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Friday, June 10, 2011

The Charms of Feng Shui

The feng shui charms I bought to carry with me on my trip may or may not have provided me protection. The lapis elephant and jade rhino were scrutinized by lots of security screeners, one of whom, in the interest of protecting people I had no intention of harming, did manage to relieve me of my nice big traveling Leatherman with its wicked blade and pliers; I'd neglected to transfer it to my checked luggage when flying from Hangzhou to Wuhan. I tried to be less obnoxious than the Russian who, several years ago, was enraged because police would not let him take his fancy new tai chi sword on the train. (They did let him take the scabbard.) So when the cute security guy finally found the all-purpose tool in my bag, he said "Sorry," and I said "I understand, wo mingbai, mei wenti, you did a good job. Hao ba." He was also puzzled by the large solid chocolate Easter rabbit I was carrying; he pulled it out of my rucksack like a magician. I was saving it for a special "Year of Rabbit" moment in Wudang with my friends, who had occasional chocolate cravings. He let me retain the "qiaokeli tu," and the Leatherman's nice leather case. I wonder what happens to the confiscated items. I hope the security guard pocketed my excellent tool; it gives me pleasure to think of him using it. It was not deposited in the bin along with hundreds of cigarette lighters and suspicious bottles of water and hand lotion.

I don't know when the lapis elephant broke his leg. Not a fine piece of stone, and the fracture seemed to be along an exisiting fault line. I pointed this out to a companion. "Maybe he broke his leg so you won't," she said. Well, anything is possible, although my constant reliance on a nice collapsible walking stick probably had more protective value than the elephant.

"It only works if you believe it does," the feng shui woman told me when I bought the charms(thus limiting her liability). I'm not sure what that really means; I have lots of jade charms and carvings that give me a certain pleasure, dangling from my purse, rear view mirror, and bookmarks. Some are sentimental gifts. When I look at them they remind me of what power they're supposed to have. (I also constantly wear a very old antique Egyptian faience protective wadjet eye pendant; the only time in the past two decades I wasn't wearing it I wrecked my car.) Do I believe these things work? What does "work" mean?

Feng shui (wind/water) is ancient shamanic Chinese geomancy, and is readily evident in the placement of tombs. On the train ride to Wudang, I pointed out the tombs in a certain hilly area placed on slopes that clearly pre-dated the rail right-of-way.* Although in Hong Kong even modern buildings have odd adjustments to their architectural placement and design, and in the countryside, you come across tombs in the oddest places, until you notice the wind/water influences.

There are lots of books that will explain this (I particularly recommend this novel) and also tell you where to hang crystals in your living room, what charms to put on your desk to bring prosperity to your office, and which direction your head should point while sleeping. (If you're lucky, it's the same one your partner's should point. If your partner snores, put your head near his feet...but that just seems like common sense, like, don't place yourself with your back to the door in your office.** Consider Mafia bosses who have the common sense to know where to sit in restaurants.) Generally, I regard this charm and crystal stuff as superstitious (if entertaining) bunk, but, still, I always wear my wadjet eye. I also always wore my taiji ear studs, but I lost the yang one somewhere in Wudang, which seems okay. Now I'm just wearing one, but I am reluctant to remove it. It connects me to its counterpart in the mountains. I have recently littered China with all kinds of personal earring, my Leatherman, a broken camera, a bulky pair of jeans sacrificed to make room in my luggage for take-home tea.

Yesterday, I was to meet a colleague for lunch. We'd picked a little Chinese restaurant, and when he didn't show up I went ahead and ordered anyway. Channeling Brigitte Lin, I wished I'd had a sword with me to lay across the table. A perfectly decent local Chinese meal, but it made me long for the auto workers' restaurant in Shiyan where the peppery food was energizing and comforting on a cold rainy day. The Hawaii restaurant's menu did list "Zechuan" specialities and the "ma pao tofu" was guaranteed to be "splicy." Still, I ordered a bland chicken and black mushrooms and some shrimp and vegetables with noodles. When I left with a substantial doggie bag, I noticed a little shop around the corner: The Joy of Feng Shui. How could I not go in? But after China, everything on offer seemed sort of hip new agey and commercial, to say nothing of terribly expensive. There was nothing I wanted or needed, although I did ask the proprietor if he knew where I could get a good authentic Chinese foot massage. He didn't.

Next week, we try again, at an Italian restaurant. I will sit facing the door (so I can see my friend arrive). But I think I will take along my little lapis elephant with the broken leg. He makes for a good story.

*The Wizard just related a story to me, which may be apocryphal, but has a ring of veracity to it. In 1901, the Chinese rerouted an entire rail line around a mountain to assure that the dead noble the funeral train was transporting was always laid out in an auspicious direction.

** Last time I did this, I turned to answer a knock on the door and it was the Governor of Hawaii stopping in to admire the dry-erase bamboo sketches on my whiteboard.


YTSL said...

Aaaaah... Brigitte Lin, my favorite actress ever! Lemme guess: you were thinking of her in "Dragon Inn"? (If so, yes, I love that movie too!)

Re feng shui: It's interesting that that appears to be the preferred English spelling in the US but in Hong Kong, it's fong shui -- though, honestly, I wish they would get rid of all the "sh"s in the transliterations and go for a straight "s" because, truly, I've never heard the "h" in "shui" (water), "sha" (sand), "shek" (rock), "san" (mountain/hill), etc. pronounced in Cantonese!

baroness radon said...

Oh yes, I'm just using the pinyin...not sure that it is a preferred American spelling, but I tend to go with the pinyin (and Mandarin). (Americans tend to say "fung shooey".)

And that "sh" is so difficult, I guess depends on where you put your tongue. My name, Sandie, can be interpreted as "Shan Di" but can be pronounced San Di (Xiong Shan Di...Bear Mountain Empress???) depending where you are. Some people said we were just in WudangSHan, some said WudangSAN. I'm not convinced the Chinese actually hear the difference.

And let's not even talk about Shiyan and Xian....

Did you ever read Fixer Chao? Fascinating book.

Dragon Inn...of course!!!!! (But that gesture turns up in a lot of film and TV series, clearly referential.)

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sybil law said...

I like the idea of feng shui (however it's pronounced!) for homes, certainly. A lot of it makes sense and I've found that I'm in a house decorated to the principles, it does feel comfortable.
I don't believe in good luck charms or anything , though. I once had a crystal necklace that was supposed to protect me, and I cannot explain the sheer evil I felt anytime I wore it. I finally threw it in the garbage!

YTSL said...

Hi again baroness radon --

Re "sh" vs "s": I've never heard a Cantonese speaker in Hong Kong prononcing the "h" in such as Shatin and Tsim Sha Tsui.

Re Tsim Sha Tsui: It sounds like it should be spelt as Chim Sa Chooi. So much easier to pronounce too then the way it currently looks!!! :D

baroness radon said...

Ah yes, Chooi Hark (Hak).
The absurdities of Romanization. One of the quickest ways I can tell origin of someone, like in the movies I watch, but really, more locally here, is the distinction between sifu and shifu. The people who say "sifu" seem to be from Hong Kong and the South; the "shifus" are all Mandarin speakers. But it's still not clear cut.

But like I said, since I'm mostly working with Mandarin speakers, I use my pinyin dictionary...if only I could write invisible characters on my hand.