Chau Chak Museum

It may not be intentional, but both the feng shui uninitiated and experts of the theory seem to agree that the Chau Chak Wing Museum building will have a negative impact on the energy of the iconic Sydney university campus.

In an email discussion last week with a group of economists, someone asked me what I thought of the feng shui of the Chau Chak Wing Museum being built in front of the Main Quadrangle building at the University of Sydney. Before I could reply another economist of Korean background wrote, “bad feng shui! I think the CCWM will block the ‘qi’ (energy flow) to the university.” 

My friend’s understanding of the dragon veins of feng shui is perhaps a product of Korea’s long history of feng shui (p’ungsu) as part of its culture. In fact, when the Japanese invaded Korea before World War II, they waged feng shui war by building their main administration building in front of the throne hall of the Korean royal palace, the Geunjeongjeon, to block the flow of qi energy and thus negate the heritage of the Joseon dynasty, much like the Chau Chak Wing Museum will do to the Main Quadrangle.

However, it’s not just the dragon veins of the land that will be blocked by the Chau Chak Wing Museum. The “wang” concept (to look out over) is basically the idea of “a room with a view” and is also very important in feng shui theory. The best example of this that I’ve come across is Mao Zedong’s grandfather’s grave near Changsha in Hunan Province, which has become somewhat of a mecca for many mainland Chinese. The grave is nestled towards the top of a hill overlooking a magnificent continuum of overlapping mountains far into the distance. Luckily for Mao, the Guomindang army didn’t find this grave when they went through Hunan during the Chinese Civil War. They did, however, find and desecrate Mao Zedong’s parent’s graves, another example of a feng shui war.  

Though not quite as magnificent as the outlook from Mao Zedong’s grandfather’s grave, the front of the Main Quadrangle does offer a fine view of the city. But from the mock up images of the Chau Chak Wing Museum, sadly much of this view will be lost once it’s built.

I’m not suggesting that Dr Chau Chak Wing himself is waging feng shui war against the University of Sydney. I’m fairly sure he had nothing to do with the placement of the museum. 

The academic administration seems to have made the decision themselves. They have, after all, moved the academic administration complex to a new building on City Road, a far less propitious place than the Main Quadrangle as indicated by the fact that it was previously just a car park. The Quadrangle was built in its place for a reason; the local indigenous people used the area as an important meeting place before the coming of the northern hemisphere peoples. 

This can be explained by feng shui theory because it’s on an area that gathers a great deal of “sheng” (vital) qi. Moreover, the Quadrangle building itself gathers this “vital” energy because it’s built like a traditional Chinese house with a courtyard in the middle to capture the light and heat of the sun. But now it’s been seemingly left as an empty shell to enable international tourists to take their holiday photos, or for weddings, parties and other such pastimes.

Why the academic administration centre was moved is known only to those in the higher echelons of the university. The new building is obviously more modern with its open plan design and bespoke airconditioning. Modernity, however, does not necessarily create optimal outcomes. Open plan is anathema to traditional Chinese architecture, which is based on the precepts of feng shui. 

Moreover, a salient story of the clash of modernity and scholarship can be found in late 19th century Suzhou. For centuries Suzhou had been the centre of scholarship in China with students studying there invariably achieving great distinction in the imperial examinations, and the exquisite feng shui of the city was thought to be the reason for this. 

But local business people saw commerce as the way forward into modernity and petitioned the local government to widen the main street to make it a commercial centre. There was much local consternation that this would wreck the harmony of the feng shui of the city, but the business people finally got their way and the street was widened. Unfortunately, rather than a commercial centre the widened street became a centre for gambling and prostitution, and Suzhou lost its pre-eminence as a centre for scholarship. We can only hope that a similar fate does not befall scholarship at the University of Sydney, although its recent marketing slogan of “unlearn” is a worrying sign.

What this all might mean for the future of the university is debatable. Both the movement of the centre of the university to a less auspicious place as well as the severing of the vein of qi to its heart, the Main Quadrangle, do not augur well from a feng shui perspective. But as I have previously pointed out in The Fifth Estate, as a historian and philosopher of science, I do not necessarily believe in feng shui. I do, however, see it as an insightful early Chinese knowledge system on the placement of human habitation.  Moreover, it’s not necessary to have any knowledge of feng shui to grasp the negative effects of the Chau Chak Wing Museum building. As a friend remarked when told I was writing this piece, “it’s certainly a horrid invasion of a previously beautiful place – the grand entrance to the uni… with lovely trees and gardens and those gorgeous tennis courts… It’s offensive.”

As a final point, one doesn’t need belief in feng shui to note interesting correlations. In my last article for The Fifth Estate, I wrote of how the then not yet completed International Convention Centre Theatre overwhelmed the Chinese Gardens of Friendship opposite and that from a feng shui perspective this portended a negative effect on the relationship between Australia and China. 

The relationship certainly hasn’t been rosy of late.

Michael Paton is an honorary associate of the School of Economics at the University of Sydney. He is a former Vice-president (Asia) of the Australasian Association for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science and has an extensive publication record over a wide range of disciplines.

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  1. Thanks Michael, thought provoking as always! I agree that the placement is all wrong. But it led me to re-read our earlier articles on feng shui from 2015.

    I was informed by your response to mine ( that the earliest form of feng shui, before the name was used, was based on more ‘scientific’ and ‘evidence-based’ thinking (apostrophes mine). And any good designer would concur with the thinking as explained in your piece.

    You said “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.” …and “Belief hampers the accumulation of knowledge. …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.

    The problem is that every bit of feng shui I have ever dealt with – and that’s been quite a lot – has unequivocally staked its claim to relevance and truth on the astrology. Your research has shown a different older basis, and I will defer to that, but stand by my analysis on the basis of what is effectively ‘feng shui’ in the everyday experience now. ( to see if anything had changed my views in 4 years.

    But back to the CCWM building – it is the wrong design in the wrong place. It would be a ‘block’ – whether to qi, or to a local vista and stroll, whatever! A monument to what – ego? Why do donations have to carry the name of the donor anyway? Whatever happened to selfless giving with no thought of glory or reward? Just a thought…

    1. Can’t comment on the feng shui at all but fully agree with the concluding bits, Dick. Am still affronted by the nerve of the placement of that building, right at the main entrance to the uni, on the way to Victoria Park, on top of lovely peaceful gardens, tennis courts and old tennis sheds (whatever they’re called), a calming reminder of time out and times gone by. Now gone.