Houston Community News >> Party Worries as Feng Shui Gains Ground

10/2/2007-- For foreign news reporters in Hong Kong, a much- celebrated annual ritual is their Lunar New Year visit to a fung shui master. Using his mystical powers, the geomancer will peer into the future. He will then tell overseas audiences about the world's fortunes in the coming twelve months. Another time-honored tradition is the soothsayer's first piece of advice. More often than not this will be an urgent demand to tackle Hong Kong's foremost problem by demolishing the headquarters of the Bank of China.

The triangular patterning of the skyscraper looks like pyramids, the Cantonese word for which is kam te chap. This is bad because it sounds like kam chap, or the name for urns containing the remains of the dead. And the building's "chopstick" masts resemble incense sticks burnt to honor dead ancestors. The whole structure, the argument goes, is a dagger pointed at the city's heart, with sharp edges radiating destructive energy toward Legco and other neighboring buildings. It is a geomancer's nightmare.

For those who know the people who built the Bank of China the message is clear: a middle finger raised skyward to symbolize communist hatred of fung shui, and all the rest of the superstitious mumbo jumbo the Middle Kingdom has piled up in its five thousand years of history.

In the years leading up to the handover it looked like communism might triumph. This year, however, a different reality has been emerging. Not only has scientific Marxism failed to banish humbug from its Hong Kong hideout, but superstition from the SAR has crossed the border, conquered China, and now looks like its on the way to taking over the party itself.

Earlier this summer, a study published by the China National School of Administration concluded that over half of the officials it surveyed had some belief in their country's rich heritage of occult practices. Later in May, Southern Weekly ran an equally alarming story. Government officials, the popular investigative newspaper claimed, have overtaken businessmen to become the most important group of customers for mainland fung shui masters.

This news has provoked a furious debate. As with Grigori Rasputin in the court of Russia's Tsar Nicholas, does the influence of shamans over civil servants imperil the nation? Or has China reached a level of development where hocus pocus need no longer be a menace to good government?

These days, governmental disapproval of mumbo jumbo remains enshrined in the Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces. Hu Jintao promulgated this set of commandments last year as a new moral yardstick to measure the work, conduct and attitude of party officials. After loving the motherland and serving the people, No3 on the list is: Follow science; discard superstition.

Yet deep-rooted traditions do not die easily. To take the case of fung shui, in the mid-1980s Taoist geomancy re-entered Guangdong from Hong Kong and Macau. Over the same period it was brought from Taiwan to Fujian by businessmen and practitioners coming to see relatives.

In the 1990s, fung shui spread north and inland, while younger enthusiasts inside China were fishing out old manuals and teaching themselves.

Fung shui practices are now common in second and even third-tier cities, although practitioners do not advertise their work openly. Typically, they describe themselves as information consultancies.

Zhang Lipang is a customer, a real-estate agent in Hebei's provincial capital of Shijiazhuang. This month he paid a fung shui master 25,000 yuan (HK$25,860) to choose the location of his new company office and advise on the layout of its interior. Seventy percent of his peers in the city now do the same, he reckons. Ten years ago almost none did.

"If I use fung shui, I get more customers and my employees have better health," he says. The benefits are obvious.

Alongside the trend in China's general population, superstition has made inroads into the party itself. A new survey, Investigation into Scientific Literacy Among County-level Government Officials, published in May by the China National School of Administration, provides an insight into how far this is happening.

The survey questioned more than 900 county- level officials from 17 provinces and autonomous regions, nearly all with a university or college education. Although China has a much richer tradition of occult practices than most countries, only four were covered in the questionnaire: divination, physiognomy (used to judge a person's character from their facial features), astrology and a popular method of dream interpretation described in the ancient manual Zhou Gong's Book of Auspicious and Inauspicious Dreams.

The survey also asked the question: "If an [occult] method of prediction foretells a great disaster befalling you, what will you do? Ignore it, consult a relevant manual or friend, or follow the method of avoiding the disaster given by the clairvoyant?"

Nearly a quarter of respondents said they would take heed of the prediction. Only 47.6 percent answered that they would ignore it and did not believe in divination or any of the four named practices to boot. No sooner had it appeared than the NSA's report sparked a torrent of media debate.

Cases cited by mainland media to show the peril now facing China include Hu Jianxue in Shandong province. A fung shui master from Beijing advised the party secretary of Taian city that the absence of a new bridge was all that was stopping him from becoming China's vice- premier. Hu then changed the plans of a provincial expressway. He rerouted it across a reservoir to include his bridge. That was before he was arrested and given a suspended death sentence for corruption in 1996.

Another publicized case was that of the vice governor of Hebei province, Cong Fukui, who fell under the spell of a peasant from Jilin province who claimed she had clairvoyant powers. With this new mentor behind him, Cong bullied local businessmen and subordinates into handing over some 17 million yuan in donations for the erection of a Buddhist temple.

The researcher who conducted the NSA's May survey was Dr Cheng Peng. She says that government officials go to fung shui masters or Taoist priests with two main demands. Firstly, she says, they want promotion to a higher level of office. Secondly, they want protection to prevent discovery of corruption and misdeeds.

Changxuan Chuliang can confirm the first of these. He is the principal fung shui master of his own Beijing-based Jinmingyi Consultancy Company. He is also the son of Changxuan Lichen, one of the mainland's top-ranked geomancers before he retired this year to live as a Buddhist monk.

Government officials, says Changxuan, now make up 30 percent of his clients. They seek more benefit for the people, he says. The higher their rank, the more people will be influenced by their vision. If they are moral, then he says he is eager to help them because the positive consequences will be greater.

One example he gives is of an official who was in charge of a county office of the Ministry of Electricity in Shandong province when he came for consultation in 2001. The official was advised to reposition his ancestors' tombs in a certain way. He did this, and within 100 days received a call from Beijing; a miraculous promotion to work at the ministry's main office.

When going about his work, Changxuan junior certainly looks and acts the part. He dresses in a plain Tang jacket and, as a strict Buddhist, eats only vegetarian food. He vehemently denies that fung shui can be called superstition or a black art. As a science, he says, it is of equal validity to anything the West has come up with.

Ren Jianming, the vice director of Tsinghua University's Anti-Corruption and Governance Research Center, which is the mainland's No1 anti- corruption think-tank, worries that fung shui creates new avenues for corruption by means of gift consultations made by businessmen to cadres.

Fung shui is already widely used by government officials. Given this reality, the NSA's report seems to be prompting some kind of formal debate. This discussion is similar to the one that has already taken place for Confucius and religion. Confucianism these days is positively encouraged among cadres. Religious faith is tolerated as long as party members worship in private.

Contributed by The Standard