Nestled within a narrow valley of the Meihuashan Nature Reserve in China’s south-eastern Fujian province, the ancient Hakka village of Guizhuping is sheltered from the cold north wind by a sacred forest.
A crescent-shaped cluster of broadleaf evergreen trees climbs up and down the mountainside, hugging the village’s white-washed mudbrick cottages and scarlet-coloured temple at the bottom of the slope. Thanks to the forest that surrounds it, this remote community that battles typhoons and receives up to 200cm of rainfall per year has remained intact for the last 400 years.
This fengshuilin, or feng shui forest, is one of tens of thousands of pristine, preserved woods scattered across China’s southern and central provinces. These patches of old-growth heritage trees are believed to bring prosperity and good health to the communities that protect them, and have been utilised by the native Han people (mainly Hakka and Huizhou) for more than 1,000 years.
Feng shui forests could provide a blueprint for sustainable planting
The first written record of a feng shui forest in the 3rd Century AD refers to them being used to protect the tombs of emperors. As the Han moved from the north of China to the south, they began to build villages according to feng shui principles to optimise energy flow and protect their tombs, temples and villages. The villagers built their homes down the slope from a mountain forest and planted additional fruit trees and medicinal plants in the woods.
Today, ecologists believe that these now-mature forests and the villages they shelter could play a key role in China’s future ecological efforts. According to researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China’s forest area per person is only 25% of the global average, and the country is the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. Yet, all that could change, as the country recently announced it aims to be carbon neutral by 2060 and will increase its forest coverage to 26% by 2035 – which is roughly the size of Germany.
Despite China’s grand environmental plans, its past reforestation efforts that have utilised non-native trees and fast-growing monoculture crops haven’t always been successful. Yet, scientists believe that fengshuilin could provide a blueprint for sustainable planting as they are filled with a wide variety of indigenous trees and plants best suited to the climate.
Each fengshuilin may only measure a few acres in size, but they are rich in biodiversity. The trees found within them are descendants of the varieties that grew in the Laurasia supercontinent before it separated to form North America and Asia. They contain broadleaf evergreen trees, which are renowned for being huge carbon sinks and resistant to pollution. As early as 2008, scientists at the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou suggested that urban planners look to ancient feng shui forests as models for modern sustainable city growth, as developing communities surrounded by biodiverse pockets of greenery enables them to withstand disease and pollution.
According to Chris Coggins, professor of geography and Asian studies at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in the US, each fengshuilin was designed to create harmony between humans, nature and supernatural forces. The Han believe that each feng shui forest has supernatural guardians that represent the four directions. As a result, the Han consider these forests to be sacred, and many of the forests contain incense-decorated shrines dedicated to the Earth gods.
Coggins maintains these sacred forests also have a practical purpose, as they help villagers manage their resources, protect against erosion and flooding and improve water conservation for crops. “The villagers say that the forest keeps the wealth in. It’s superstitious sounding, but if there was erosion and no forest to stop it, the erosion would start back cutting into the rice paddy fields and they would start losing their wealth.”
In the past, each community’s feng shui master would choose a village site that would best help its residents manage the natural elements. According to Katie Chick, a conservation manager at the University of Hong Kong, each feng shui landscape needs a village, mountains, forest, river and farmland to be complete. Most villages would face south, with a forest at the back on a mountain behind the village called “back dragon mountain” and one at the front of the village called the “water gate forest”.
“The feng shui forests provide shade from the setting sun in the summer and protect the village from the wintering monsoon from the north,” said Dr Billy Hau, a forest ecologist at the University of Hong Kong. By shielding the forces of these elements, the villagers could turn a strong north wind into a cool breeze and a flood into a watershed for the rice paddy fields in the valley.
Today, these feng shui forests have remained intact because it was considered sacrilegious to cut the trees down. Villagers could only collect fallen branches every two years so as not to impact the integrity of the forest. Even during Mao Zedong’s Communist rule from 1949 to 1976, when feng shui was viewed as feudal superstition, Han villagers continued to quietly protect their fengshuilin.
The punishment for cutting the trees differed from province to province. In the villages of Chebaling in Guangdong, locals believed that the trees had healing properties and if anyone cut them down someone would fall ill. While in Jiangsu, villagers caught cutting the trees would be fined one pig or the illicit timber would be set on fire.
If you intentionally regenerate the fengshuilin, that will actually make a tangible difference as a carbon sink
While villagers across southern China still protect their fengshuilin, there is also now state protection. In the early 1990s, Wuyan County in the Jiangxi province listed the fengshuilin as baohu xiaoqu (small protected areas) where villagers were asked to refrain from pesticide use and fined for any damage to the fengshuilin. The push to protect the fengshuilin has since spread elsewhere, such as Nanjing County in Fujian.
Even though fengshuilin is an ancient concept, Coggins says that many Chinese have never heard of it, as it was considered a forbidden topic under Mao’s regime. “There’s a certain degree of pride when [Chinese] find out that people in China have been protecting the forests for centuries,” he said.
Coggins believes that the fengshuilin could be utilised as seed banks for large-scale reforestation. “China is reforesting at a faster rate than any other country. It is making great strides towards sustainable energy production,” he said. “If you intentionally regenerate the fengshuilin [by replanting rather than leaving them to expand naturally], that will actually make a tangible difference as a carbon sink. We may need to look 50 years out, but it will make a difference.”
Feng shui forests are extremely important, they are the only patches of old growth forest in Hong Kong
In fact, an ambitious project in Hong Kong recently started where urban dwellers moved to the remote 300-year-old Hakka village of Lai Chi Wo located within the Hong Kong Unesco Global Geopark to help its indigenous people revitalise their village. At the same time, the fengshuilin at Lai Chi Wo is being used to propagate and reforest other areas of Hong Kong. Botanists from the Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden use the forest at Lai Chi Wo and other local fengshuilin for seed collection and they are also able to study the flora and fauna.
“Feng shui forests are extremely important, they are the only patches of old growth forest in Hong Kong,” said Dr Gunter Fischer, the garden’s head of the flora conservation department. “They show us what an original forest in the region could have looked like.”
The initiative, known as the Sustainable Lai Chi Wo project, sees ecologists teach residents how to use bio charcoal in the soil to protect the carbon sink as they farm. Conversely, the Hakka villagers share recipes, weaving and dialect sessions with the newcomers. The villagers, who offer guided tours to visitors around the 200 houses, temples and ancestral halls, are also turning 12 heritage homes built from mud, sand, rice straw and oyster shells into guest houses for the public, which they plan to open in 2021. The revitalisation project has been so successful it is now expanding to the nearby Hakka village of Mui Tsz Lam in 2021. The project may be small, the organisers are optimistic about its future and expansion to other villages.
Chick, who also helps run the project at Lai Chi Wo, says that the Hakka village can help others think about how they manage their resources. “[They] have a very smart way to utilise the natural materials. It’s very inspirational,” she said. “They only use what they need, they are not so wasteful.”