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Rethinking Feng Shui John Molenda
How can we take fēng shuǐ (風水, literally “wind and water”) seriously—as a spatial practice on equal footing with Western understandings of physical space? Even assuming this is possible, it is no simple task. After all, the dominant Western understanding of spatiality has proved itself wonderfully efficacious. Descartes took “bits of objective space ( res extensa) as the elements in terms of which to explain everything in the world” (Dreyfus 1991 p. 128). Geometric space and the Cartesian coordinate system ( x, y, z) allow us to place any phenomena in physical space. In contrast, feng shui manuals (more scholarly examples include Lip 1995; Mak and So 2011; Rossbach 1983; Skinner 1982) describe exotic and mysterious terms such as the “five elements” and “eight diagrams.” They posit the existence of qì (氣, “breath”) as a force animating the landscape and understand difference and change through the (by now thoroughly banalized) correlative contrasts of yīn (陰) and yáng (陽). They see dragons and tigers where Western eyes perceive inanimate mountains made of dead matter. They use “numerology,” “geomancy,” and “talismans,” the very terms of which associate feng shui with the sort of practices the West has been attempting to purge itself of for the past 500 years. All of this can potentially work to marginalize feng shui as something suited to “new age” hucksters and fools but not the serious minded. Focusing on these aspects of feng shui can have the effect of neutering it as a serious alternative to dominant Western spatial practices which support a perception of the world as passive objective matter to be manipulated and controlled in an instrumental fashion by discrete, rational, self-interested subjects. Through its commodification and marginalization, feng shui is rendered safe for capitalism. By being translated in orientalist (Said 1979) terms, it helps reinforce the dominant Western self-interpretation as rational and freed from false consciousness and magical thinking while simultaneously reinforcing an understanding of Chinese culture as superstitious, mystical, and ultimately illogical, erroneous, and
inferior. As a consequence, dominant Western culture is unable to take the cultural practices of others seriously and is blinded to the value of cultural differences as resources to help us be in and see the world, others, and ourselves in new ways— particularly when it comes to our understanding of space. So the stakes are high and the challenges significant. How can we genuinely take feng shui seriously, and by doing so open up forms of spatiality that have been marginalized in modern life? Not just in the weak sense that citizens of the modern liberal West feel the obligation to “respect the beliefs of others,” even while in their heart-of-hearts they dismiss them. But rather to understand cultural differences in a strong sense as available alternatives and serious challenges to Western cultural preconceptions and the structures of power which rest on them. My basic strategy is comparative. I aim to show not only what makes feng shui distinct from Cartesian spatiality but also the many ways in which they are similar. Both are culturally embedded historical phenomena. Both are products of our spatial engagement with the world and can only be apprehended through the application of specific techniques. Both are ways of managing real aspects of the landscape. Showing their historical emergence demonstrates these spatial stances are not self-evident but culturally contingent. Showing their dependence on technique reveals neither mode of spatiality is “there” for us in an unmediated fashion: we do not perceive a Cartesian grid any more (or less) than we perceive dynamic flows of qi. By understanding the way landscape “shows up” or presence itself for us, we can understand how both techniques manage real aspects of our spatial engagement with the world. All of these comparisons work towards putting both modes of spatiality on equal ontological footing. This move runs contrary to the assumption, common in the West and increasingly so across the world, that Cartesian space is “real space” and all other spatial understandings are somehow secondary or derivative. I suggest instead the decisive difference between Cartesian space and the dynamic field of feng shui is not between the objective and subjective, the real and the made-up, or the modern and traditional, but rather what sort of ordering lends them intelligibility and sense. While Cartesian space is dependent on transcendent logical order, feng shui relies upon emergent aesthetic order. Both are techniques for managing and manipulating the landscape, and both are historical phenomena, the development and codification of which can be traced. This is not a manual for how to do feng shui. The aim is to show how feng shui works and why we should take it seriously rather than to show how to become a feng shui practitioner (which is beyond my capabilities in any case). Nor will I provide a tabular checklist or series of properties in order to systematically determine the presence or absence of feng shui in archaeological contexts. Not only has this been attempted by previous historical archaeologists (e.g., Mueller 1987) and thus would be a mere retreading of previously explored ground, but establishing the presence or absence of feng shui would be useful mainly to ask questions about acculturation and assimilation that have been convincingly shown to be problematic (Praetzellis 2004; Voss 2005). Furthermore, one of the main points I hope to demonstrate is why such a systematic approach to feng shui is misleading and the product of misunderstanding the source of feng shui’s intelligibility. Feng shui is not something that is
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present or absent but is rather a pervasive aspect of the landscape present regardless of whether it is adhered to: everything has its feng shui, whether it is beneficial, benign, or detrimental. One accesses this aspect of the landscape through aesthetic attunement rather than through the application of context-free rules or principles. Because I wish to place feng shui in a position of parity with Cartesian spatiality, I will also avoid, at least temporarily, speaking of the elements of feng shui that most strongly evoke mystical stereotypes. Thus, I will not discuss the “five elements,” “eight diagrams,” “spirits and ghosts,” “tigers and dragons,” and the like. While these are real parts of feng shui, they do not help in understanding its seriousness but instead tends to romanticize, marginalize, and distance it from a Western audience. It is just these aspects of feng shui Western skeptics latch onto in order to reproduce the mystical-rational and traditional-modern binaries and to present all other spatialities as illegitimate, inferior, and derivative. Rather, I will translate the intelligibility and sense of feng shui by relating it to the general Western philosophical discourse regarding “phenomenology” (e.g., Dreyfus 1991) and the more specific anthropological and archaeological engagement with “landscape” (e.g., Bender 1993; Gupta and Ferguson 1997; Hayden 1995; Johnson 2012; Low and Lawrence-Zuñiga 2003; Rouse 2005). It is my hope that by the conclusion of this piece the reader may be in a position to reconsider these “mystical” aspects of feng shui, but with fresh eyes. The decontextualized fashion in which we imagine spatiality in the Modern West finds its historical roots in the fifteenth-century Italy, specifically in techniques for painting landscapes developed by Filippo de Ser Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti (Alberti 1972; Edgerton 2006). Sometime around 1425, Brunelleschi developed what we now know as linear or Western perspective “with no scientific application in mind, but solely to help solve a very medieval theological problem” (Edgerton 2006, p. 157). This problem was to devise methods of visualization that, in the wake of the European disasters of the fourteenth century (plague, schism, etc.), would, “make people feel that God and his saints were once more immanent in their daily lives” (Edgerton 2006). It was in this context that Brunelleschi “painted a small picture of the Florentine Baptistery to be viewed by looking at its mirror reflection through a small hole drilled in the back of the picture with the mirror held at arms length in front” (Fig. 8.1, Edgerton 2006, p. 159). This depiction, now lost, is generally considered “the first painting in all of world art history to have been constructed according to the geometric laws of what we now understand as artistic ‘linear perspective’” (Edgerton 2006). Within a decade of Brunelleschi’s invention of this technique, it had spread to a number of other artists in Italy, and eventually found elaboration and codification in Leon Battista Alberti’s De Pictura, written in 1435 (Edgerton 2006, p. 161). In addition to codifying these techniques for producing linear perspective depictions, Alberti also invented an altered technique for depicting landscape known as “Alberti’s Window” (Fig. 8.2), “an open frame gridded by perpendicular threads through which the artist should view the scene to be painted, and then transfer the coordinate details in scale onto his similarly gridded picture” ( ibid). This also “shifted the purpose of perspective painting not as a depiction of divine mystery revealed by geometry, but as worldly perfection framed by geometry” ( ibid).
Fig. 8.1 Brunelleschi’s Mirror. (From Saalman 1970, pp. 10–11)
Fig. 8.2 Alberti’s Window. (From Edgerton 2006, p. 162)
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What makes these techniques so transformational is their externalization and decontextualization of the rules of composition. Geometry becomes determinative of how objects represented show up in relation to one another. It no longer matters what the content of the composition is, its order is predetermined by a transcendent logical order: The standard is outside or behind the order of things, yet is not determined by what those things are. The relationship between form and content is unidirectional. This is indeed a technique that allows the viewer to see a real aspect of the landscape—the relations of occurrent physical objects as res extensa—and it has proven its usefulness in many different fields as it proliferated through the centuries, including mathematics, cartography, and archaeology (Rowe 1965). But there is something important about the human spatial engagement with the world that is lost in the process. In order to represent the occurrent relationships of physical objects in space, we are obliged to set aside the way in which humans actually experience the phenomenon of spatiality. It is precisely the sense of affectedness, nearness and remoteness, and orientation “being there” brings that is bracketed out of Cartesian space. These too are real aspects of the human spatial engagement with the world, but for complex reasons they have been progressively marginalized in the Western tradition. This has proceeded to the point that subjectivity and falseness have become near-synonyms, while the real has come to be identified with the objective. Understanding spatiality in terms of objective physical space remains a popular understanding amongst many archaeologists (e.g., Fleming 2006), in part because accounts of occurrent spatial relationships are falsifiable, as well as reducible to a singular reality. They are measureable, and given the same data set, different archaeologists can independently reproduce the same results. Given the great prestige of the physical sciences and the dominant belief that scientific methods are the one and only road to the truth, it is clear why such a procedure continues to attract adherents. But it is precisely this understanding of spatiality as reducible to (singular) objective space that has prevented archaeologists from apprehending the source of feng shui’s intelligibility. The distinction between the aspect of the landscape captured by Cartesian coordinates and the aspect managed by feng shui can be understood as the difference between physical space and existential spatiality (Dreyfus 1991, p. 128). This difference between geometrical and lived space can also be understood as the space of the occurrent (which is effectively captured by Cartesian coordinates), and the space of the available, which is necessarily effaced in order to arrive at the occurrent. This is because “theory requires decontextualizing characteristics from the context of everyday practices” (Dreyfus 1991, p. 80; for a detailed explanation of these modes of being see Dreyfus 1991, pp. 60–87). The available and occurrent are Dreyfus’ translation of the Heideggerian terms zuhandenheit and vorhandenheit, sometimes translated as readiness-to-hand and presence-at-hand. The available cannot be dismissed as purely subjective and arbitrary because, first, it is the primary way we engage with the world, in the sense that we are always already pressing into possibilities, and second, because it resides in public and intersubjective cultural practices rather than a privative “mind.” What is
available for us is limited by our cultural horizon and presupposes a particular background understanding of being, one we cannot be fully conscious of or completely represent in formal rules because we exist within and amidst it. We cannot step outside of and dispassionately decontextualize the available, as Western science often imagines, because cultural context is the very sea that it swims in. Critics of phenomenological approaches in archaeology have voiced a number of valid concerns, the most worrying of which is evidentiary (Johnson 2012, p. 276). Fleming (1999, 2005, 2006) repeatedly raises this issue in his critiques of phenomenologically informed landscape archaeology. Specifically, Fleming returned to many of the same archaeological sites visited by Christopher Tilley as described in A Phenomenology of Landscape (1994), the first archaeological text to explicitly consider the subject. Fleming, asked “If ‘trained’ phenomenologists studied the same landscapes independently, in all the intensive detail advocated by Tilley, would they achieve similar outcomes?” (2006, p. 273), and upon visiting the same locations, receives distinct and different impressions from those described by Tilley. Fleming considers this evidence that phenomenological approaches are hopelessly arbitrary and subjective. But what Fleming does not appreciate is this perspectival aspect of reality is precisely what phenomenology reveals. As Dreyfus states, “things are always already understood” (1991, p. 197). But they are not understood in the same way by people with variant cultural backgrounds and subject positions. There may well be only one occurrent cosmos, but there are by necessity multiple available cosmoi. It is because of our own cultural expectations (historically conditioned) and the great prestige of the physical sciences that we have the expectation that the whole of reality is reducible down to a singular description, and that the same techniques used in the physical sciences can be used to understand the human world. But if reality primarily presents itself in terms of availability, this simply cannot be the case. This evidentiary issue ironically becomes most problematic in those situations where we have limited understanding of the cultural context of archaeological remains because of temporal remoteness, lack of direct historical connections, absence of textual and discursive records, and extremely fragmentary preservation: precisely the dilemma of British Neolithic archaeologists with whom phenomenology has found such favor. As a remedy and better test case for the interpretive potential of phenomenologically informed archaeology, Johnson suggests archaeologists, “develop understandings of experience in contexts drawn from societies that were more complex than the Neolithic where a range of contextual information can be brought to bear on the question of how humans experienced the landscape around them” (2012, p. 279). The Chinese technique of feng shui is just such a case. By taking phenomenology seriously, we can see there are aspects of the landscape mere physical space cannot capture. In order to understand why feng shui can neither be understood in terms of occurrent physical space, nor dismissed as merely a cultural fiction, we turn to the first known Chinese manual for designing formal gardens: the Yuán yě (園冶), or Craft of Gardens, written in 1631 during the Ming Dynasty by Jì Chéng (計成 1631). Formal and planned landscapes have proven their potential to provide semiotically
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dense and emblematic expressions of social relations and cosmologies that extend well beyond their particular instantiations (e.g., Leone 1984). Aspects of the landscape and techniques of manipulating space that in other places may be ambiguous or muted often become intentionally highlighted (or concealed). For this reason, they are a good place to start if we want to understand what aspect of the landscape feng shui manages. Readers of the Yuan ye expecting a step-by-step guide to garden design, or context-free principles that apply in general situations will find themselves disappointed. Ji Cheng’s standard for garden design does not issue from a transcendent logical order like the geometrically determined landscape paintings of Brunelleschi or Alberti, or the gardens of Versailles or Annapolis, but rather from a sense of kairos or “fittingness” (當, dàng) that emerges from the particularity of a given context; what I call an emergent aesthetic order. To briefly contrast these two ways of ordering things, we can compare a chessboard and a bouquet of flowers. The squares on the chessboard alternate between two colors with every other square being the same color. If one square is white, then it will border nonwhite squares on each of its four faces (as long as it is not on the edge of the board, of course). Any variation from this is an error. Regardless of what colors are used or any qualitative considerations, there is only one correct sequence of squares, determined a priori by formal rules. Now consider a bouquet of flowers. Because of our shared background practices and cultural competency, we can see when flowers are arranged well and when they are not arranged well. We might even be able to describe regularities in technique, but this does not mean there is only one correct way of arranging flowers. The order of the composition is not determined in a singular way a priori, but rather emerges because of the particular qualities of the elements that make it up (of course, capitalist commodification may systematize this to the degree there is no longer any significant aesthetic touch to a given technique). This in a sense is precisely the opposite of the decontextualized and external source of order we find expressed in Western landscape painting and formal garden design: the order emerges internally, and simply cannot be severed from its particular context without draining it of the very source of its vitality and sense. This is the reason that I believe Mueller’s (1987) attempt at creating a tabular checklist which the archaeologist can check to determine the presence or absence of feng shui does not capture its sense and in fact perpetuates a misunderstanding of feng shui as a set of principles or rules that may be either adhered to or strayed from. This implicit understanding of feng shui as “principles guiding the orientation of manmade objects and structures within the environment in order to maximize good fortune” (Marmor 1998, p. 17) is pervasive in the archaeological literature on the subject (e.g., Greenwood 1993, p. 395; Mueller 1987, p. 1; Ritchie 1993, p. 366; Rouse 2005, p. 86). But here we should note the objections of Bourdieu and others in conceiving of cultural entities as sets of rules: So long as he remains unaware of the limits inherent in his point of view on the object, the anthropologist is condemned to adopt unwittingly for his own use the representation of action which is forced on agents or groups when they lack practical mastery of a highly valued competence and have to provide themselves with an explicit and at least semi-formalized substitute for it in the form of a repertoire of rules.” (Bourdieu 1977, p. 2)
In contrast, Ji repeatedly advises the garden designer to heed and be receptive to the particular qualities of a place, something akin to what we might call its genius loci, which Ji is aware cannot be captured in formal rules: 園林巧於因界,精在體宜,愈非匠作可為,亦非主人所能自主義 Skill in landscape design is shown in the ability to ‘follow’ or ‘borrow from’ the existing scenery and lay of the land, and artistry is shown in the feeling of suitability created. (Ji 1989, p. 39)
What we see here is a concern for an aspect of the landscape (the affective capacity of a particular place) that is uncapturable by our understanding of physical space and is necessarily effaced if we understand our encounters with the landscape as following context-free principles. Ji suggests sensitivity to this aspect of landscape--the particularity of place and its capacity to move us---is the source of skill in landscape design. We know we have been skillfully manipulated by the designer when we (or rather, the culturally embedded person with competence in a particular vernacular) experience a “feeling of suitability.” This feeling of suitability has no source outside itself, it is not determined by a transcendent order, but rather obtains in our emergent affective and aesthetic relationship with the landscape. To look for feng shui in the landscape as though it were a set of principles and properties is like trying to find formal chess-like rules in flower arranging. Why do we assume such rules are there to be found? And by looking for such rules, are we perhaps misunderstanding the way it actually works? This is my basic contention. 是在主者,能妙於得體合宜,未可拘牽 Craftsmanship is shown in the design of something appropriate and fitting to the site, so [the garden designer] cannot stick closely to convention. (Ji 1989, p. 39)
The process of garden design finds its source not in context-free rules but in attunement. Thus, feng shui cannot be properly understood as a set of determinative rules that can be elaborated and then looked for in archaeological contexts. Even in formal garden design, Ji instructs us: 選向非拘宅相,安門須合廳方 In choosing the direction the buildings face in, do not be bound by what the geomancer tells you. (Ji 1989, p. 54)
Ji consistently emphasizes the determinative role of receptivity to the particularity of place rather than following external, decontextualized rules: 相地合宜,構園得體
This means something like “Examine the land (to make sure that) it is proper. Structure the garden (so that) it is proper.” Hardie renders it as: To sum up, if one chooses an appropriate site, the construction of the garden will follow naturally. (Ji 1989, p. 46)
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Such emphasis on particularity and place would surely cause consternation to an empirically and objectively oriented landscape archaeologist such as Fleming. But such emphasis is sufficient to show there are real aspects of the landscape that are publically (though not cross-culturally) available that will never be captured by the sorts of techniques Fleming espouses. Rather, it is precisely the sort of thing that a historical archaeology of non-Western people can explore and point out. And by checking our interpretations against an articulated body of cultural knowledge, we will be constrained by the evidence, making our interpretations falsifiable and meeting the evidentiary challenge raised against phenomenological approaches. Ji is steadfast in his refusal to offer formulas or a priori rules for garden design, and in this he could not be more different from Western garden planners, whose mastery of “universal law” was part of the message of their design. In contrast, Ji emphasizes the breadth of possibilities available to the garden designer. Ji discusses the various places in which one can build garden pavilions, including in the middle of flowers, next to water, in a bamboo forest, etc. He states any of these placements can be made to work, concluding: 亭安有式,基立無憑
This means that “while there are forms or models for pavilions, there is no rule to obey when it comes to how or where they should be laid out.” Yet anyone who has been to a Chinese garden realizes there is definitely a discernable style that is not the product of illusion or mere opinion. They have something in common with one another, even as they respond to the particular needs of place. For Ji, 曲折有條,端方非額,如端方中須尋曲折,到曲折處環定端方,相間得宜,錯宗為妙 They must have order in variety and yet their orderliness must not be too rigid: even this orderliness should have a pleasing unpredictability, and yet at their most diverse there should be an underlying consistency. (1989, p. 75)
The method of evaluating a garden is aesthetic attunement, and the test of fittingness is affectedness. The whole of Ji’s philosophy on garden design can be summed up in the final lines of the Yuan ye: 因借無由,觸情俱是
This means, “borrowing has no (clear) reasons. (As long as) it touches the feelings, it is right.” Here the traditional landscape archaeologist may cry out in frustration: “If feng shui is not a set of elaborateable and determinative rules, and if there are multiple solutions to any given difficulty, and if we are not culturally embedded observers, how are we supposed to apprehend feng shui? Just stand there and be receptive?” My reply is only those embedded in a shared practical background, and a shared cultural vernacular stand in a truly emic position. We access this aspect of the landscape feng shui manages (its affective capacity) only through culture. We cannot say with specificity just what the experience of place was like, except insofar as we share a practical background of “mindless everyday coping skills” (Dreyfus 1991, p. 3) regarding spatiality. We can only “point out the background practices and
how they work to people who already share them—who, as [Heidegger] would say, dwell in them. [We] cannot spell out these practices in so definite and context-free a way that they could be communicated to any rational being” (Dreyfus 1991, p. 4). As a consequence, some but not all aspects of feng shui are understandable to outsiders. Where there is cross-cultural overlap in shared practical background understanding, feng shui appears rational, or else is transparent. But it is most conspicuous when there is no such overlap. This is what the “five elements,” “eight diagrams,” “spirits and ghosts,” and “tigers and dragons” are: they are not rational or irrational but practical aspects of feng shui that are not available to outsiders because they do not fit in our already given cultural horizon. Thus, Westerners tend to not notice feng shui when it appears to make sense, or when they can ascribe underlying rationales that would make sense to observers embedded in capitalist culture (e.g., “it makes sense to have entrances to the south in the Northern Hemisphere because it maximizes light and heat”). Yet it seems to pop out at us when it does not (Fig. 8.3). This reproduces a cultural understanding of feng shui as irrational and conversely reinforces the Western self-image as rational beings. This in turn contributes to the larger process of the progressive economic rationalization of cultural practices we see under global capitalism. How then should archaeologists approach feng shui? First, we should recognize that feng shui is a pervasive aspect of the landscape in the same sense as Cartesian coordinates, not something that is sometimes present and sometimes absent nor a mere cultural fiction. It is a dynamic field of encounter that responds to changes in the environment around it rather than a stable property. Because it is vulnerable to change, it must be managed. Feng shui is the body of practices developed to manage this affective capacity. Second, we should recognize Western culture has its own “feng shui,” that is, its own techniques for achieving a sense of spatial “fittingness.” The difference is not that Western culture is based on transcendent logical reasoning while Chinese culture is based on emergent aesthetic reasoning but rather the dominant Western Fig. 8.3 A feng shui practice that does not readily translate to outsiders. (Repulse Bay, Hong Kong. Photo: G. Solomon)
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tradition has not articulated and made its reliance explicit on a culturally bounded sense of aesthetics to the same degree the Chinese tradition has. This is why the Chinese intellectual tradition is so useful not only for understanding Chinese landscape practices but also showing Westerners something about themselves they have not articulated nor developed the tools with which to do so. Finally, we must ask a question of method. The easiest way to “see” feng shui in the landscape without reproducing rational/mystical binaries is to use the comparative method to contrast practices Westerners know in their own self-interpretation to not be externally rationalizable. In other words, we can most easily see the archaeological consequences of the differing spatial stances and emphases while still avoiding orientalism by looking at contexts where Westerners are self-conscious of the somewhat arbitrary and historically contingent nature of their practices. That is, practices that have not yet been wholly taken over by capitalist economic rationality, practices Westerners can still imagine might be otherwise. For this reason, I have mentioned differences in painting and formal landscape gardens. Compare the layouts of the Wǎngshī Yuán (網師園), or Master of Nets Garden, with William Paca’s Garden in Annapolis (Figs. 8.4 and 8.5). It is clear the Wangshi Yuan does not follow the rules of Western perspective or geometric principles in the same sense as Paca’s garden. While Paca’s garden is dominated by right angles and relatively rigid organization of space (with the exception of the “wilderness garden” area which pointedly includes a “Chinese style bridge”), there is a certain purposeful irregularity in Chinese gardens. The acute and obtuse angles on Wangshi Yuan are not the result of imprecision in the garden designer, but rather have “order in variety” without being overly rigid, as Ji (1989, p. 75) suggests. There is no self-evidently “rational” way to make a garden, though this is exactly the illusion created by transcendent orders. Paca’s Garden is not “ordered” while the Wangshi Yuan is “disordered,” they are ordered differently. The transcendent order that gives Paca’s Garden its ideological force contrasts with the emergent order we find in Chinese garden design. But this is not to say Chinese Gardens are innocently concerned with aesthetics while Western gardens are techniques of power. Aesthetic sense can be used as a means of political legitimization, and its cultivation as a form of personal discipline (Foucault 1977, 1997). Clunas critiques Ji Cheng for completely passing over this aspect and use of gardens: By 1630 it is possible to assert, by means of completely ignoring any other possibility, that a ‘garden’ is purely a place of rocks and pavilions. This is what Ji Cheng does. By associating gardens above all with painting, from which the mimesis of productive land is excluded, this assertion is reinforced. But it is an assertion that is in an insoluble tension with the market forces that actually govern the ownership and transfer of all property, gardens included, despite appeals to ‘nature’ as the ultimate validating principle for the kind of cultural product Ji Cheng was manufacturing. (Clunas 1996, p. 175)
While I have tried to explain how these gardens work, Clunas provides a valuable corrective to naïve understandings of what gardens are working towards:
Fig. 8.4 Wǎngshī Yuán 網師園, or Master of Nets Garden, Suzhou. (Keswick 2003, p. 25)
While the exact purpose of ‘The Craft of Gardens’ remains open to debate, a number of commentators accept it as an artefact in which gardens and skills relevant to the creation of gardens are themselves commodities, and the text is therefore assimilable to what I have elsewhere argued as ‘the commodification of knowledge’ in the late Ming. The presumed audience for this lay text is among those for whom increased prosperity made it possible to consider the emulation of consumption patterns that had previously been restricted to a few.
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Fig. 8.5 Paca’s Garden. (Courtesy Historic Annapolis Foundation) The text stresses again and again […] that, for those who lack the correct degree of taste, it is highly dangerous to lay out a garden according to one’s own inclinations. The litany of egregious errors in which it is possible to fall is backed up by the claim that it will be much safer to employ a ‘master’ of the craft […] This role is clearly intended for none other than Ji Cheng himself. (Clunas 1996, pp. 174–175)
Speaking of Paca’s Garden, Leone states, “The formal garden was not an adornment, the product of spare time; it was not for food and still less for idle fashion […] it was very active, for by […] using it […], its contemporaries could take themselves and their position as granted and convince others that the way things are is the way they always had been and should remain. For the order was natural and had always been so” (1984, p. 34). Though the source of the order in Chinese and Western gardens differ, their potential ideological effects do not. Chinese Gardens were indeed sources of pleasure, places of contemplation, and sites where urban elites could cultivate a sensitivity to nature that was an essential part of being a gentleman. But they were not only this. They were also demonstrations of superiority, both economic and cultural. Cultural superiority, the capacity to be “properly human” rather than “merely human” (Davies 2011), has been the ultimate source of legitimization in Chinese culture since Confucius, and formal gardens (along with the other “arts”) are one of the main means to lay claim to such authority. Gardens could be used to make claims to mastery and the right to political power, but just as they are ordered differently, so too does the source of this mastery differ. While Paca utilized the principles of perspective to create visual illusions and claim the right of mastery through knowledge and control of natural law (Leone 1984),
Chinese Gardens aid claims to mastery by demonstrating the cultural superiority and sensitivity of the owner. Whereas the message of Paca’s Garden is “I have the right to dominate because of my mastery and knowledge of natural law,” Chinese Gardens say, “I have the right to dominate because my capacity to be attuned to the numinous flows of nature demonstrates my superiority as a human being.” Besides painting and formal garden landscapes, there is another spatial practice ideal for showing the difference between dominant Chinese and Western sources of spatial order without reproducing orientalist stereotypes. This is mortuary practice. Just as in painting and formal gardens, mortuary practices have not yet been wholly taken over by capitalist economic rationality, and there is no self-evidently rational way to dispose of the dead. Contrasting burial practices thus creates an opening in which we can see the empirical consequences of differing understandings of spatiality without placing either in a position of superiority or inferiority. The clearest example of this difference in archaeology thus far is Wendy Rouse’s (2005) comparison of Chinese- and Euro-American cemeteries in Virginiatown, California. These cemeteries were excavated in the 1990s by a team of archaeologists from California State University, Sacramento led by Johnson and Farncomb (Rouse 2005, p. 81). One of the main research questions of the excavators was “Is there evidence for a deliberate orientation of the cemetery or individual graves according to the principles of fengshui?” (Rouse 2005, p. 83) to which Rouse answers in the affirmative. And there is indeed a striking difference in grave orientation between the Euro-American and Chinese-American sections of Cemetery 1 (Fig. 8.6). In Fig. 8.6, we can clearly see the Euro-American cemetery (on the left) is oriented by cardinal direction, with “the heads pointed toward the west in typical Christian fashion” (a transcendent, external form of order), while the Chinese-American cemetery (on the right) is not. What then orders the Chinese cemeteries? Rouse answers by noting the orientation of the heads of the graves towards the crest of the hill while their feet are oriented towards water, and concludes the cemeteries are “ideally situated according to the basic principles of fengshui” (2005, p. 86). But what I am claiming is somewhat more radical. If feng shui is best understood as pervasive and embedded spatial practices rather than sets of rules (as I have argued) then there are no “principles of feng shui” to follow, though there are of course regularities (which could potentially be explored to answer questions about acculturation as in Mueller (1987). But no transcendent standard externally orders their arrangement. Rather, the real sources of the order of the cemetery are the particularities of place which are revealed through culturally conditioned aesthetic attunement. Take for example another Chinese-American cemetery, this one from Carlin, Nevada. In this case, “The graves formed a single line that was oriented roughly northwest-southeast on a low sloping ridge that overlooked Maggie Creek near the edge of the Humboldt River. Chinese fengshui favored a location facing a body of water with great natural beauty, in this case the creek, in front and distant mountains in the back” (Chung et al. 2005, p. 120). Whereas the transcendent order of cardinal direction determines the orientation of Euro-American graves in a variety of contexts, the exact layout of Chinese graves varies dependent on the particularities of place. There are certainly regularities in their orientation. Heads tend to be oriented
8 Rethinking Feng Shui
Fig. 8.6 Map of Chinese exhumation pits and Euro-American burials discovered at Cemetery 1. (From Rouse (2005, p. 88), Courtesy Department of Anthropology, California State University, Sacramento, California)
towards higher elevations while the feet tend to point towards a water source. But it is a mistake to think these regularities are hard and fast rules, and that the rules are the source of the order. These examples should be sufficient to demonstrate feng shui can be a productive concept to use in understanding Chinese spatial practices in formal contexts while also showing its limits. But can we see traces of feng shui practices in less formal landscapes? My dissertation research focuses on the work camps occupied by Chinese laborers during the construction of the first transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. Given that the content of feng shui practices varies from place to place, even in formal contexts, work camps unfortunately seem highly unlikely to provide unambiguous cases of feng shui acting as a causal force in determining the constitution of the archaeological record. Ritchie, speaking of Chinese mining sites in New Zealand, states, “the difficulty […] is to evaluate whether the varying orientation of structures was influenced primarily by feng shui considerations or other factors” (1993, p. 365), and concludes, “it is virtually impossible to ascertain just how much effect adherence to feng shui principles had” (1993, p. 366). Sisson, who recorded several rural Chinese sites
along the Salmon River in Idaho, states, “while the concepts of feng shui were probably carried with the immigrants to the United States, it is uncertain how discernable these ideals may be in the archaeological record” (1993, p. 39). Greenwood, one of the first archaeologists to make a serious study of Chinese sites in the USA concurs, reporting, “it is difficult to search for regularities which can be attributed to national background or feng shui […] we cannot know whether mirrors, trees, or other talismans were employed to offset the adverse effects of untraditional location and orientation, or whether the principles were not being observed” (1993, pp. 385– 386). In sum, the archaeologists who have attempted to engage with feng shui in the past identified numerous problems, among them issues of causality, visibility, and how to distinguish between “bad feng shui” and lack of adherence. Some of these problems can be attributed to a misunderstanding of the source of feng shui’s intelligibility, in thinking of it as a set of rules rather than aesthetic attunement within a particular cultural vernacular, and I have tried to correct this in the preceding discussion. Other problems spring from the sorts of questions the researchers were asking—questions of acculturation and resistance, cultural persistence, and assimilation, and can be avoided by shifting our interpretive framework away from these sorts of questions. But some difficulties are likely insurmountable: causality, over- and under-determination, ambiguity, and the fragmentary nature of the archaeological record limit how confidently we can make claims about feng shui in the past. In addition, few if any of the archaeologists who have wrestled with this concept come from a Chinese cultural background or have been trained as a professional feng shui practitioner (the author included). Consequently, despite attempts to approximate an emic point of view on the topic, archaeologists must concede in the final analysis we are outsiders looking in. While for some topics this may be less important, the problem is exacerbated if feng shui is indeed a “dwelling” practice (Ingold 2000) through which people feel at home in the world, as I have claimed. Finally, given that feng shui is not static but rather a dynamic field of encounter that shifts in response to changes in other parts of the landscape, there is a degree of temporal distance that separates us from the shape of that field as it was 150 years ago, further limiting our ability to see and understand the traces of these practices. So from a certain perspective things look bad for feng shui as a useful archaeological concept. Surely Fleming would consider these reasons enough to focus on aspects of the landscape that are easier to measure. However, this does not mean the preceding discussion does not inform how an archaeologist should approach Chinese work camps and other informal or expedient settings. I suggest four different ways feng shui can be productively used by archaeologists. First, feng shui should be a check on ethnocentric assumptions about efficiency and the rational use of the landscape. Feng shui is not rational or irrational but a practical and embodied engagement with the landscape that recognizes the importance of its affective capacity. Dominant Western culture may tend to make a firm distinction between the functional and the ornamental, but feng shui reveals this distinction to be local rather than universal. Second, archaeologists should remember that feng shui is a pervasive aspect of the landscape present regardless of whether it is adhered to. Given the fact that feng
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shui is a living tradition, we should assume it was recognized and endowed with social significance by Chinese laborers in the mid-nineteenth century. As a consequence, Chinese laborers in the nineteenth century would most likely use knowledge of feng shui to improve their relationships to their surroundings whenever they could. The question of adherence then shifts from one of assimilation and resistance (and all the problems that entails) to a question of power and control over the landscape. If we do not see traces of feng shui in the archaeological record this is probably because either we do not have sufficient competence with which to perceive it, or, conversely, because external factors prevented Chinese laborers from reshaping the landscape as they would have preferred. This can potentially inform our understanding of power dynamics between differing classes and ethnicities. Third, in spite of the ambiguity of archaeological traces of feng shui practices, and because of the various potential techniques that could be applied to any given situation, irregularity or heterogeneity in the layout of sites with similar “purposes” or “functions” can itself be interpreted as an indication of responsiveness to the particularity of place that is the font of feng shui’s efficacy. If feng shui exerted causal force in determining the structure of a group of otherwise similar sites then we would expect these sites to exhibit a wide variety of forms rather than a repeated standard layout. Finally, if we accept the claim that feng shui was an understood and significant aspect of Chinese interaction with the landscape, it can give clues to the subjective dispositions of Chinese workers in the American West. Chinese laborers on the transcontinental railroad during the mid-nineteenth century were surrounded by cultural others who neither understood the importance of feng shui nor practiced it. This could be a source for a sense of cultural superiority among Chinese laborers, which may have helped them deal with the various indignities to which they were subjected as well as fostering a sense of community and shared experience between Chinese workers. Conversely, it could also be yet another source of frustration contributing to a sense of isolation and exclusion amongst the Chinese. Feng shui might guide speculation as to what Chinese laborers along the transcontinental railroad thought of the work they were involved in. Blowing holes through mountains is certainly not the most auspicious way to interact with the landscape. Did the Chinese look with bemusement at the “barbarians” surrounding them, as Euro-Americans unwittingly encumbered themselves with a baleful landscape? While I cannot provide definitive answers to these questions, I argue a felicitous archaeology of the Overseas Chinese in the USA must take them into account and consider them as reasonable possibilities. In conclusion, I suggest the reason the cemeteries discussed are oriented differently, the reason Chinese and Western gardens work differently, and the reason spatiality is expressed differently in paintings are all because of a difference in the source of order which lends them intelligibility and sense. What we find in feng shui is a culturally articulated awareness of the affective capacity of the landscape that emerges as an aesthetic sense. This sense has real consequences for human life insofar as it can be used to manipulate relationships between humans and nature, humans and the built environment, and yes, to the extent it can be leveraged in the service of manipulating relationships between humans.
In a sense, the Chinese tradition has succeeded in elaborating on this aspect of the landscape and in endowing it with public significance to a greater degree than the Western tradition. Western understanding of spatiality has taken a decisive turn since Brunelleschi and Alberti, and our way of approaching the landscape has been increasingly dominated by instrumental and economically “rational” concerns. But things could be otherwise. It is my hope that rethinking feng shui can not only help us understand and respect Chinese spatial practices in a less ethnocentric way, but may also contribute to a rehabilitation of these other ways of being within Western culture as well. Acknowledgements I would like to thank Zoe Crossland, Mark Leone, Nan Rothschild, and Barbara Voss for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this chapter, and my lovely wife Li Yuan for her support and help with classical Chinese. Early versions of this chapter were presented at the Society for California Archaeology conference in Berkeley, 2013, and the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference in Chicago, 2013.
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