Throughout China there are towns and villages that lay claim to producing everything from the best vases to the greatest pickles. But there is a village in Jiangxi province which has a unique claim to fame. It’s called Sanliao and produces China’s top feng shui masters. Indeed, during the Ming Dynasty the country’s rulers lived and died on advice from the village. Its experts even designed the layout of the Forbidden City.
When the Manchurians overturned the Ming regime in 1644, they sought to lessen Sanliao’s influence. The new Qing emperor appointed the German Jesuit Adam Schall von Bell as the director of the Imperial Observatory. This was a key posting as it involved calculating the Chinese calendar – an important task in an agricultural economy.
But the traditionalists fought back, accusing the German of messing up the dynasty’s prospects. The empress died and Schall von Bell was sentenced to death by “a thousand cuts”. (He was only saved when an earthquake struck Beijing, earning him a reprieve.)
The Manchurian rulers soon saw Schall von Bell and other foreign experts as a counterweight to the more traditional values of Sanliao’s feng shui masters. They retained them at the Imperial Observatory till the dynasty fell in 1912.
But if you were to date when Sanliao’s influence really plummeted, it was in the three decades after 1949, when Mao Zedong decreed feng shui to be a superstitious nuisance.
But even he couldn’t eradicate the practice and in the 1980s it quietly resurfaced. The Jiangxi government started spotting suspicious flows of capital into Sanliao. The money turned out to be advisory fees paid to feng shui masters by overseas Chinese, including Hong Kong celebrities. Realising the economic potential the local government changed tack. Soon it was listing feng shui as one of Sanliao tourist attractions.
Today, 80% of Sanliao’s 6,000 population relies on the “feng shui industry”. Tourists and businessmen flock to Sanliao for advice – hoping it will improve their health and fortunes. According to New Weekly, more than 200 feng shui masters from the village also travel across China to mentor officials, tycoons and actors. A “very senior leader” is said to be among the clients.
“Come the Spring Festival every year, feng shui masters return home in their BMW or Mercedes,” the magazine observes. “Some of them are carrying bags stacked with cash.”
China Comment reported last year that more than 52% of government officials believe in feng shui. “Some of them are even more superstitious than the general public,” the bimonthly magazine noted in exasperation. Perhaps that explains why Xi Jinping included “discarding superstition” among his warnings in his latest set of rules to govern the behaviour of Party members. Will Sanliao survive this latest attack? History is on its side…
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