China – Taking the Pulse of the Earth

Feng-Shui (lit. “wind-water”) is an ancient Chinese practice by which the location and orientation of a specific site is determined with close regard to the topography of the surrounding landscape. Employing a compass, or luopan, the geomancer’s complex task entails locating a site where the energies, or ch’i, of land and sky are in perfect harmony. The lines of magnetism—“dragon-currents” that can be either yin (negative) or yang (positive)— have to be detected, and their influence on the land through which they flow studied, along with their implications for humans both alive and dead.

Storing mortal remains until an auspicious day for burial, when astrology, the elements, landscape, and time of day are all in perfect harmony is not unusual. John Thompson, travelling in China between 1868 and 1872, remarked that he “frequently enjoyed the reputation of being a dangerous geomancer” and that his “camera was held to be a dark, mysterious instrument, which, combined with [his] naturally, or supernaturally, intensified eyesight gave [him] power to see through rocks and mountains, to pierce the very soul of the natives, and to produce miraculous pictures by some black art, which at the same time bereft the individual depicted of so much of the principle of life as to render his death a certainty within a very short period of years.” (China and its People, 1873/74).

Almost a century later, another geomancer was rendered uneasy by the sight of an exposure meter, whose concentric rings looked eerily similar to those of his luopan. Having no wish to interfere with his business, I had merely honored the invitation of a widower to decide where the grave of his wife, who had drowned herself in an irrigation ditch, should be dug. My task in the Ordos—the region within the Yellow River Loop, which nomadic herdsmen from the north used as their annual grazing grounds until the imperial scorched-earth frontier policy and the construction of the Great Wall turned it into a wasteland—was to find a section of the Wall lost under wandering dunes and not a place where ch’i surface beneficially owing to an intersection of the dragon-currents beneath.

This story, photographed during the work on The Great Wall of China, was published by Tages-Anzeiger Magazin, Zürich.