The mission of Communist China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ was to ‘conquer nature’. This mission was carried out with devastating efficiency in the name of a stronger China. Famously this foolhardy war against nature led to Mao instructing farmers to kill wild sparrows, as they were apparently eating too much grain and reducing productivity. This mass cull of the harmless birds had numerous associated negative environmental impacts.
The Great Leap Forward also led to a massive loss of China’s forests, largely to fuel furnaces to smelt steel. This deforestation has been cited as the principal cause of an increase in frequency and impact of natural disasters across China.
However, despite a government ban, the little-known practice of “Fengshuilin” (the ‘Fengshui Forest’) had been practiced in rural China for centuries, and many of these forests were able to withstand this onslaught of Communist tyranny, protected as they were by powerful spiritual and communal bonds, beliefs and hopes for mutual benefit and spiritual wellbeing.
Ironically these valuable forests are now closely protected by the Chinese state, yet the community practices of Fengshuilin that once protected them are no longer in place, which is once again putting them under threat of further destruction.
Fengshuilin is a self-reliant, communal system of collectively managing small patches of woodland that have historically been identified as a sign of good fengshui for village settlements. ‘Fengshui’ literally means ‘wind-water’ – an ancient system of spirit influences, good and evil, which inhabit the natural features of landscapes and are used to determine the location of towns, villages, houses, graves, and such like, based on the flow of “qi” or life-force energy.
The Fengshuilin are generally made up of patches of subtropical broadleaf forests and groves. These sacred groves have been protected over centuries by lineage villages who have maintained, sustained and planted species-rich woodlands for their celestially and terrestrially auspicious qualities. Village communities fiercely protect their Fengshui Forests, believing that their presence enhances the local ‘Fengshui’, essential for the wellbeing of the village.
Wang Lishen, a fengshui master in Taqian village, Yifeng county, Jiangxi explains the practice and reality of Fengshuilin:
“Fengshuilin were handed down by our ancestors…There’s a mountain behind this house and water in front. Green mountains and clear rivers – that’s [good] fengshui… Without wind or water there’s no fengshui … Fengshui and fengshuilin are closely related – in terms of the natural world, the forests block wind and improve the soil. When storms and other natural disasters hit, forests stand strong. From another perspective, the mountain is behind and the human is in front of it; the fengshui forest acts as a person, it is a human, thus the place has human essence/qi (renqi)… If your place lacks good fengshui the forest cannot be so good and luxuriant. Forests grow better in places where people have settled in.”
The sacred Fengshui Forests quietly survived the government ban on the practice of Fengshui during the first thirty years (1949-79) of the People’s Republic of China, in which all forms of Fengshui were prohibited as epitomising “Feudal superstition” and backwardness and lacking scientific validity.
There are two important reasons why the sacred Fengshui Forests have historically been so well maintained and protected (despite the ban on Fengshui practices):
Communal use of resources – all villagers had access to the resources of the forest, with the proviso that everyone collectively managed the forest for mutual benefit.
Traditional customs – Prior to the creation of the People’s Republic of China (1949), severe customary punishments were issued out to those who did not protect the ‘Fengshuilin’, for example withholding food; incineration of harvested timber; public beating; and drowning in a cage submerged in a nearby stream.
Due to their ‘critical biological refugia in China’s subtropical broadleaved forest region’, Fengshui forests are now coming under some level of state protection, but the real threat to these arboricultural treasure troves of ecological, philosophical and spiritual value is the outmigration of the younger generation of rural villagers.
The philosophy and practice of Fengshui has enabled the long-term management and survival of these pockets of sacred, species-rich subtropical broadleaf forests. State intervention into the age-old communal management of these forests may protect their valuable biodiversity, but may not support the traditional self-organizing, self-sustaining Fengshui philosophy behind the Fengshuilin, as many choose to migrate to urban centres for a better life. For now, though, the Fengshuilin are ‘the best long-term intentional tree refugia for biodiversity because they have been protected to serve immediate, local environmental needs’ and because they are maintained by a deeply-rooted philosophy of communal wellbeing.