In Ancient Forests, a Method for Bringing Good Fortune

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Professor and students spend summer researching sacred forests

Deng Ancestral Temple
Deng family ancestral temple and fengshui forest in Jinggangshan Nature Reserve

When Social Studies Division head Chris Coggins travelled to southern China to research village fengshui forests, he was in good company. Coggins and Maeve Dwyer ’08, Joelle Chevrier ’09, Michael Xu ’08, and recent alumna Lindsey Longway ’07, spent over a month in China studying multiple forest sites.

Fengshui, the ancient Chinese system of regulating the flow of power through the landscape, has shaped the development of villages throughout China since the early Han dynasty (202 BCE–89 CE). Fengshui forests—fengshuilin in Chineseare an indigenous system of environmental management. Many generations have cultivated and maintained these landscapes to impact the movement of qi (life essence) through human settlements.

“Since forests create shade, block the wind, and control the overland flow of runoff that causes erosion and floods, they are said to impact the movement of shaqi, which is pernicious qi,” Coggins explains. “Given their role in water storage, groundwater conservation, and the maintenance of regular stream flow, forests are also associated with natural abundance and communal social wealth.”

Students in China
Students Measuring the circumference of a rare and ancient Chinese yew tree

Protected by ancient custom, the groves include some of the only surviving stands of old growth forest in southern China. While fengshui forests are quite common in Hong Kong and rural areas of Southeast China, little research on the subject exists.

Research Objectives

Coggins and his team were driven by three primary objectives:

  • To learn more about the general distribution of fengshuilin
  • To gain a deeper understanding of the social and spatial relationships between village fengshui practice, other religious ritual practices, and fengshuilin management
  • To analyze why fengshui forests are located where they are in relation to landscape ecology and the built environment, and how vegetation within the forests and groves is managed

Each student researched a specific ecological and cultural feature of fengshui forests. Chevrier explored the relationship between fengshui, fengshuilin, and the locations and ritual significance of shrines for local earth gods and tombs for ancestors. Xu helped design and conduct interviews to investigate the differences between the knowledge of fengshui masters and the knowledge of local people. Dwyer examined how fengshuilin are understood by China’s burgeoning environmental movement. Longway analyzed forest composition, tree size, and how fengshuilin locations relate to hydrological conditions (stream patterns, runoff zones, and flood areas), topography, and settlements. Coggins has conducted field research in China for the past 20 years. Since 1999, he has led four groups of students in field courses and research projects in southern and southwest China.

The research was made possible through a grant from ASIANetwork, a consortium of colleges and universities that strive to strengthen the role of Asian studies within the framework of liberal arts education. Throughout the coming months, the research team will share their findings with journal articles and presentations at the College and national and regional geography meetings.