companies are listed under the label of “Star Signs,” and at least half were funded between 2014 and 2015. In December 2016, it was reported that Cai Yuedong, founder of TongDao, a leading Chinese horoscope and astrology business, sold 60 percent of his company stock for 178 million yuan (US$27.4m).
Signs of Life
TongDao, according to media reports, is the market leader in China’s astrology business. It became particularly popular for making fun of the supposed weaknesses of every star sign. Its first post in summer 2014, for example, was a cartoon of three Librans starving to death on their way to have dinner together, mocking how difficult it supposedly is for them to make a choice.
In just two days, it was reposted 15,000 times, helping first the TongDao blog and later, its public account on chat app WeChat, to quickly rise to prominence. The blog alone has more than 14 million followers now.
Amid the heat generated by TongDao’s blog, other horoscope blogs, articles, videos and programs were springing up. For example, popular video website iQIYI launched The Star Show in May 2014. Focusing on talking about the star signs of popular entertainment stars, the program received over four million clicks in the first three episodes. By analyzing star signs in a creative, hip-hop way, the series of short cartoon videos named Xingzuo Buqiuren (literally, “star signs do not ask for help”) has been viewed more than one million times on WeChat.
This online popularity has also helped promote the business of offline professional astrologers. However, they argue that having a professional horoscope done is actually about much more than matching personality types and reading fortunes.
Jiang Ying, a professional astrologer, told NewsChina that the so-called “serious horoscope” has been “reborn” following the online boom. Having taught herself astrology for quite a few years, Jiang wished to introduce Western-style astrology courses to China long ago. Her dream, however, did not come true until 2011, when the internet made it easier to learn.
According to TongDao’s CEO Zhang Jinyuan, the internet is the biggest contributor to the rise of horoscope businesses. “Horoscopes and the internet are a match made in heaven,” he told NewsChina. “The internet has lowered the bar for astrologers, since anybody can get a huge amount of information about the stars and constellations, and they capitalize on that to make themselves sound enigmatic by using terminology like ‘Mercury is in retrograde,’” he added.
In fact, most of China’s professional astrologers learned their astrological knowledge online. Professional astrologer Yao Ye told NewsChina that her original knowledge about star signs came from an old bulletin board on Sina China where people discussed astrology skills and translated foreign materials for each other.
The founder of the bulletin board, Li Dingxin, now makes a living from astrology, and created the video series Xingzuo Buqiuren. Li said that the widespread use of smartphones was what really fueled the fad for horoscopes. CeCe founder Ren said that when he tried to set up a horoscope website before the mobile internet era, the user base was just 60,000, with only 10 percent remaining active.
“People like labeling things now, and horoscopes meet this need, as they can associate characteristics with star signs,” Zhang said.“This sense of identity brings about notice which means demand and business opportunities,” he added.
Data from the apps themselves provides the best information about the customer base. For example, data from TongDao shows that its core users are between 20 and 26, mostly live in big or wealthy provinces like Guangdong and Zhejiang, or cities like Shanghai and Beijing, and around 60 percent are female. Data from iQIYI and several anonymous independent professional astrologers also marked their customers with similar tags: young, highly-educated women living in big cities.
“I used to think that it showed that reading a horoscope was just entertaining for young people, but following several field investigations, I realized that it is also an outlet for young people to release the pressure they feel,” said Xing Tingting, a professor at the School of Humanities at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.
Xing has been studying the popularity of star-sign horoscopes in China since 2014, when a bulletin board on the campus intranet caught her attention. It attracted more than 10,000 posts per day, most of which were about love problems and job-hunting.
“Those young people weren’t working yet, and their future was full of uncertainty. Since the older generation can’t give them enough guidance or assistance, they have to look for something else that could help alleviate pressures or explain their situation,” Xing said.
“It seems that society has offered multiple choices for young people, but in fact, we are still using a single and simple criteria to judge whether they are successful or not, whether they are married, whether they have found a well-paid job, and whether they bought an apartment,” she added.
Kai Qian, now 34, said she turned to reading her horoscope when she lost her job five years ago after her company went bankrupt. Then her husband divorced her two months later, leaving her with a three-year-old daughter.
Although she soon found a new job as a designer at an internet media company, she hoped that reading her horoscope could lead her through and out of the darkness. She invited a professional astrologer to help check her chart, which told her that her position and power would greatly improve by the end of 2015, and that by August 2016, Jupiter, which represents good fortune and promotion, and Venus which represents wealth, would also appear during that period of time.
After that, Kai dedicated herself to her work every day. “I accepted any important or difficult task... I hoped for nothing but to survive that hard time and meet my good fortune,” she said. After a year and a half, Kai was promoted to team leader and soon left for another company which offered her a higher salary.
Although Kai admitted that hard work will definitely lead to success even without the guidance of a horoscope, she said it was the horoscope that encouraged her to stick it out. She saw her daily horoscope as a tonic or that close friend who would always cheer her up. Kai is now using her horoscopes to deal with other issues, hoping to meet a new man who matches her chart.
Like Kai, many people who turn to horoscopes have work or personal problems. Ren Yongliang, CeCe’s founder, said he first turned to astrology after his girlfriend dumped him. A classmate helped check his and his girlfriend’s charts, which said their personalities clashed and they would not get along well with each other.
“It was a light-bulb moment,” Ren recalled.“I wasn’t sure if I believed it, but it did relieve my anxiety... If science can’t give you an answer, reading your horoscope is a good outlet to deal with your emotions,” he added.
“The biggest attraction of astrology is that it will give you a sense of mystery when an astrologer who does not know you can tell what your problem is and how to solve it,” professional astrologer Yao Ye told NewsChina. “Many people won’t accept a rational analysis of their problems, but when those problems are attributed to something out of their control, they readily accept it – this is their fate.”
This might help explain why so many horoscope fans are highly-educated – although they may have studied science, they still believe in a higher power.
“Young people are actually marginalized when they find no way in society to remove their nervousness, anxiety and depression... Horoscopes give them an exterior explanation–it is not your fault. It is how your star sign is moving, but it will be over,” said Professor Xing.
“Psychological research found long ago that in a high-pressure environment, people tend to find a quick solution to their problems,” said Zuo Bin, director of the Research Center of Social Psychology at Central China Normal University. “For many people, reading their horoscope is merely a means of dealing with the problem, no matter whether they believe in it or not. It is kind of a straw for a drowning man to clutch,” he continued.
“It is the commonality of help-seekers... Horoscopes provide seekers a clue and a framework to understand themselves and others by using a simple model to analyze complicated things and people. To many, it is the easiest way to ride out their difficulties,” he added.
No matter why people like horoscopes, astrologers are hoping to find a way to monetize the desire. “It doesn’t matter whether people believe in horoscopes or not, there will be a market as long as there is demand,” said TongDao’s CEO Zhang Jinyuan.
“The horoscope business has evolved from problem-solving to a cultural and social networking tool. TongDao makes talking about star signs interesting, but we don’t wish to be a professional or an expert in astrology,” he added.
But TongDao is good at marketing. Based on its blog, TongDao is attracting a growing number of people to astrology, and hooks them by constantly creating interesting topics about star signs and conducting activities and lotteries for fans. They have also expanded their business offline, selling products like dolls, cups and key chains. This has become a brand, with themed cafes and even movies.
At the first resource exchange conference for national social media held in 2017, Zhang revealed that TongDao now has a 30 million strong group of fans, and its profits in 2016 were around 30 million yuan (US$4.6m). Zhang told NewsChina that product sales made up 60 percent of TongDao’s total revenue in 2016.
“When star signs and horoscopes become a culture, it will definitely lead to consumption,” commented Professor Xing. “Young people don’t have any specific relationship with them until they become a consumer.”
CeCe is another success. Given that the app is easy to use, and has more than 20,000 “certified” astrologers, CeCe made fat profits from charging for consultations.
“You can regard CeCe as a combination of [cab-hailing app] Didi Chuxing and [dating app] MoMo,” CeCe’s CEO Ren Yongliang said. “We connect users with astrologers and set up online communities for them to interact.”
Offline professional astrologers have also gained. In 2015, Yao Ye quit her job in finance after 11 years to concentrate on astrology. She said that at that time, astrology was profitable enough to support her.
Jiang Ying focused on astrology training. Her company now offers services from textbook translations to giving lessons and organizing exams. She said that most of the students who passed the exams have chosen to work as a professional astrologer, and they can charge from 1,000 to 1,500 yuan (US$154-231) per hour.
“Astrology is actually just big data which can be used in other industries like human resources, finance, investment and even matchmaking and children’s education,” she said.
Ren agreed. He said that he planned to introduce AI technology into CeCe, since even 20,000 astrologers are far from enough to respond to the thousands of questions from users. He added he hoped that robots like Microsoft’s XiaoBing would help narrow the gap and bring CeCe more net profit by decreasing the ratio where CeCe has to share profits with astrologers.
Now, having sensed how big the pie is, investors are flooding to the industry to seize a share. Zhang Jinyuan is looking even further to the future. He said that he is trying to guide the younger generation to develop an interest in star signs and horoscopes instead of online games and comics.