Pooling Qi (and Pollution)

We just got back from a great week in Beijing and Xi’An. So far, Beijing is the city that I have liked most. The people are more friendly, the culture is rich, the scenery is beautiful, but what made it most enjoyable for me was the lack of pollution. Usually, Beijing has moderate to severe pollution year round, but our trip coincided with APEC, a massive economic conference with 21 participating countries. And because of the conference, Chinese officials shutdown factories to make the environment more hospitable to visiting diplomats.

For me this meant one thing. BLUE SKIES.  I woke up my first morning in Beijing to find that the pollution level was 8 on China’s Air Quality Index (AQI). Yes, 8. I have been in China for 6 months so far, and this was the lowest I had seen it anywhere. Usually in Beijing, smog levels are between 200-400, which means that year round the city is blanketed in a post-apocolyptic whitewash. People wear masks; visibility is low; and longterm outdoor activities can cause headaches and irritate the respiratory system, eyes, skin, etc. It’s almost like a more toxic, permanent version of San Fransisco’s morning fog. A reading of 8 on the AQI meant that for our visit to the Great Wall, we’d have great visibility and that air that would not smell like chemicals. Woohoo!  The picture below says it all.


IMG_5596 (1)

Ironically, we took this pollution-free picture standing on the mountains that are partially to blame for Beijing’s infamous smog. For many dynasties, Beijing has been a capital city because of its auspicious fengshui. In fengshui’s crudest form, the alignment of specific geographical features harness the positive energies of the universe and influence the wellbeing of an area. First, a city with favorable fengshui shthould face south; sit in front of large mountains (or protecting turtles). Second, to the west and east of the city should sit smaller, landmasses (the white tiger and green dragon, respectively.) The landmass to the east should be slightly larger than the landmass to the west.  Third, to the front and far ahead of the city should be a smaller landmass (called the red phoenix) and a river should run between the red Phoenix and the city itself. The sketch to the left illustrates these basics principles.

Beyond some corresponding spiritual implications, this type of fengshui has practicality. The sitting turtles– as well as the white tiger and green dragon– protect the back and sides of a city from enemies and the waterway in front provides a city with both protection and water resources. Specifically in China, cities that faced south faced away from the chilling Siberian winds.

For many centuries, the Chinese picked Beijing as their capital city because it fulfilled the most basic requirements for pooling good energy. At the same time, the geographical features also make it perfect for pooling pollution. Smog from Beijing and its neighboring cities gets trapped in the mountain ranges that surround the city and the tall mountains behind the city slow the northern winds that would otherwise push pollution southwards and out of the city.

I can’t help but wonder how would things be different had early fengshui masters, who advised the placement of cities, known about China’s modern pollution problems? Who knows, but for my time in Beijing, I was just happy skies were clear and that my views from the top of the protecting-turtle mountains were unbeatable.

Picture 2 — http://historyofarchitecture.weebly.com/feng-shui.html

It’s not weird. It’s Fengshui.

In Shanghai it’s not hard to run into things that at first glance, seem absolutely absurd/infuriating. For instance, I often find myself asking questions like these: “why is everyone taking a photo of me?;” “Why is this old woman yelling at me?;” “Why are people wearing shirts that have ‘I’m a slut’ printed in big black letters on them;” “Why do people insist on hitting me with their cars when I’m on the cross walk?” “Why is there jackhammering outside my room at midnight?” “Why is everyone touching me?”  So, really, it is only natural to wonder “why does this apartment complex in Shanghai have a 15-story rock attached to the side of the building? It has no structural purpose and– because it was added a few years after the building itself was constructed– blacks out many windows.



An online news source oriented online for ex-pats, very quickly dismissed it as an architectural “FAIL.” But is it really a failure? Recently I have been struggling to reconcile some of cultural differences that I have been running into while in China. Is it wrong that I’m entirely disgusted by the spitting, the public urination, defecation, the fact that is seems like every motorist is trying to kill me? Is it wrong for me to get angry at people who ask to take pictures with me or who push me on the subway? Is it wrong to get angry at the old woman who cut in line and jab me with their (really) sharp elbows to secure a seat on a bus? More and more I do not think it is necessarily wrong to be frustrated or confused by the things I run into, but I think it’s wrong not to try to cultivate empathy and understanding about a culture that is so different than the one I live in.

This is not to say that all behaviors or cultural practices are acceptable but it important to keep in mind that everyone is a construct of their combined history, culture, and cultures, like the cultures I am experiencing in China do not spontaneously evolve but are a result of culture—of people being people—and it is wrong to judge anyone for practicing being human.

Like the news article that called this building a “fail”, all too often I see Westerners in Shanghai discount and invalidate the lives of people in China by applying to their experiences in China a Western, superior mindset. Of course, I too find it hard not to pass people off as crazy (like the man at the fake market who follows us around saying “you want a watch?” for five minutes), but this is a type of thinking that can lead to unconscious distaste and unfair bias towards a culture and people. Of course, cultural differences sometimes make relationships difficult to pursue (I have definitely been a victim of this) but I think that most of the things in China that infuriate, frustrate, or confuse me all can be explained through deeper cultural understanding. People take pictures of me not because they view me as some sort of circus animal, but because they rarely come in contact with foreigners and because China, up until 1979 was more or less  a closed nation and my mere presence symbolizes a changing country and globalizing (and therefore hopefully more prosperous) future.  Why are people urinating on the sidewalk? Because many of the people I see doing this are people who come from the countryside, where public urination is commonplace, very acceptable practice—one that has been practiced for centuries. How can I expect the culture to keep up with the unprecedented modernization China has seen within the past forty years?

So how can we explain why there is a big rock outside of this building in Shanghai? Because the owners believe its presence will help the fengshui of the building and– in turn– increase the prosperity of their business. Fengshui is a practice thousands of years old that is inextricably linked to Chinese culture. It’s part of a cosmology that attempts to bring some type of explanation to the overwhelming realities of life. While it may easy to call the practice of fengshui an outdated and superstitious, it plays a deeper, more political role in Chinese culture than an outsider may realize.  For instance, as X, a scholar on fengshui, argues, fengshui is a tradition that allows modern Chinese to quietly resist against the forced ideological shifts  (secularization, modernization, etc.) brought about by the rise of the communist party. It could also be a way for Chinese to try to reclaim some of the cultural heritage that was so meticulously destroyed during the cultural revolution.

In the end, Fengshui is a cosmology with principals that are no different than any other leading philosophy or religion. How can I as a foreigner argue the superiority of Christianity, humanism, or any other cosmology when there is no way to truly prove its validity?


NAIL-ing Fengshui

I wish you could be here to see the light as it sparkles off of my newly manicured nails. Before the debut they had surfaces like corduroy, jagged tips, and a pile of overgrown cuticles— a result of years of mistreatment. Now they lay delicately on my nail beds, smoothed by heavy buffing and a clear lacquer finish. But my nails’ ∗fabulous sparkle∗ has made me digress:

A few hours ago, I found myself in a nail salon not far from my apartment complex with Shuyu and Marin. The store is wedged between a string of locally owned businesses. We sat with fingers spread as our masked nail technicians worked quickly. They all looked to be in their twenties. Shuyu, who is fluent in Mandarin, babbled with her technician as I— a Mandarin virgin— struggled to keep up and pick out key words.

Trying to figure out what to write for this blog post, I decided to jump into the conversation. “Sooo, have you all fengshuied your business?” It was quiet until Shuyu translated for me. (Bless her.) All three technicians nodded yes.

“The owner of the business practices fengshui and she hired a fengshui master to look over her business and make some recommendations,” said one.
“Has it helped?” I asked.
“Well, we have had great success the past four years.”


Her response did not come as a surprise. As we have discussed in class a lot recently, many Chinese practice fengshui, an age-old tradition that places the flow of energy or “Qi” as central to the successes– or failures– in one’s life. A lot of the rules governing fengshui have practicality: don’t have a desk that faces away from a door, don’t live in an oddly designed house, offices designed poorly can affect your performance at work, etc. Other practices, including auspicious compass directions, reading of one’s birth day and year, and magic words make the practice more spiritual. Many Chinese believe that if a business is doing poorly,  it may be the fault of bad fengshui and the pooling of negative energy in an area. To have good business and prevent life misfortune, many Chinese have traditionally paid close attention to the fengshui in their homes and workplaces.

The woman buffing Marin’s nails jumped into our conversation. She wore a cross necklace.
Shuyu translated, “I don’t believe in fengshui.”
“Why not?”
“I am Christian.”
“How long have you been practicing Christianity?”
“Ten years, now.”
“Did you believe in fengshui before you converted?”

Although the woman—who I believe is like many young Chinese in Shanghai who belong to a more globalized and outward-thinking generation— did not practice fengshui, she remained impartial as she spoke about a practice deeply engrained in her culture. I was interested to know more. She was talkative and patient with me, but soon two new technicians arrived and they took over for the woman with the cross around her neck.

Marin and Shuyu picked nail colors. The man who worked on my nails sat quietly trimming my overgrown cuticles. “What color do you want?” he asked.  “Um, no color. I just want a clear finish”


Shuyu (looking pleasant as usual) and the woman with the cross necklace.


Stuck at the counter I looked around and noticed a plant placed in the corner and a glass chandelier that scattered light throughout the room. Strategically placed plants and chandeliers (a modern adaptation of the small glass orbs once hung from ceilings) are among many objects that help to dispel negative Qi.

Soon after, Shuyu, Marin, and I all sat with our hands spread flat on the tables as we let our nails dry. Our technicians went outside to get some tea from a drink stand nearby and the woman with the cross came back into the room. She sat down. Again, (the ever-social Shuyu) struck up conversation, talking about cultural differences, then the best place to get pearl milk tea, and then– admittedly with a little prodding on my end– back to fengshui.

“Can you tell me a little more about how this area was fengshuied?”
“Before the current owner bought this business, she spent some time consulting with a fengshui master. The master analyzed her energy and matched its compatibility with the business. The consultant also helped the owner decided whether or not the location of the business would allow it to harness the energy it needed to be successful.”
“Did the fengshui master think that the business would flourish?”
“Well, she did buy it!”

p.s. sorry about the blurry photos; my camera needs an exorcism.