Fengshui and Law in China’s History

Tristan Brown, Professor at MIT

Based on the author’s recently published book, Laws of the Land: Fengshui and the State in Qing Dynasty China (Princeton, 2023), this talk explores fengshui’s invocations in Chinese law during the Qing dynasty. Facing a growing population, dwindling natural resources, and an overburdened rural government, judicial administrators across China grappled with disputes and petitions about fengshui in their efforts to sustain forestry, farming, mining, and city planning. Laws of the Land offers a radically new interpretation of these legal arrangements: they worked. An intelligent, considered, and sustained engagement with fengshui on the ground helped the imperial state keep the peace and maintain its legitimacy, especially during the increasingly turbulent decades of the nineteenth century. As the century came to an end, contentious debates over industrialization swept across the bureaucracy, with fengshui invoked by officials and scholars opposed to the establishment of railways, telegraphs, and foreign-owned mines. Demonstrating that the only way to understand those debates and their profound stakes is to grasp fengshui’s longstanding roles in Chinese public life, Laws of the Land rethinks key issues in the history of Chinese law, politics, science, religion, and economics.

Free and open to the public