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  • Fengshui in China: Geomantic Divination between State Orthodoxy and Popular Religion
  • Yinong Xu (bio)
Ole Bruun . Fengshui in China: Geomantic Divination between State Orthodoxy and Popular Religion. Foreword by Stephan Feuchtwang. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2003. xiv, 305 pp. Hardcover $49.00, ISBN 0-8248-2672-8.

For the past fifteen years there has been no lack of books on fengshui. Many of these published in mainland China aim at introducing fengshui principles and techniques per se and offer a search for "scientific elements" that purportedly help to "discard the false and retain the true," whereas most of the publications in the West are intended as "guidebooks" to "Oriental wisdom" that offer "complementary" means to improving life or business performance. Yet few are devoted to diachronic interpretations of the working of fengshui in society, and especially to its broad social implications in contemporary China. Ole Bruun's Fengshui in China: Geomantic Divination between State Orthodoxy and Popular Religion is therefore a particularly welcome addition to the academic literature on fengshui, and its publication heralds a promising beginning for new research in this area.

The focus of this study is the development of fengshui from 1850 to the 1990s. This is the period of modernization in China, marked by foreign intrusion, internal and international war, political upheaval, social unrest, and economic uncertainty. And the vicissitudes of fengshui practice have inevitably reflected this constant turmoil. Bruun examines fengshui as a living tradition "with an inborn capacity to survive changing societal circumstances" and explores "possible patterns of change in response to other significant factors and events" (p. 255), aiming at an "anthropological analysis of how various perceptions of reality and currents of knowledge and thought interact in the local society" (p. 3). Thus, the purpose of this book is not "to test the truth or usefulness of fengshui in scientific terms, but to investigate its broad social implications" (p. 27). Two interacting approaches are adopted for this purpose: historical interpretation in chapters 2 and 3 and modern anthropological fieldwork in chapters 4-6. These chapters are preceded by a chapter functioning as a kind of introduction and followed by a chapter on the perceived "environmental" implications of fengshui and a conclusion. An appendix, "On the 'Origin' of Fengshui and the History of Its Literature," offering a fleeting account of the long history of fengshui, is included, followed by a short glossary of Chinese terms and names. The book ends with a rather cursory index.

The first chapter is intended to pave the theoretical and methodological way for the study. For Bruun, fengshui should not be considered as a "system," which itself would assume "the role of an agent instead of being an ongoing cultural [End Page 35] construction" (p. 25); nor should it be perceived in very narrow terms, which would merely provide a vulgar and overly simplistic portrait of a complex cultural phenomenon. Instead, Bruun proposes the employment of the notion of "tradition" to refer to an assembly of creative ideas in association with fengshui. Tradition, as compared to "system," is, for Bruun, less formalistic but more differentiated and localized and denotes a cultural repertoire of information, values, and customs carried by segments of the population and having the potential for transmission from generation to generation. This studied perspective allows Bruun to explore the interplay and overlapping modes of the operation of fengshui with other traditions—either dominant or subordinate—and to interpret the ramifications of these processes.

In chapters 2 and 3, Bruun traces the development of fengshui, first from 1850 to the late 1940s and then from 1949 to the 1990s. Aided by numerous accounts by Western scholars, missionaries, sojourners, travelers, and employees of the imperial government, as well as by a number of Chinese sources, Bruun chronologically delineates two trajectories of changing views and attitudes toward fengshui before 1949. One is concerned with Western responses, which developed from casual references to the tradition, inspired by curiosity, to sustained attention, and from total ignorance to studied, albeit Eurocentric, interpretations. Here, Bruun thoughtfully singles out, in the cross-cultural encounter, an unbridgeable conceptual gulf between the Western and Chinese traditions that underscored a continuous ideological conflict throughout...


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