The Chinese Gardens of Friendship at Darling Harbour, Sydney.

Dick Clarke’s recent article debunking the tenets of feng shui reminds me of the time I was helping out with classical text translation for a sixtieth generation feng shui xiansheng (practitioner) teaching on an international feng shui tour in Taiwan in the 1990s.

At one point, two European participants argued with the xiansheng that feng shui was merely interior design. Neither knew any classical Chinese and therefore nothing of the 102 major texts written over the dynasties on the subject. Nevertheless, their cultural chauvinism (“I speak English, therefore I know”) enabled them to think they knew more than someone who had “guobao, dilijia” (national treasure, expert in the principles of the earth) printed on his national identity card. Oh well, at least the government had faith in him.

Similar care should be taken with the mantra “I have Modernity (ie, science), therefore I know” in relation to traditional knowledge systems. After all, the early modern philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon once stated that the basis of modern civilisation was gunpowder, paper, the compass and printing, not realising that these had all been invented and used in China for some 500 years before his musings. And with the awesome power of nature shown by the tsunamis along their east coast in 2011, the Japanese learnt to their chagrin their modernity-misguided folly of ignoring the traditional observation-based knowledge on the numerous centuries-old steles warning against building below them.

To think of feng shui as where you place your desk is to trivialise an ancient empirically based art/science that was originally for the viable siting of human habitation in the northern loess plateau of China. Over time, this came to include the siting of graves, so that the spirits of the dead could be nourished in a fertile framework.

The rationality of this framework was what piqued my interest in feng shui in relation to history and philosophy of science, and led me to translate a number of the major texts to understand the development and decline of the theory. The original texts were based on the observation of the flow of wind and water in terms of topographical form, configurational force and aesthetics; there were few, if any, astrological considerations. The theory’s observation-based rationality at both the local and continental level was also noted earlier by the renowned Chinese geologist, Weng Wenhao, in a 1925 paper on the history of the concept of mountain ranges (literally mountain veins) in China. He coined the term “orography” to describe this traditional knowledge system.

Nevertheless, even though the theoretical construct still proves insightful when considering local and continental fertility, the focus of observation by feng shui theorists on watercourses rather than geology, created a false analogy. Moreover, over the dynasties, more and more of the whole gamut of Chinese cosmology was dragged into feng shui theory such that it lost its empirical basis, and became mostly a portent of good and bad luck. Still the “form and force” aspect of the theory retained its practical usefulness in the quality of the engineering of such watercourses as the Grand Canal.

My interest in feng shui is in its meaning within the history of science, yet I am also cognisant of how much it is entwined with East Asian cultural values. To reject this cultural aspect as nothing more than ‘bo’ol zheet’ is somewhat misinformed. After all, I was offered an executive position in China with a major Australian merchant bank after I suggested the threat of desecration of ancestral graves as a ploy to dissuade people from stealing from the bank. Even the statues of Mao erected in China over the past 20 years have generally been sited using feng shui theory according to recent research by Tsai Sueyling from Heidelberg University, so much for the Cultural Revolution.

A similar lack of understanding of the tenets of feng shui is apparent in the redevelopment of Darling Harbour in Sydney in relation to the Chinese Gardens. The original design had a watercourse flowing south from the north-facing harbour to go around the southern end of Tumbalong Park next to the Chinese Gardens. This allowed both precincts to tap into the “qi” energy of the nurturing north. The watercourse has now been filled in, negating any such connection, and the theory would indicate future decline. Moreover, a children’s splash pool is planned near to the entrance of the Chinese Gardens, the noise from which may negatively affect the tranquillity and serenity engendered by the feng shui within the Gardens. One can only hope that the pool will not be sited oblique to the Garden’s entrance because the Water Dragon Classic warns that this would cause the “veins of qi” to be “incomplete” such that the “descendants are unfilial and are even sent to prison”. What this might actually mean for the fate of the Gardens is difficult to judge, but it should be remembered that “friendship” is the raison d’etre of the Gardens.

I am no believer in feng shui. Belief hampers the accumulation of knowledge. However, my research indicates that feng shui has a valid place in the history of environmental science. It is also an integral part of East Asian cultures. As the geographer, Hong Key-yoon, points out, “one cannot really comprehend East Asian cultures without a firm understanding of their relationship to the land, and the siting of the structures on that land”.

Thus, to negate the art/science of a system of siting developed over millennia as merely superstitious interior design bullshit, because this is how it has been popularised in the Western media, and by “masters” pandering to this media, is at least misguided and could be construed as cultural chauvinism.

And from a purely empirical perspective, it will be interesting to see whether the seemingly unconscious denigration of site of the Chinese Gardens of Friendship by the present redevelopment of Darling Harbour has as negative an effect on Sydney/Guangzhou or Australia/China relations, as the theory would predict.

Michael Paton is an honorary associate of the School of Economics at the University of Sydney. He has an extensive publication record over a wide range of disciplines including academic communication skills, university education, critical thinking, management, and the history and philosophy of science in China. Recent publications include, Five Classics of Fengshui: Chinese Spiritual Geography in Historical and Environmental Perspective Brill, Leiden, 2013 and‘The Geography of Styles of Reasoning: East and West; North and South’, Philosophy East and West, vol. 65:4, 2015. 

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  1. Interesting and persuasive argument by a scholar of science and of culture for encouraging reconsideration of this decision.

  2. Brilliant Michael, I wish there was a way to share this wisdom more widely in areas where it is needed. Well expressed. Lisa