This was the Headline of the article on newsroom.co.nz that greeted me over my morning coffee. I had received a call from the reporter, Alexia Russell the day before, enquiring just what exactly feng shui is, and whether a claim by a Chinese couple in Melon’s Bay, that a stormwater drain crossing their property could in fact, disturb or damage their feng shui?
It’s an interesting question and one that warrants some discussion. I say this, not just for the merits of this particular claim, but because as New Zealand accepts more and more immigrants, there are likely to be more and more, claims based around what many will perceive simply as culturally based sensitivities. No doubt, many too will respond negatively, with the rather tired old cliché for any newcomer, that ‘when in Rome one should do as the Romans do’. However, is it really as simple as that; especially in the case of feng shui? But first, a little background on this situation.
It seems that a Chinese couple, Yu Wan and Jin Han of Melon’s Bay, objected to a neighbouring developer’s proposal to pass a storm-water pipe across, and under their property, in order to join up to the nearest and most convenient storm-water outlet. However, the feng shui claim was only one of a raft of objections raised against the developer and Alexia Russell’s article suggests that the relationship between the parties had deteriorated so badly that a stalemate had been reached in spite of Council’s attempts to mediate on a raft of issues, not just the couple’s feng shui. The pair, it seems are prepared to take the issue to court if necessary. I was then asked to be interviewed by others, Radio Live amongst them, on the same case. Some of those calling even asked if it was possible the claim might have been made simply, as a further cultural support for protesting. A kind of cultural red herring so to speak. Hardly a gallant suggestion, but one not so far-fetched after all perhaps; although in this particular case the jury is still out, at least at time of writing.
In another, similar example, I was asked to give an opinion on a development that involved a small scale, but intensive housing project. In that particular case, in almost mirror circumstances, another Chinese gentleman had objected to a storm-water drain being laid across his property by the new development to reach the nearest and most convenient outlet which also lay, just inside his section. The project manager in that case, had called me in to verify if the claim might in fact be verifiable. As it happened it wasn’t and worse than that, the complainant’s property already had bad feng shui. Had I been asked if it was a good house to buy, I would have answered no! In that particular case, the complainant certainly had no grounds to lay an objection on the basis of the development negatively impacting his feng shui. Over recent years, there have been other similar claims put to me and a case for the defence requested. None that I am aware of, have reached court.
So just what can we make of such cases here in New Zealand? Well let’s start by answering Alexia Russell’s question; What is feng shui, and is it possible that such a claim could in fact, be reasonable?
They actually are two pretty substantial, questions. Let’s start with the first: Just what is feng shui?
The short answer is that feng shui is a Chinese Cultural practice that goes way back in time to the mists of pre-recorded history. Purists, would argue that feng shui, (literally wind and water), can be dated to around the time of the writer, who it seems, was the first to put the two words wind and water together in his treatise, “The Book of Burial”, Guo Pu, (276-324).
However, this may well be a bit of a misconception as in his book, one of the classics of traditional feng shui, Guo Pu frequently states, “The book says”; here he is obviously referring to an even earlier and unnamed tome. Alas, it is now, completely unknown as to just which earlier volume he refers. The mystery is even further deepened by a truly tragic event in Bejing in the Ching Dynasty in which there was yet another major burning of the books at the insistence of the Jesuits. A magnificent library, one to equal that of the Imperial, Han-lin academy of the Imperial city, was ordered burned in order to save the soul of its owner, a rich Chinese merchant who had amassed his vast collection of esoteric library, which it seems included not only ancient but very rare books on the art of feng shui. Deemed as always in such cases, by the Jesuits, as a direct threat to the authority of their catholic dogma, they demanded the destruction of such collections in a trade-off for the immortal souls of their converts. Alas, now, because of this scandalous burning of the books, we don’t know exactly what was lost to these catholic fires or what great knowledge they held. This has been a real loss to our universal understanding of just what other secrets their writers may have uncovered for us. (What an irony given the meaning of the word catholic - indiscriminate, broad ranging, universal, all-encompassing etc.)
However, it is safe to say that the real origins of feng shui predate the period in which Guo Pu was writing, likely by several hundred years if not far longer!
So, while this may help us understand something of the origins of ‘wind/water’ theory and practice, it doesn’t exactly help us understand quite what it is.
In scientific terms, feng shui fits within the Natural Sciences especially, with is emphasis on empirical observation. Although feng shui may not yet be widely recognised within the modern scientific community, this is changing, particularly in light of the late Dr Y Mak and Albert Tso and their seminal work, Scientific Feng Shui for the Built Environment,2011, published by City University of Hong Kong Press. Their work helps us easily understand that classical feng shui also operates within the paradigms of Intelligent Building Design. Since anything which is based on clearly defined natural principles is not only predictable but is also reproducible under the same given circumstances, we find that in practice, feng shui is both predictable and reproducible, when the manifold circumstance allows for that reproduction.
Although many, especially Chinese people, tend to think of the principles of feng shui as being integral to traditional Chinese culture, and usually express considerable surprise when confronted with its practise outside a Chinese context, the fact remains that, once removed from China and the confines of its original culture, the principles of wind-water practice still apply, whether in Singapore, Bangkok, New York or our very own Auckland, New Zealand. Examining it from a purely logical perspective, if feng shui works, it must work because it’s based on some set of Natural Principles being at work. Therefore, it must work whether its related to Chinese culture or not. In this way, we can say that Classical Feng Shui is a technology, devised by the ancient Chinese scholars to help them both understand and harmonise their environments, particularly their built environments, to better suit their lives and their ambitions. Let’s take a simple example of how this can be applied.
By observing their natural surroundings these early scholars began to understand that coastal regions, areas where there is deep navigable water, engendered societies that developed around trade and the accumulation of wealth. Nearby, on the peripheral were coastal resorts, where the rich could spend their money and enjoy the leisure time their wealth now allowed. Think of Auckland’s inner harbour and the focus on trade and business, and contrast it with both the Eastern and Northern beaches where people go for recreation, to swim and to relax: Mission Bay, St Helliers, Takapuna or Milford, to name just a few. The same can be seen of course in Sydney, with Bondi or Manly, and in Melbourne with Mordialloc and Seaford. However, there is then one dynamic we can add to the mix here, and that is of Macro and Micro perspectives.
When looking at such trading centres as Auckland, and say, Sydney, one finds that from where the location of the trade is occurring, one cannot see out to the open ocean. In other words, one cannot see through the mouth of the harbour. In the case of Auckland, this is due to the plugging of the view by Rangitoto Island. In the case of Sydney, it is due the long, convoluted passage required to enter or leave the inner harbour and passing the multitude of long finger-like peninsulas that protrude into the harbour and must be navigated around. These too prevent any view out of the mouth of the harbour from the CBD. This is a principle observable in every significant port anywhere in the world, from Rotterdam to Shanghai, from New York to Hong Kong.
Another principle that runs along the same lines can then be applied on the micro-scale. This same principle that helps govern the success of coastal regions, especially trading centres, when applied to the built environment means that any building that upon entering, can immediately be seen out of, will always cost more to manage and run than ever anticipated. When applying this to a domestic home, one finds that is always difficult for the people living there to save money.
Conversely, this water principle can be contrasted with Mountainous regions, those especially removed from coastal regions, engender peoples who whilst magnificently hospitable in times of peace, are nevertheless ferociously stubborn! A quick look at a map, shows that the world’s on-going political hot spots are all mountainous: The Korean Peninsula, Tibet, Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the whole of the Balkans, much of the Middle-East, and last but by no means least, the Central African republics. This is why in the day to day practise of traditional feng shui we often speak more in terms of Water and Mountain, rather than of Wind and Water. Simply put then, water is often used as a euphemism for money and the accumulation of wealth, while Mountains are symbolic for those factors which work to provide Human Harmony: health, relationships our general well-being and a sense that we are supported in life. The normal given paradigm in our built environment then, is for Mountain behind and Water in front.
A further and fascinating dynamic which can be found in the conjunction with Mountains and Water, is that a site which additionally, has even more landscape supporting the central location by having enveloping arms of landscape to right and left, are recognised as being superior sites. However, here too there are recognised natural principles at work. Sites which have only height and enveloping landmasses to the left of the location, when looking out that is, tend to be sites where males will dominate females and where it can be hard to accumulate wealth, even with the correct presence of water. On the other hand, sites which are dominated by landscape to the right of the site will be places where males are either outnumbered by females and/or dominated by them. This natural dynamic is so consistently reliable in fact, that it can even be applied to the built, urban environment. It must be kept in mind here that this kind of phenomenon, is not New Age fantasy [i] nor is it superstition, but rather highly reliable, natural, trends that have been recorded for hundreds of years, if not millennia, by very intelligent Chinese scholars specifically trained in these methods. Indeed, much of these feng shui dynamics are so reliable and are found so regularly in our environments that many of them are recorded for re-use in specific topographical formula. It is a fact that much of classical feng shui is based on well tested, recognised formula. It is these kinds of formula that would be applied in the kinds of situations where a dispute arises over whether a storm-water pipe is likely to damage the positive feng shui of a property or not. This notwithstanding, it must also be kept in mind that today, all urban properties have storm-water lines, that flow into public lines, along with sewage lines. It cannot be claimed in feng shui that all such lines indiscriminately bring misfortune. I think this is a self-evident truth.
So just what else might be going on here? Is it possible that such fears might arise because in some other situation, unknown to the participants but related to them by third, fourth or even fifth parties; that such a claim was once made and proved to be legitimate? This is not such an unusual factor. I myself have occasionally found when working amongst the vast Chinese diaspora scattered worldwide, that there may be specific feng shui traditions within particular family lines, that when investigated do not in fact have relevant applications in the house the family are currently living in. In such cases, I have almost invariably found that these family traditions have started with an ancestor who had once been told to do such and such in the house he was then living in, and thinking it was meant as a permanent feng shui factor, then went on to apply the same treatment in every other home the family had inhabited from that time forward; even down the generations. This practice of continued feng shui traditions within families, carried on inter-generationally, is not at all uncommon and I have found them occurring not only here amongst Chinese in New Zealand, but across the diaspora in Southeast Asia, even as far away as South America! What may well be valid in one house in its specific environment of facing a particular magnetic co-ordinate and with supporting landforms around about and water then coming towards the property from yet another specific direction, is however, unlikely to be quite the same in an entirely different environment with say no noticeable land forms in a low built urban-scape, and with no open water source. Clearly what is suitable to one situation may be completely unsuitable in another. This does not always however get transmitted across the generations.
This range of misunderstood practices in the world of feng shui, can be likened I think to the starting of urban myths in our own modern lives. It might be useful to quote a modern urban myth to highlight the point. Here I quote one found after just a minute or two’s search on Google. “There are numerous urban legends involving Coca Cola. In fact, there are so many that these legends all now have their own category known as “Colklore”. The most popular is that if you were to leave a tooth in a cup of coke overnight by morning the tooth would be completely dissolved. Like most of the other legends involving the popular drink this is totally untrue.”
We can call them superstitions, urban myths or simply misunderstandings. Whatever we call them, it is perhaps best, to try and understand their origins; and where found wanting, dispel those that are simply untrue. After all, it is up to the claimant to prove his claim and extraordinary claims require extra-ordinary proof. But…let it not be forgotten that we render a considerable disservice to ourselves and our neighbours when we dismiss the technologies of ancient cultures that, in many cases, are just as relevant as our own, without at least paying them the curtesy of a proper hearing.
Therefore, when looking at what we know of the circumstances of such cases as raised on newsroom.co.nz, what are we to think? The first is that without a thorough and proper investigation of all the facts, including an on-site reading of the magnetic orientation of the properties involved, no real feng shui assessment can be made. Whether the couple involved have in fact take this measure or not, I do not know and therefore cannot respond to their particulars. If not, are they then simply making the claim on grounds of cultural offense in the vain hope that this will help them win their claim as some have ungenerously suggested? Or is just possible that they too are as much victim to the kind of passed down urban myth in feng shui terms as much as the curious might be who take a tooth and having soaked it in coca cola, rush the next morning to see if the legend is indeed true? In Hong Kong, where the government has for years recognised such feng shui claims, and paid out compensation to claimants in order to avoid time-consuming and wasteful litigations tying up the court system, have also recognised the potential at least, for fortune hunters to make such claims and have now capped these payouts to reasonable limits.
Whatever the origin of such claims, New Zealanders can be certain that as more people of Chinese origin settle here, more such cases will arise.
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[i] Classical Chinese feng shui also often referred to as Traditional feng shui is not to be confused with New Age, Western, Intuitive or Tibetan Black Hat sect feng shui, all of which have no basis whatsoever in the classical schools of Chinese feng shui. They are in fact, much more a superficial blend of Western interior design principles, colour therapy and frequently attempts to interpret, very badly it must be said, complicated and truly profound Taoist philosophies. This confusion is unfortunate and has led to many of the current urban myths that surround feng shui in the West.
It’s not surprising that many people are turned off by these false forms of feng shui and sadly dismiss all feng shui as nonsense. Understandable perhaps but sad nevertheless.