The feng-shui revolution

After decades of official discouragement, the ancient practice of geomancy, or feng shui, is experiencing a remarkable renaissance among China's affluent classes. Clifford Coonan reports

Saturday 12 January 2008 01:00

As the agent showed us through the lavishly decorated villa, there was a gasp when the double-doors opened on to a spectacular swimming pool that looked out over the first tee of one of mainland China's most famous golf courses. The agent waved her hand dismissively.

"It's all going to be filled in and moved around the back," she said. "Bad feng shui ... The owner has been told to do it differently by his feng shui consultant."

The ancient practice of geomancy, or feng shui, is technically illegal in fiercely secular China, where the ruling Communist Party considers it "superstition" and has forbidden people to practise it.

But the Chinese have believed in the practice – the idea that the land is a living, breathing thing filled with qi energy, and that individuals should live in harmony with the wind and water of our natural environment – for thousands of years, and the ideas of feng shui (which translates as "wind and water") are so deeply rooted in their psyche that it has refused to die out.

Now rising affluence in the coastal and southern cities has brought a revival in the practice, as China's new rich call in the feng shui practitioners to decide on the most auspicious placing of designer Danish furniture, Italian marble tiles, and Japanese topiary in their multimillion-pound villas and apartments – just like this villa adjoining the Jack Nicklaus signature golf course.

The villa with its inauspiciously placed swimming pool is in Shenzhen, the super wealthy enclave in the People's Republic of China bordering Hong Kong, where feng shui has almost the status of a religion.

The feng shui practitioner was one of the many experts who are coming back across the border to ply their mystical trade, having been banished in 1949 when the Communists came to power.

For the Communists, there could be only one ideology in China, and that was the Marxist-Leninism espoused by Chairman Mao's party. The new government was determined to eliminate the "four olds": old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits.

But old habits do indeed die hard. The opening up of China in the past 30 years has seen a revival in traditional belief systems, such as the teachings of Confucius, Buddhism and other ancient philosophies.

So powerful is the revival that feng shui has even made it on to the secondary school curriculum in Xiamen, in the province of Fujian in the south. The teacher of the course, Xiong Yongliang, told the Beijing News how "traditional feng shui culture has its good features as well as its bad ones". Apparently, the students find the feng shui course "interesting and practical".

In private, of course, feng shui never really went away. But it is becoming much more open now. Families in the countryside will fight over a particularly auspicious piece of land, and the resulting feuds can last for generations. There are reports of buildings in mainland cities being knocked down because of bad feng shui readings.

Communism and traditional philosophies such as feng shui are officially at loggerheads, but there has always been a sneaking regard for the principles of feng shui among the top cadres.

A growing sense of pride in things traditionally Chinese has also pushed the revival in feng shui, particularly since the central principle espoused by President Hu Jintao's leadership is the "harmonious society".

The Chinese leadership has given new leeway to philosophies such as Buddhism and Confucianism because it is worried that the rush to become wealthy in modern China could leave people with a spiritual hole in their lives. Not something you would normally expect a Communist government with its strict materialist ideas to worry about, but this void can be filled by organisations such as the Falun Gong , which the party sees as a dangerous cult keen to destabilise the government. Hence the return to traditional values.

And the practice does have some high-profile proponents. Chairman Mao Zedong studied feng shui and was interested in the ideas, but was instrumental in banishing practitioners because there were so many fraudsters and charlatans doing the rounds. Pilgrims to the Great Helmsman's birthplace in Shaoshan often study the arrangement of his family home, which is considered to be very auspicious.

Just as with the followers of Confucianism and other philosophies, the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was hard on feng shui practitioners – they were jailed and beaten and their books were burnt.

The end of that particular ideological reign of terror signalled a softening in the line taken on feng shui, even though it is still formally disapproved of by the powers-that-be.

Last year, several Communist Party cadres sought consultations with feng shui masters about how to ward off evil spirits, and one official in Zhejiang province moved his ancestors' tombs thousands of miles to the Tianshan Mountain in Xinjiang to improve his family's prospects.

The practice of feng shui is becoming so open that many practitioners have established consultancy firms, offering advice on everything from career, marriage and health to getting out of debt and making the right investments.

In China's biggest city, Shanghai, which shares much of its heritage with Hong Kong, there are more than 1,000 practitioners. "Feng shui is widely applied in interior decorating and real estate, so it has attracted many estate agents and entrepreneurs," said Wang Xiaohe, who manages a feng shui consultancy in the city. Many entrepreneurs will consult on the future of their businesses, while estate agents are more likely to consult on the position of furniture and the environment of their projects.

The cost of a feng shui assessment is about £2 per square metre for property advice and £20 per half hour for other services. Getting advice on how to name your company can cost up to £120, though costs are negotiable.

Mainland China still trails Hong Kong. Many of the practitioners forced to leave after the revolution in 1949 headed for the former crown colony. Hong Kong has good feng shui because it is surrounded by high mountains and good qi accumulates in the harbour.

Nina Wang, one of Hong Kong's most colourful billionaires and once Asia's richest woman, died last year and left her £6bn estate to her feng shui consultant, prompting a legal battle with her family.

Feng shui is crucial in building projects in Hong Kong – a perfectly serviceable walkway in the downtown Central district was torn down soon after construction, reportedly because the angle at which it traversed the road was bad for qi.

Hong Kong's City University was the first in the world to include a feng shui module in its Master of Building and Engineering degree.

When the architect Norman Foster created the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank headquarters in 1984, the builders employed geomancers during the construction to make sure the feng shui was up to scratch, which some say is why the escalators in the lobby are at such odd angles, to keep in with the building's qi.

The nearby Bank of China headquarters was hated while it was being built because it didn't get the geomancers on board. The building, designed by the Chinese-American architect I M Pei, had a lot going against it – it was shaped like a knife, and its triangular mirrors and aspects were believed to reflect bad energy on to neighbouring buildings.

When Walt Disney was building Disneyland Hong Kong, the company consulted feng shui experts and shifted the entrance to the park by 12 degrees to ensure maximum prosperity.

Feng shui tries to ensure a good flow of energy, or qi and buildings and other structures need to face certain directions depending on their surroundings.

Derived from the ancient philosophical and divination manual The Book of Change, feng shui requires careful balancing of the five elements: fire, earth, metal, water and wood. It's become very popular with designers in Britain and elsewhere in the West, because the principles of spiritual harmony often equate rem-arkably well with sound design principles.

Feng shui is used in relationship management too. Geomancers tell couples to avoid using triangles in a bedroom as it could invite a third party into the relationship. They also say keep mirrors out of the bedroom, especially not facing the bed, as they lead to quarrels and make a husband more likely to cheat.

Depending on the orientation of a room, a practitioner will decide where a pregnant woman should sleep to ensure she gives birth to a child of above-average intelligence.

The earliest written records of feng shui come from the Han dynasty, around AD25, but it is believed to have been part of Chinese thinking for about 5,000 years, after probably originating in India a millennium before. There was a widespread belief that the universal abstract energy or "life force" in the land had the power to decide whether a dynasty prospered or fell.

This energy is qi, or dragon's breath, and for geomancers it is the force that governs the world and decides whether we attract fortune or disaster.

The right energy on the land surrounding the capital meant the city would prosper, but if the feng shui was bad, the dynasty was doomed and the land was headed for catastrophe.

As the northern capital, Beijing was built along strict cosmological principles informed by feng shui and its position is clearly an auspicious one, nestling at the foot of the Western Hills.

The early geomancers worked at finding auspicious burial sites for the emperors, but by the time of the Qin dynasty (AD265-420), ordinary people were also employing geomancers to choose places to build their houses and their burial grounds.

The ultimate goal is to balance yin and yang, the harmonising factors in the universe and there are a few basic guidelines – if your garden has too many hills, a geomancer might ask you to put in a pond to break it up. If the wind is too strong, or the current too powerful, it can drive away the qi.

Most of the villa at the sprawling golf course near Shenzhen had been built along strict feng shui principles, as are many of the new villa developments springing up.

The plush new residential buildings will have skylights, ponds stocked with fish, rockeries and auspiciously aligned entrance gates to allow the energy to really get to work.

Above all, it will be good feng shui to put the swimming pool in the right place first time round.

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