Feng Shui - The Principles of "Wind and Water"

Zenobia Barlow and Frank Fischbeck
FormAsia (3 January 1990)

        On the manicured lawns of Government House in Hong Kong - symbolic presence of the British sovereign, and official residence, since 1855, of colonial Governors - a Chinese feng shui master has performed his art/science with the planting of a weeping willow tree to deflect "secret arrows" released by the triangulated glass shafts of the Bank of China Tower looming nearby. Designed by the eminent Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei, the 70-story Tower, with its uninterrupted lines and piercing angles, is a sharp reminder of the impending Communist takeover of the Territory. In the iconography of Chinese geomancy, straight lines and acute angles are considered particularly malevolent conduits of noxious demon-involving vapors called sha.

        At the "topping off" ceremony celebrated during construction of the opulent Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, a Taoist priest/geomancer, armed with magical demon-defying implements and ancient incantations, led construction personnel in propitiating rituals. Joss-sticks, ripened fruit, hens stuffed with lucky-red charms and a "Golden Pig", deemed especially efficacious in warding off evil, were offered as blessings for the ultra-modern HK$300 million complex.

        In the brief span of two centuries, a remote corner of the Manchu empire has been transformed into one of the great cities of the world; but despite its futuristic veneer, Hong Kong retains a way of life practiced by an ancient people in a continuous tradition since remote antiquity. The ritualized beliefs that persist in this modern metropolis trace their origins to the traditional villages of rural China.

        Two hundred years ago in the southern most reaches of the Manchu empire, far from the intricacies and intrigues of the Forbidden City and the Dragon Throne, life was conducted with a disciplined simplicity. In the rugged mountainous terrain along the sultry coastline of the South China Sea, hardy Hakka farmers lived according to the dictates of the seasons, the virtues of the Confucian code and the tenets of a mystical geomantic system, feng shui, "wind and water", which positioned all things in accordance with subtle forces pulsating through the landscape.

        Man, they believed, formed an essential Trinity with Heaven and Earth. Within this unified whole, his function was to maintain order and harmony through strict adherence to moral conduct, ritual observances, and the orientation of man-made structures - particularly graves and ancestral halls - in precise alignment with celestial and terrestrial forces.

        At the essence of this system of beliefs lay the Confucian virtues of filial piety and ancestor worship. While living, elders of the clans were given the utmost respect; upon death they were worshipped as deities. From omega-shaped graves meticulously sited by geomancers on the lee of the hills overlooking the sea, founding ancestors dominated the destinies of their descendants toiling in terraced rice paddies below. The wealth, power and prestige of the clan, they believed, resulted from the benevolence of department patriarchs.

        Guangdong Province abounded with supernatural creatures, capricious ancestors, and the threat of incursions by ghosts and devils, pirates and marauding bandits. In fear, villagers turned to magical rituals and an irrepressible amalgamation of fervent belief. Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and the earliest animistic traditions were inextricably tangled with the practice of feng shui in an attempt to obtain power and protection in an ominous universe.

        In the rugged terrain - believed to be the dwelling place of dragons and other supernatural creatures - every hillside, every fertile valley was animated by the dynamic force of ch'i undulating through the earth. This "cosmic breath" was exhaled as clouds and mists by supernatural creatures in the rarefied atmosphere of "dragon peaks", then carried by winds and meandering streams to the valley floors below, where every imaginable form of spirits, ghosts and demons inhabited the rocks, streams and groves of trees and bamboo. To live harmoniously with such primeval forces, the clan relied upon the ritual skills of geomancers who practiced feng shui.

        Through his mastery of intricate diving instruments, interior psychic channels, and secret texts - bestowed from teacher to disciple in a continuous tradition - the geomancer became a channel for dangerous energies which, when transformed by his ritual skills and esoteric knowledge, increased the vitality and prosperity of the clan.

        From a lacquered sedan chair, borne by servants and decorated with the eight trigrams of the ancient Book of Changes, the feng shui master consulted 38 concentric circles of his luo pan compass, a magnetic disc of wood set in a diviner's board, and scanned mountainous slopes and ridges for clues in locating a hidden dragon vein. Using "Ten Heavenly Stems" and "Twelve Earthly Branches" to align himself in space/time, and in conjunction with the zodiacal constellations, he would then dismount from his sedan chair and "ride the dragon", racing along pathways of energy to the valley floor.

        Ideally the site for a village was aligned with the dragon pulse, facing south and protected from harsh winds by a stand of tall trees screening malicious emanations from the northern direction. Conjuring the image of a throne or armchair, the geomancer nestled the village in the embrace of hills - some rising abruptly, others rolling gently - fronted by a calm, meandering stream and backed by mountains.

        The most auspicious location was conceived as the profound intercourse of "Azure Dragon" mating "White Tiger" - a potent Yang force, charged like an electrical current, in conjunction with a pulsating Yin energy. Where dragon ridges intersected tiger hills, volatile forces were brought into proper balance and control through the interaction of masculine and feminine, Yin and Yang - opposing yet complementary principles which lie behind the "Ten Thousand Things".

        The architectural forms indigenous to the coastal region reflected the anxiety and wariness of its inhabitants. Clans which settled the fertile inland valleys built insular villages, walled and moated for protection from marauding bandits and pirates who came ashore in the secluded bays. From a parapet behind heavily fortified walls, watchmen scanned the rugged terrain descending from mountainous slopes to coastal plains.

        After toiling in orchards of tangerine and mango, fields of sweet potato, and terraced rice fields fed by water channels, at sunset the clan sought refuge behind thick granite walls in houses interconnected by interior courtyards and arranged symmetrically along narrow stone-paved streets. At the center of the village, ceremonial buildings were placed in a south-facing alignment in strict accordance with the principles of feng shui.

        As the clans expanded and prospered, wealth was displayed in finely-wrought temples and ancestral halls constructed with three consecutive chambers open to the sky. High pitched roofs - covered in splendid turquoise tiles, encrusted with divinities, and protected by awesome mythical beings, offered sanctuary while ceremonies were conducted in proximity to zong pu, "lineage histories" chronicling the travails and victories of the clan through the centuries, and wooden tables containing the spirits of the ancestors.

        After death, the spirit of the departed manifested in triple form. One aspect entered a wooden tablet consecrated with a single dot from the blood of a cock's comb and placed with reverence on the "fairies' bridge" - a table set before the altar in the ornately ornamented ancestral hall. Another completed its meandering journey to the netherworld, to receive the verdict of the Ten Judges of Hell.

        Yet another sought repose in a wooden coffin on a hillside located by a geomancer who consulted the nineteenth circle of his compass -a tier divided into two hundred and forty parts for the divination of burial grounds. After a decade, the scented camphor coffin was disinterred, and skeletal bones ritually washed and placed in ceramic funerary vessels on hillsides in the vicinity of the village. There the bones gathered "breaths" of vital energy, gaining a robust power that would influence future generations.

        Only the wealthiest villages performed the ultimate devotion with the construction of omega-shaped tombs placed in the protective embrace of Dragon and Tiger. Every step of the ritual - from locating and constructing the tomb, to transferring the urns - was undertaken with profound seriousness by the feng shui master. A mistake in calculations might mean life or death to the clan and its future progeny. On the brick and mortar tomb, constructed in a horseshoe shape to retain the "vital breath", were inscribed the birth and death dates of the founding ancestor and special honors achieved during the lifetime such as the prestigious passage of the Imperial Service Exam.

        In Imperial China, the route to wealth and prestige was the path of the scholar. In prefectures throughout the Celestial Kingdom, aspiring young men studied the subtle arts of calligraphy and poetry to climb four rungs of the "Ladder to the Clouds" and earn an ultimate appointment from the Son of Heaven. Venerable scholar-gentry taught the Four Great Books of Confucian wisdom which articulated the fundamental values underlying the practice of feng shui: harmony with natural forces, balance, filial piety and the worship of ancestors.

        Although the once proud "dragon peaks" have been ground down to create an international shopping mecca and the densest habitation in human history, Kowloon "Nine Dragons" peninsula remains the dwelling place of supernatural creatures. Dragon and tiger dancers, accompanied by acrobats and fire crackers, celebrate the openings of high rise housing estates where several million descendants of Manchu villagers persist in their insular pursuit of success and security.

        After laboring in the factories, farms and shipping yards of the New Territories, residents retire at sunset behind barred double doors hung with fierce protective deities, fluttering "Five Happiness" paper cut-outs and pa gua, demon-deflecting mirrors set in octagonal wooden frames and decorated with the trigrams of the ancient I Ching. Despite immense changes over the last two centuries in Hong Kong, a palpable belief endures in subtle forces pulsating through the landscape. Zenobia Barlow/FormAsia 3 January 1990


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