My 12th birthday was the first time I became aware that the year of my animal birth sign had come around.
Chinese astrology going back 5,000 years has a complex way of marking time, following a system of “10 heavenly stems and 12 earthly branches” whose combinations have been used to mark the hours of each day, the months of each year, 12 years in one cycle, and so on.
Since the system is complex, 12 animals were eventually used to designate one-time unit, to make it easier for people to remember their own birth details. Twelve years make up one cycle, so Chinese people can remember each other’s ages through clever guesstimates that are quite accurate, using oneself as the reference point.
I was born in the Year of the Rat, so I know that people who share my birth sign are either younger or older than myself in multiples of 12. I can discover other people’s ages once I know their birth sign.
More importantly, my birth details (year, month, day and hour stem/branch combination) constitute four stem or branch pairs that make up the eight-character 八字 or “pillar of life,” which is vital for telling my fortune.
These details can be used to assess whether any other person, especially a prospective spouse, is compatible. This data is also used to determine the most auspicious time for major life activities, whether I should attend someone’s wake or funeral, and how I should behave given the cosmological movements of the current year.
At the age of 12, I thought that year would be my lucky one! It was “my” year and I should be lucky! I learned much later that the opposite was true. There is a Chinese folk belief that during the year of one’s birth sign, one is in conflict with the God of Age, Taisui (太歲 Jupiter in the solar system, which orbits the earth every 12 years). To avert misfortune and instead become successful during this year, I must wear red clothing gifted to me by others. I can also wear or display various accessories to ward off bad luck, and arrange my furniture to face the opposite of Taisui during that year.
All these ideas form part of the complex world of fengshui or geomancy, the Chinese concepts of harmony with nature. Literally meaning wind 風 and water 水, fengshui is considered a pseudo-science because its claims cannot be proven scientifically. In the basic scheme of Chinese cosmology, fengshui is represented by the Earth (地) one stands on, where one has to attain harmony with one’s surroundings. The other pillars of Chinese cosmology are Heaven (天), which includes what one is born with, including family lineage and birth details, along with the Human Person (人) representing one’s actions, including education and choices made to develop one’s potentials.
Life is about harmonizing Heaven, Earth and the Human Person (天地人和). Fengshui principles receive a lot of attention during the Chinese New Year because people want to know what the year has in store for them and what can be done to attract good luck, ensure protection from harm, and attain prosperity.
It is quite unfortunate that fengshui has often been reduced to a collection of practices that are divorced from their original context and practiced as if they are magically effective. During Chinese New Year, a large number of commercially-driven advice about what charms, colors and accessories to wear or display are offered to ensure a good year ahead.
But no meaningful explanations are provided to explain why such practices will be helpful. Some of them, such as consuming food items whose names are homonyms for good luck, may be quite harmless, but wearing amulets and performing rituals that one does not understand can be spiritually confusing.
There are many examples of fengshui practices that are empty rituals and potentially harmful to one’s consciousness. For example, I recently witnessed a cremation where a duck was sacrificed and burned together with a deceased person. This was supposed to break the cycle of three deaths that might befall the family, all because the Hokkien word for duck (âh) sounds the same as the verb meaning “to send off.”
Such practices give the science of harmony, which is supposed to be fengshui, a bad name.
Or take the architectural principles and interior design of homes. Fengshui “masters” might charge consultation fees per square foot and tell you exactly what to do. The advice given may or may not make sense, but a good rule of thumb is whether the advice conforms to the order of nature. It must be about the direction of sunlight, wind flow and ventilation, maintaining safe and smooth passages, and so on. A good architect or interior designer can also be a good fengshui practitioner, without the costumes and frills.
Symbols and practices have very specific cultural meanings. In order to be meaningful and useful, they need to resonate with the person practicing them. Rather than blindly transplanting Chinese practices, it is more effective to surround oneself with symbols and practices that are personally meaningful and can resonate in one’s subconscious mind.
If one has a strong connection to the energy generated by positive symbols and practices, then they become more powerful and helpful. Chinese people may draw strength and inspiration from symbols and practices they have been exposed to throughout life, while people belonging to other cultures and traditions also have their own equivalent. What is most important is one’s interior state. No amount of material practices can bring peace to a person who is not centered on one’s identity.
The symbols we surround ourselves with can help us to be grounded, so whether they are Chinese charms or Catholic sacramentals, like the St. Benedict medal, it is important for someone to see meaning and connect with the positive energies generated by the symbols. In this sense, there can be such a thing as Catholic fengshui when a Catholic connects with the spiritual legacies of the Virgin Mary, the saints and God, who is Father, Son and Spirit, through the material objects that serve as reminders of such legacies. Therefore, surround yourself with symbols and practices that make sense to you and make you feel grounded and centered.
For Catholics, these can be devotional articles that lead you to think of God and the saints who can help you in your spiritual journey. For the ethnic Chinese community, there is a plethora of symbols and practices, but whether religious or cultural, none of the symbols work like magic. They must be understood and internalized, so they can lead to a deeper appreciation of life.