Friday, August 29, 2008

Chinese Sketches Feng-shui

"Feng-shui" has of late years grown to be such a common expression in the mouths of foreigners resident in China that it stands no poor chance of becoming gradually incorporated in the languages of more than one nation of the West. And yet, in spite of Dr Eitel's little hand-book, we may venture to assert that a very small percentage of those who are constantly using this phrase really have a distinct and correct idea as to the meaning of the words they employ. It is vaguely known that Feng-shui is a powerful weapon in the hands of Chinese officials whereby they successfully oppose all innovations which savour of progress, and preserve unbroken that lethargic sleep in which China has been wrapt for so many centuries: beyond this all is mystery and doubt. Some say the natives themselves do not believe in it; others declare they do; others again think that the masses have faith, but that enlightened and educated Chinese scout the whole thing as a bare-faced imposture. Most Chinamen will acknowledge they are entirely ignorant themselves on the subject, though at the same time they will take great pains to impress on their hearers that certain friends, relatives, or acquaintances as the case may be, have devoted much time and attention to this fascinating study and are downright professors of the art. They will further express their conviction of its infallibility, with certain limitations; and assert that there are occasions in life, when to call in the assistance of Feng-shui is not only advisable but indispensable to human happiness.
For those who will not be at the trouble of reading for themselves Dr Eitel's valuable little book, we may explain that Feng is the Chinese word for /wind/ and Shui for /water/; consequently, Feng-shui is wind- water; the first half of which, /wind/, cannot be comprehended, the latter half, /water/, cannot be grasped. It may be defined as a system of geomancy, by the /science/ of which it is possible to determine the desirability of sites whether of tombs, houses, or cities, from the configuration of such natural objects as rivers, trees, and hills, and to foretell with certainty the fortunes of any family, community, or individual, according to the spot selected; by the /art/ of which it is in the power of the geomancer to counteract evil influences by good ones, to transform straight and noxious outlines into undulating and propitious curves, rescue whole districts from the devastations of flood or pestilence, and "scatter plenty o'er a smiling land" which might otherwise have known the blight of poverty and the pangs of want. To perform such miracles it is merely necessary to build pagodas at certain spots and of the proper height, to pile up a heap of stones, or round off the peak of some hill to which nature's rude hand has imparted a square and inharmonious aspect. The scenery round any spot required for building or burial purposes must be in accordance with certain principles evolved from the brains of the imaginative founders of the science. It is the business of the geomancer to discover such sites, to say if a given locality is or is not all that could be desired on this head, sometimes to correct errors which ignorant quacks have committed, or rectify inaccuracies which have escaped the notice even of the most celebrated among the fraternity. There may be too many trees, so that some must be cut down; or there may be too few, and it becomes necessary to plant more. Water-courses may not flow in proper curves; hills may be too high, too low, and of baleful shapes, or their relative positions one with another may be radically bad. Any one of these causes may be sufficient in the eyes of a disciple of Feng-shui to account for the sudden outbreak of a plague, the gradual or rapid decay of a once flourishing town. The Feng-shui of a house influences not only the pecuniary fortunes of its inmates, but determines their general happiness and longevity. There was a room in the British Legation at Peking in which two persons died with no great interval of time between each event; and subsequently one of the students lay there /in articulo mortis/ for many days. The Chinese then pointed out that a tall chimney had been built opposite the door leading into this room, thereby vitiating the Feng-shui, and making the place uninhabitable by mortal man.
From the above most meagre sketch it is easy to understand that if the natural or artificial configuration of surrounding objects is really believed by the Chinese to influence the fortunes of a city, a family, or an individual, they are only reasonably averse to the introduction of such novelties as railways and telegraph poles, which must inevitably sweep away their darling superstition--never to rise again. And they /do/ believe; there can be no doubt of it in the mind of any one who has taken the trouble to watch. The endless inconvenience a Chinaman will suffer without a murmur rather than lay the bones of a dear one in a spot unhallowed by the fiat of the geomancer; the sums he will subscribe to build a protecting pagoda or destroy some harmful combination; the pains he will be at to comply with well-known principles in the construction and arrangement of his private house-- all prove that the iron of Feng-shui has entered into his soul, and that the creed he has been suckled in is the very reverse of outworn. The childlike faith of his early years gradually ripens into a strong and vigorous belief against which ridicule is perhaps the worst weapon that can possibly be used. Nothing less than years of contact with foreign nations and deep draughts of that real science which is even now stealing imperceptibly upon them, will bring the Chinese to see that Feng-shui is a vain shadow, that it has played its allotted part in the history of a great nation, and is now only fit to be classed with such memories of by-gone glory as the supremacy of China, the bow and arrow, the matchlock, and the junk.

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