Tian Ti Ren – Wuhan & the Five Yellow

Tian Ti Ren – Wuhan & the Five Yellow

As we exit this second year of the unpleasantness, I find myself thinking of the time I spent in Wuhan and what it was I learned there. As you do. Some useful, some not-so-much.

Wuhan remains one of the most polluted cities in the world, its main claim to notoriety probably being as the location of the first shots fired in the 1911 Revolution. My feng shui studies there under Professor Wang Yu De took place in the Wood Rooster year of 2005, by the way, so you can relax, I’m probably not contagious.

Until 2020 it was probably just one of the dozen or so Chinese cities bigger than London that you’d never heard of. Famed also for its Han Dynasty Yellow Crane Tower, it’s a dark industrial conurbation that straddles the Yang Tze River from which the barges ply East to Shanghai and West to Chongqing and ultimately as far as Tibet. In 2005 the sky was a constant newsprint grey and the Yellow Crane Tower turned out to be a facsimile built in 1981 out of what looked like papier mache.

I had expected a city of bicycles. But I had not kept up; from almost none in the mid-90’s there were now thousands of cars. A quick mental calculation indicated that almost nobody had been driving for more than a couple of years. Which explained why they treated traffic lights more as hints than instructions.

Another thing I learned was how much the Chinese love a pun. The title “Tai Pan”, for instance, traditionally applied to the self-appointed top Western CEO in Hong Kong, could mean “toilet cleaner” rather than “Great Chief” if pronounced wrong. The lady on reception at Huazhong University fell about laughing when I tried to say it right. The play on words of course is the diviner’s stock in trade. And the poet’s. The other side of that is that a tonal language is full of such traps.

A further lesson was that Chinese feng shui Masters each interpreted the meaning of the Year Animal and of the lo shu (that is annual magic square) of 2005 in their own way. I had bought a handful of almanacs in Hong Kong on my way through; the various Masters agreed for instance that the lo shu of 2005 had a 4 in the middle and was therefore suspect because sai the number four sounds just like “sai” the word for death.

And the consensus was that 2005 was a year of discovery and invention, as well as a year of scandal, – all qualities of the 4 Star – and indeed a year of glamour because of the ruling Rooster. But beyond that they disagreed on so much: one Master’s abundance seemed to be another’s plague of boils.

What all these forecasts had in common however was that they considered China, the Zhongguo usually translated as Middle Kingdom, to be the reference point, the centre of the lo shu and hence the centre of the World. So the 5 or wu huang, the illness Star which flew that year to the North West of the compass, indicated North America and the rest of what we might call the West. From China, East is the West Coast of the USA: Seattle, San Francisco, LA.

Inspecting ancient sites in Hubei Province such as the tomb of the Ming Prince Zhao with a Chinese Master as my guide, reminded me that feng shui is both physical and not physical. Tian, ti, ren, the mantra goes: Heaven, Earth and Human. Man connects Heaven to Earth but the three remain distinct realms.

The Prince’s mausoleum was perfectly located: Mountain behind, ming tang in front, river beyond and “table mountain” beyond that, with some height either side. And although the Three Gorges Dam Project had dried the river into a dusty track, Prince Zhao’s descendants beyond the 20th generation continued to pay homage. I remember a stream of visiting schoolchildren all asking in their sing-song voices, “How are you? What is your name?” without stopping for an answer, and the Chinese Master trying to convince me that the several wives buried with the Prince had died of grief.

Tian, ti, ren.

The Italians in our group who could smell coffee at a thousand paces, found quality grounds and percolators in downtown Wuhan. One or two left written endorsements of the margheritas at “Wendy’s Authentic New York Pizzeria” located incongruously out among the hu tong. Everybody learned that you could get smashed on Tsing Tao for about a quid.

Another day we ventured to Shaoshan, birthplace of Mao Tse Tung and possibly the tensest place on Earth. It was busy that day, especially around Mao’s actual home, a traditional courtyard building, facing an eccentric direction for that configuration and unbalanced into a “hatchet” shape by an incongruous wing, presumably added well after the house was first built. All around me were Chinese tourists trying hard to be what they thought of as appropriate. This involved shushing laughing children and scolding those who were not sufficiently serious. Fantastically uncomfortable, the village was dominated by a vast statue of the Chairman, finger outstretched at the gathered faithful, all trying to convince each other of their gravity.

A climb away was the tomb of Mao’s grandfather. Dominating a wide lake, located all by itself on a plateau perhaps three-quarters of the way up the valley wall, its position was even better than Prince Zhao’s. I understood the body to have been placed there in 1908, several years after the patriarch’s actual demise, oriented in accord with some variant of the feng shui formula known as Seven Star Robbery.

“What is the penniless peasant grandfather of the penniless peasant Mao doing in this exclusive location?” I asked the Chinese Master. “Which came first – the privileged location or the wealth and influence?”

Seven Star Robbery is said to ensure three generations of power. Yet the Great Helmsman had died without an heir. What went wrong? The Chinese Master, himself a refugee from the mayhem unleashed by Mao in the late 60’s, was not able to tell me.

Martin Palmer in his excellent book Sacred Land, suggests that some places are made holy over time; often by reverence or association; think Ground Zero or perhaps the Temple on the Mount. Some would add that feng shui is not to be understood causally but as correlative: we bunch events together and ascribe connection. Tian, ti, ren. Neither of these glosses are entirely satisfying I think.

As we left Prince Zhao’s tomb I noticed that the outer wall of the burial site was damaged, great chunks had fallen out of the perimeter.

“Erosion,” one of our “interpreters” explained. There were four on board, none of them fluent in any European language though they proved pretty expert at hiding in shop fronts observing those who ventured alone into the streets of Changsha.

“Erosion? Over five centuries?” I thought. It would not be the first lie of the day.

As it happened I had recently climbed the 5000+ steps to the peak of Wudan Shang, the Sacred Mountain. The Taoist enclave at the summit with its jade roofs and curled finials that touched Heaven, was built around the same time as the prince’s tomb. And it remained intact.

Erosion? More like vandalism. A Ming tomb would be an obvious example of the “Five Olds” of Chinese tradition that were to be smashed on Mao’s orders in the late ‘60’s. But 5000 paces is a long way to carry a steam hammer. I could see the young hotheads of the Cultural Revolution trashing the royal tomb but baulking at climbing Wudan.  Just as well there was no chair lift in the 60’s.

Tian, ti, ren.

And here’s the thing. In 2020 the toxic 5 Star wu huang sat to the East of the magic square. And the coronavirus Covid-19 has unquestionably come from China. From Wuhan in point of fact. That is to say from the East of the World not the centre.

As I said, the diviner loves a pun: Wuhan, wu huang, probably not near enough in sound to Chinese ears but close enough for mine. As I saw the aerial photographs of the air clear over that city after more than a month of industrial inactivity in 2020, I wondered: is this the year China concludes that it is no longer the Middle Kingdom but the Eastern aspect of a world that needs to come together if it is to survive? I’m still wondering.

Richard Ashworth © 2022.

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© Richard Ashworth 2024