Understandings of Fengshui amongst Protestant Missionaries

The first Europeans to come into contact with fengshui were missionaries who spread inland in the late 1840s and 50s as a result of the Opium Wars (Brunn, p.40.). The first record of Anglo-Dutch-German-American writing on fengshui was in the Chinese Repository Volume VI, published from May 1837-April 1838 by protestant missionaries working in China, intended to inform Europeans about life in China. For the next 13 volumes of the repository, fengshui was mentioned a few more times, either under the heading ‘geomancy’, or under from a linguistic/translation angle explaining the meaning of the word ‘fung’. Tracing the linguistic and cultural understandings of fengshui reveals that missionaries engaged linguistically with Chinese spiritualism, they made absolutely no progress over 15 years in understanding the practice of fengshui.

Wright explains that the underlying belief of fengshui is that the worlds of gods and men were interconnected, and that men needed to respect forces of nature and their ancestors, who played an important role in this interconnected web (Wright, p.41). That gods and men, living and dead were all interconnected and interacting is an important belief that protestant missionaries were attempting to understand in the Chinese Repository. In Vol. XVIII published in 1849, Philo explains the “Philological Diversions, illustrating the word Fung or Wind, in its various meanings and uses as they are exhibited by Chinese Lexicographers, Poets, Historians and the Common People” (Vol. XVIII, p.470). Philo provides the results of his “leisure reading in Chinese” with the hope that they will “entertain the readers of the Chinese Repository (Vol. XVIII, p.470). He expresses much personal delight at the “poetical and harmonical uses of this remarkable character”, and proceeds to discuss its multitudes of meaning, including ‘breath’, ‘spirit’ (Vol XVIII, p.473), ‘producer of all things’, ‘messenger of heaven and earth’ (Vol XVIII, p.474). While Philo’s account does seem to be a mere exploration through literature of the various meanings of this word, his article elicited a response in Volume XIX of the Chinese repository published the following year in 1850. W.H Medhurst Sen produced ‘Animadversions on the Philological Diversions of Philo’ (Vol. XIX, p.486), where he criticized Philo for his lack of accuracy in some of his translation. Medhurst states that ‘in Philo’s estimation, the Chinese regard Heaven and Earth “the Parents of all things”, as this controlling cause, and fung as one of their active agents in this grand operation’ (Vol.XIX, p.486), thus further interpreting the word’s meaning. The implications of these two discussions of the word ‘fung’, is that clearly attempts were made, even if just from a linguistic angle, at understanding the Chinese perspective of the world. What a linguistic analysis of a word could reveal about Chinese cultural perspectives was taken up with enthusiasm, and discussed by Protestant missionaries.

The same enthusiasm and attempt to understand a cultural perspective cannot be said about the practice of fengshui itself. In its first mention in Volume VI of the Chinese Repository, published 1837-8, fengshui is called a “vain superstition”, a belief that “buildings have an influence on all things around them”, that when “in a proper state of repair” they will cause “soil to be productive, the people prosperous, and the elements (such as fire, water, &c.) submissive and obedient” (Vol. VI, p.190). It is also remarked with disappointment that it is used by both commoners and distinguished men, and that the process of building a house or burial place takes months to make a decision on the precise place. The whole process is not treated with much sympathy from the writer, and rather as a silly idiosyncrasy, an ‘unaccountable Chinese superstition’, containing very little sense (Vol. VI, p.190). Nearly 15 years later, in Volume XX of the Chinese Repository published 1851, nothing has changed about the missionaries’ understandings of fengshui, but perhaps there is even more annoyance at the existence of the practice. This time, fengshui is discussed in is titled “Prohibitions addressed to the Chinese converts of the Romish faith, translated by P.P Thoms, with notes illustrating the customs of the country” (Vol XX, p.85). Specifically, “those who cause to be engraved on the tomb-stones, that such a hill was selected; and that the person lies towards such a point of the compass, and was buried on such a propitious day, or foolishly believe the geomancy of the fung-shwui- Sin” (Vol XX, p.90). After describing the practice of fengshui as a sin, the writer calls it ‘useless’ and ‘absurd’, and that it is only the ‘minds of the simple’, who could believe it. There is a tone of complete refusal to understand why a family would go through so much trouble to find a grave, after the geomancer will “pass over the same ground twenty times over” (Vol XX, p.90). As Brenda Yeoh argues, it was simply not understandable to Western minds why burial practices were so important for the Chinese, and so they were simply labeled as a sin, and as a foolish practice for their fellow missionaries to dismiss (Yeoh, p.288).

Comparing these four passages reveals that while linguistically missionaries were eager to engage with and debate understandings and uses of the word ‘fung’, to understand how the Chinese viewed the world, they were utterly unwilling to use that same knowledge of Chinese world viewpoint to understand the practice of fengshui. It is almost surprising, that over 15 years no deeper attempts were made to understand this clearly important practice, and that fengshui was described in both entries in fairly similar terms, with the same type of annoyance. This shows that the understanding of the worldview, and the practice itself were two separated things in the Western mind, and that while one was treated as a stimulating intellectual exercise, meant to delight Western readers, the other was treated as a non-acceptance of Christianity, a sin, and a fault to be righted by the protestants.



Primary Sources

Bridgemen, James Granger (ed.), Chinese Repository Volume VI, (Canton, 1838).

Williams, Samuel Wells (ed.), Chinese Repository Volume XVIII, (Canton, 1849).

Williams, Samuel Wells (ed.), Chinese Repository Volume XIX, (Canton, 1850).

Williams, Samuel Wells (ed.), Chinese Repository Volume XX, (Canton, 1851).


Secondary Sources:

Bruun, Ole, An Introduction to Fengshui (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Wright, Arthur, ‘The Cosmology of the Chinese City’ in G. William Skinner ed. The City in Late Imperial China (1977).

Yeoh, Brenda, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore (NUS Press, 2003), pp.281-311.

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