Fengshui, Luddism, Environmentalism

I recently purchased anthropologist Ole Bruun’s Fengshui in China: Geomantic Divination Between State Orthodoxy and Popular Religion. According to the dust jacket, it is the “first in-depth academic analysis of fengshui.”

Among a myriad of interesting topics Bruun has researched, one that stands out is the association between fengshui and opposition to industrial development. In the late nineteenth century, fengshui “gradually acquired the guise of an anti-foreign discourse, a national emblem justifying an obstructionist set of practices” (Bruun 60).

I wrote about this previously when discussing the Boxer Rebellion, but the history of fengshui-inspired resistance to modernization goes back several decades before that uprising.

For example, the Shanghai-Wusong railway, which was completed in 1875, was specifically “built with an oddly winding track to avoid accusations of interference with the fengshui of the region and disturbance of graves and spirits” (Bruun 61).

Nonetheless, the railway was on its way out within the year, and dismantled entirely within three:

The railway operated at a profit until 1876, when the death of a Chinese on the line was announced by the Chinese authorities in Shanghai; this was followed by a number of official protests and disturbances along the line, openly supported by the local gentry, who accused the line of ruining fengshui.

As part of the Chefoo Convention the Chinese government agreed to purchase the line. But instead of continuing its operation the line was dismantled in 1878 and the rails and rolling stock sent to Taiwan, while the Chinese officials supervising the destruction work moved about in sedan chairs “as an expression of their abhorrence of mechanical locomotion” (Chang K.N. 1943: 24). (Bruun 61)

Obviously, the local gentry had other reasons aside from traditionalism and fengshui to oppose the rise of a new (industrial capitalist) ruling class, but Bruun reminds us that the local peasantry probably had its reasons to dislike the railroad was well:

It is possible, however, that practical considerations among the peasants were equally important to superstitious beliefs. The later nationalist Minister of Railways, Chang Kia-ngau, wrote of this incident [the dismantling of the Shanghai-Wusong railway] that the Chinese peasants, “like home-loving peasants everywhere,” were unwilling to suffer expropriation of their land for railroad purposes and the locomotives were feared as a danger to cattle and pedestrians” (Chang K.N. 1943: 25). (Bruun 61)

The resistance was widespread, and just as much (if not more) anti-foreign as anti-industrial; that is, no fancy new technology need be involved for Westerners to be told to leave: “From Sichuan in western China we hear of missionaries being turned away by local gentry when attempting to build summer cottages in scenic mountain areas (Service 1989: 105-107)” (Bruun 61).

Bruun retells another story, where the local villagers were the angry ones, and the gentry colluded with the telegraph company: “In Western Yunnan, a group of villagers saw the telegraph as a menace to the good fortune of their district and cut down the poles – and sold the wire in compensation for their trouble” (62). The retribution, however, was brutal:

An energetic magistrate […] had two men arrested, and charged with the offense. They were probably innocent, but under the persuasion of the bamboo they were induced to acquiesce in the magistrate’s opinion as to their guilt. They were sentenced to be deprived of their ears, and then they were sent on foot, that all might see them, under escort along the line from Yunnan City to Tengyueh and back again. No poles have been cut down since (Morrison 1895: 157). (Bruun 62)

As this case illustrates, “fengshui-based protests to railway and telegraph construction apparently died out soon after their nativization” (Bruun 62). However, this does not necessarily imply a widespread and immediate embrace of those technologies, since in the story from Yunnan, fear of having one’s ears cut off and being paraded publicly by the local magistrate probably had something to do with the cessation of resistance to the telegraph.

It was not, however, the end of resistance to Western influence as a whole:

Both Western teachings and particularly Western technology remained under heavy charge, the latter often compared to machine-breaking, or “Luddism” in industrializing Europe (Chesnaux 1973: 50). High factory chimneys were often opposed due to the polluting fengshui influence of smoke (Morrison 1895: 175).

Modern weaving and spinning machinery was destroyed in rural districts near Canton in the 1880s, and attacks on factories, now termed “factory-smashing” in Chinese (da chang) continued until the end of the century. Peasant resistance to modern textile industry was widespread in towns, which had attracted thousands of impoverished peasants in search of work. (Bruun 64)

Bruun contrasts the Chinese machine smashing with the Luddite movement of England, which as Thomas Pynchon reminds us, were first targeted at “knitting machines which […] had been putting people out of work for well over two centuries.” Again, the anti-foreign (and anti-Christian) element of the struggle was a strong one:

Unlike similar movements in England, motivated by purely economic aims, Chinese resistance typically combined a number of sentiments: modern technology was rejected because it was foreign as much as because it was seen to create unemployment. Factory-smashing and attacks on missionary property and personnel often occurred simultaneously.

In some cases, as for instance in the 1891 anti-Christian riots in the Yangtze valley, local gentry incited the peasants against the foreigners and provided both arguments and arms. When the Yellow River went over its banks in the late 1890s and impoverished thousands of peasants […] in the northeast, foreign churches and missionary personnel were accused of having cause the disaster by their malicious fengshui influence (Davis, F. 1971: 15). Revolts raged over the three provinces.

This increased tension climaxed in the Boxer Uprising in 1897-1900 aimed at destroying everything foreign. (Bruun 64).

In the forward to the book, Stephan Feuchtwang reminds us that “It may be of some interest to compare the difference between the nineteenth-century observers and Ole Bruun as a late twentieth-century observer of fenshui in China because it is also an indication of changes that fengshui itself has undergone” (vii-viii). We see that in the late nineteenth century, fengshui was used to mobilize anti-foreign resistance, including resistance to industrial development. How has that changed? Well, some things have gotten a little more extreme:

Bruun devotes an entire chapter to the way that Westerners in the late twentieth century have tended to think of fengshui as “environmentalist,” and whether that appellation is deserved or not. In short, no:

It is perfectly sound to explore the fengshui tradition’s role in resource management and its capacity for environmental protection. Too hastily, however, much Western literature conveys the simplified message that fengshui is an ancient tradition that moralizes harmony between man and environment. Taken as a conclusive statement this is an absurdity, fabricated for an environmentally conscious Western audience.

What fengshui means to the individual in its Western intellectual interpretation is not my concern, since any tradition is subject to change and reinterpretation. I shall emphasize, however, that if Chinese peasants destroy their environment but get rich in the process, they are most likely seen to have auspicious fengshui. And if mountain villagers make a fat living from selling endangered species […] they can look out from their south-facing doorways and praise the mountains for their generous fengshui.

Yet it is also clear that, for instance, serious pollution from a factory chimney or contaminated groundwater affecting people’s health may be interpreted as malicious fengshui. As a medium of expression, this holistic tradition may work both in favour of development at the expense of the environment and against environmental degradation. So far, however, fengshui as practiced in the People’s Republic has encouraged the former rather than prevented the latter. (Bruun 232).

Bruun notes that the anti-foreign sentiment of the late 1800s and early 1900s, as described in detail above, was later interpreted through an environmental lens:

It was such nationalistic sentiments, in their popular form frequently dressed up as concern for the fengshui situation of a local area with reference to the “living qi” or the “breath of the dragon,” which were later noticed by environmentally conscious groups and individuals in the West. (233)

In examining the historical texts published about fengshui, Bruun concludes that it was never historically seen as “environmentalist” at all:

Natural symbolism has no immediate impact on the concrete activities of resource management and environmental practices in general. […]

Early Western sources of fengshui reveal that protection of the “environment” (a term first really developed in the republican period) was neither a concern to Western onlookers nor to Chinese users. Nature was most commonly denoted as the resource base that should be brought under control in the service of mankind. (248)

From his fieldwork, Bruun notes that many species have been hunted to near extinction, DDT and other toxic pesticides are regularly sprayed on vegetables (leading to a scarcity of birds and butterflies, though not affecting “wasps and biting flies” at all), and efforts to spread information about the dangers of pesticides through the loudspeakers installed in every villages are routinely ignored as government propaganda.

When it comes to vegetation, Bruun acknowledges that “Trees around houses are still associated with good fengshui,” but also observes that “the material circumstances of life forbid most peasants to plant other than a few trees or a cluster of bamboos […] fengshui is not seen to inspire more vegetation than quite practical considerations will any way produce” (252).

He also notes that trees behind a grave are beneficial, while those in front are not. The reality of overcrowding of cemeteries had led to a leveling of trees:

Therefore, again in theory, if a grave is placed in solitude on a hillside it will contribute to the preservation of tres and greenery at least in some positions. In real life, however, favourable burial ground are scarce and almost any serviceable hillside will be sprinkled with graves, old and new higgledy-piggledy.

To obtain the best fengshui people scatter their graves (Freedman 1979: 197), and since the trees which are beneficial to the grave in front will be intolerable to the grave behind, the compromise is usually no large trees at all, but only shrubs and bushes. In some regions, for instance in Fujian, vegetation is commonly removed in front of graves, frequently turning hillsides into dreary wastes (noted in de Groot 1901: 945). (Bruun 252-3)

However, while the number of ecologically conscious individuals is miniscule, it is not entirely zero:

Still there are no rules without exceptions. Just a few individuals in the villages showed a genuine interest in the natural environment outside the cultivated domain. One was an elderly barefoot doctor, who deplored the disappearance of butterflies which he once had collected, and another was a fengshui specialist, who had developed a “professional” interest in vegetation around houses. (Bruun 253)


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