Nestled in a narrow valley in Meihuashan Nature Reserve in Southeast China’s Fujian Province, the ancient Hakka village of Guizhuping is sheltered from the cold north wind by a sacred forest.
A cluster of crescent-shaped evergreen trees move up and down the side of the mountain, hugging the whitewashed mud brick cottages of the village and the scarlet-colored temple at the bottom of the slope. Thanks to the forest that surrounds it, this isolated community that fights typhoons and receives up to 200cm of rain per year has remained intact for the past 400 years.
This fengshuilin, or feng shui forest, is one of tens of thousands of preserved and intact woods scattered throughout the southern and central provinces of China. These patches of ancient heritage trees are believed to bring prosperity and good health to the communities that protect them, and have been used by the Han (mainly Hakka and Huizhou) for over 1,000 years.
Feng Shui forests could provide a model for sustainable planting
The first written record of a feng shui forest in the 3rd century AD refers to their use 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 the principles of feng shui to optimize the flow of energy and protect their tombs, temples and villages. The villagers built their houses on the slope of a mountain forest and planted fruit trees and additional medicinal plants in the woods.
Today, conservationists believe that these now mature forests and the villages they support could play a key role in China’s future ecological efforts. According to researchers at 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 largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Still, all that could change, as the country recently announced that it aims to be carbon neutral by 2060 and will increase its forest cover to 26% by 2035 – which is roughly the size of the country. ‘Germany.
Despite China’s big environmental projects, its past reforestation efforts that have used non-native trees and fast-growing monoculture crops have not always been successful. Still, scientists believe fengshuilin could provide a model for sustainable planting because it is filled with a wide variety of native trees and plants best suited to the climate.
Each fengshuilin may measure only a few acres, but they are rich in biodiversity. The trees found there are descendants of varieties that grew in the Laurasia supercontinent before separating to form North America and Asia. They contain broadleaf evergreen trees which are known to be huge carbon sinks and resistant to pollution. As early as 2008, scientists from the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou suggested that city planners look to ancient feng shui forests as models of modern sustainable urban growth, as the development of communities surrounded by pockets of rich greenery in biodiversity allows them to resist disease and pollution.
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According to Chris Coggins, professor of geography and Asian studies at Bard College in Simon’s Rock in the United States, each fengshuilin was designed to create harmony between humans, nature, and supernatural forces. The Han believe that every feng shui forest has supernatural guardians who represent the four directions. As a result, the Han consider these forests to be sacred and many forests contain shrines decorated with incense dedicated to the gods of the Earth.
Coggins maintains that 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 preserves the wealth. It’s a superstitious sound, but if there was erosion and no forest to stop it, erosion would start cutting again in the rice fields and they would start losing their wealth.
In the past, the feng shui master in each community would choose a village site that would best help its people deal with the natural elements. According to Katie Chick, head of conservation at the University of Hong Kong, every 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 “rear dragon mountain” and one at the front of the village called “water gate forest”.
“The feng shui forests provide shade from the setting sun in summer and protect the village from the wintering northern monsoon,” said Dr. Billy Hau, forest ecologist at the University of Hong Kong. By shielding the forces from these elements, the villagers could turn a strong north wind into a cool breeze and a flood into a watershed for the rice fields of the valley.
Today, these feng shui forests have remained intact as it was considered sacrilege to cut down trees. Villagers could only pick up fallen branches every two years so as not to damage the integrity of the forest. Even during Mao Zedong’s communist rule from 1949 to 1976, when feng shui was considered a feudal superstition, Han villagers continued to quietly protect their fengshuilin.
The punishment for cutting down trees differed from province to province. In the villages of Chebaling in Guangdong, locals believed that the trees had healing properties and that if someone cut them down, someone would get sick. While in Jiangsu, villagers caught cutting down trees would be fined one pig or the illegal timber would be set on fire.
If you intentionally regenerate fengshuilin, it will actually make a tangible difference as a carbon sink.
While villagers in southern China still protect their fengshuilin, there is state protection as well. In the early 1990s, Wuyan County in Jiangxi Province classified fengshuilin as baohu xiaoqu (small protected areas) where villagers were urged to refrain from using pesticides and fined for any damage to fengshuilin. The pressure to protect fengshuilin has since spread elsewhere, such as Nanjing County in Fujian.
Even though fengshuilin is an old concept, Coggins says many Chinese have never heard of it because it was considered a prohibited subject under Mao’s rule. “There is a certain degree of pride when [Chinese] find out that the Chinese have been protecting forests for centuries, ”he said.
Coggins believes that fengshuilin could be used as a seed bank 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], it will actually make a tangible difference as a carbon sink. We may have to look 50 years from now, 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 in which city dwellers moved to the remote 300-year-old Hakka village of Lai Chi Wo, located in the Unesco Global Geopark of Hong Kong to help its indigenous people. to revitalize their village. At the same time, Lai Chi Wo’s fengshuilin is used to propagate and reforest other areas of Hong Kong. Botanists at Kadoorie Farm and Botanical Garden use Lai Chi Wo forest and other local fengshuilin for seed collection and can also study 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, head of the garden 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 environmentalists teaching residents how to use organic charcoal in the soil to protect the carbon sink while they are operating. Conversely, the Hakka villagers share recipes, weaving and dialect sessions with newcomers. The villagers, who offer guided tours to visitors around the 200 houses, temples and ancestral halls, also transform 12 heritage houses built from mud, sand, rice straw and oyster shells into guesthouses for the public, which they plan to open in 2021. The revitalization project has been so successful that it is now expanding to the nearby Hakka village of Mui Tsz Lam in 2021. The project may be small, organizers are optimistic about its future and its expansion into other villages.
Chick, who also helps run the project in Lai Chi Wo, says Hakka Village can help others think about how they manage their resources. “[They] have a very smart way of using natural materials. It’s very inspiring, ”she says. “They only use what they need, they don’t waste too much.”
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