Feng Shui makes a comeback after taboo years in communist China

SHANGHAI, Aug 19 (AFP) - Once derided by revolutionaries as a feudal superstition, the ancient discipline of Feng Shui is now guiding the design of buildings from government offices to state banks in mainland China.

"Many government officials have consulted me about their houses and offices, but if they are senior they send someone else to visit me on their behalf" to avoid embarrasment, said Zhang Lijin, a Feng Shui master who manages his own company in Shanghai.

Despite the Chinese Communist Party's nominal adherence to a scientific Marxist world view, traditional Chinese beliefs about the harmony of the universe are still prevalent and are gaining ground especially on the country's wealthy east coast.

Feng Shui, which translates as 'wind and water', is an ancient discipline of geography, architecture, ethics and prophecy, based on the Daoist principle that earth, sky and humanity are part of one whole.

During the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution until 1976, Feng Shui beliefs were targetted in the battle to fight the "Four Olds" -- China's traditional customs, systems, thinking and culture.

The family of 35-year-old Zhang, whose grandfather was a Feng Shui master in Malaysia during the Communist takeover of China, kept quiet about their beliefs during the Cultural Revolution.

"There was a lot of criticism and both of my Feng Shui teachers were persecuted and suffered great shocks," he said.

However as Hong Kong and Taiwan investment flowed into mainland China in the 1990s, investors brought their traditional beliefs with them and Feng Shui has seen a revival.

Newpapers run columns, film stars and actors consult Feng Shui masters for their stage names, and many of the scions of families famed for their Feng Shui expertise are now enjoying a thriving business.

Les Zhao, a Feng Shui consultant who runs Harmony Studio, a Feng Shui school in Cairns, Australia, returned to practise his art in Shanghai two years ago.

Zhao's paternal grandfather was a Feng Shui master, and while his father teaches Chinese martial arts and his aunt offers Feng Shui consulting on the side while running a coffee house, Zhao makes a full-time living from traditional arts.

The government now takes a hands-off approach to traditional practices such as Feng Shui, despite the heavy crackdown on the Falungong spiritual sect which also tapped into traditional Daoist and Buddhist beliefs.

"The government does not encourage Feng Shui, but they do not object either," he said.

In fact, behind the austere face of official policy, China's Communist Party is using the principles of Feng Shui in designing public architecture in much the same way China's emperors did, to ensure wealth and stability.

One of Les Zhao's latest commissions was the state-run Bank of Communications in Xiamen, a coastal town on the Chinese side of the Taiwan Straits.

People's Square in Shanghai, which was once the site of the Shanghai race course in the city's freewheeling capitalist heyday and now houses the seat of the city government and the Shanghai Museum, also bears the hallmarks of Feng Shui advice.

"People's Square was built in the mid-1990s with the help of Feng Shui consultants," Zhang Lijin explained.

The alignment and height of goverment buildings, trees, water and roads on the square conform to the principles of Feng Shui, he said.

Now in vogue in the United States and Western Europe, Feng Shui has become fashionable among upwardly mobile professionals, and not merely those with ties to Hong Kong and Taiwan where geomancy has always remained deep-rooted in the culture.

Jane Wu, a television producer in her thirties, recently bought an apartment in the centre of Shanghai and consulted a Feng Shui master on everything from the district she should live in to the lay-out of her bathroom.

Her US education and job with a Western company do not conflict with her belief in traditional Chinese principles about architecture and harmony.

"I think Feng Shui ultimately means harmony, plus I don't want anything wrong with my new apartment because the apartment is an investment," said Wu mixing other-wordly concerns with decidedly more material aspirations.

Many of her friends, all white-collar professionals, would consult a Feng Shui master before buying a property or making other important life decisions, Wu said.