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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Feng Shui: A Soft Science?

My interest in the Chinese culture started when I discovered TCM. I grew up at a time when China was still closed to the world, and my parents sent me to a private school which used textbooks specially shipped from England. The teachers were English and some of them wore suits to school to teach us, and our school principal was a Margaret Thatcher lookalike. I can reel off the names of each of Henry VIII's 6 wives, and explain to you what the Bayeux tapestry chronicles and I can even tell you when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales... but I had never heard of the Water Margin... nor gasp!! the Cultural Revolution.

My only exposure to Chinese culture were television series from Hong Kong with far too much melodrama for my tastes... and those awful romance movies from Taiwan about unrequited love. You would agree that neither of these came near to any degree of erudition. Not only were they absolutely insubstantial cultural fare, they served to turn me off romance forever... to the extent that later, the best way for a potential suitor to turn me off forever, was to offer me flowers, poems and over enthusiastic courtship. Ewwwwwwwwwww!

It seemed to me that Chinese culture was unnecessarily melodramatic, shallow and frivolous ... and I had absolutely no respect for it. Then I discovered TCM.

It started with a spot of acupuncture on a day when my tonsils had swollen so much, I preferred to starve than to eat. The needle was inserted painlessly into my hand and the tonsils went down within 5 minutes. Whoa!! And it happened in this non-descript little half shop for $10/=.

I started to read up. It was very difficult to find books in English on TCM and all that blather about elements (earth, metal, wind etc...) meant nothing to me. I developed a rudimentary understanding of tongue colour and coating... at least enough to make very basic diagnoses. I started to experiment with different herbs. This drove my mother-in-law nuts because for the sake of experimental rigour, I had the habit of experimenting with one herb at a time. This is not recommended because the Chinese believe that energies and elements need to be balanced out in a full prescription or the body's yin-yang balance will be upset and one would get weaker.

But heck... it was my body... and it was fun!!

But it was so very difficult to find literature on TCM in English. Such was my hunger for information that I ended up reading anything I could get my hands on that related to herbs. This opened up the whole new world of alternative medecines that ranged from French homeopathic prescriptions to North American Indian folk remedies to the illustrious tradition of Ayurvedic medecine.

It soon emerged that some herbs are known across cultures. For example inula helenium (called elecampane in North America) was also used in China as xuan fu hua. North American Indians used elecampane to dry up phlegm, and TCM prescribes it for conditions where the body is overcooled and too wet (i.e., to dry up phlegm). And would you believe that I found both dang gui (angelica sinensis) and gotu kola (centella asiatica) documented in French homeopathic medecine? If herbal traditions arising in different parts of the world together concluded that inula helenium dried up phlegm, then the conclusion is very likely, a reliable one. Researchers in the social sciences call this triangulation, and data triangulation is terribly important in the soft sciences because there is so much imprecision to deal with.

Triangulation sealed the reputation of TCM for me. I began to look upon it as a reputable body of medical knowledge and not a collection of old wives' remedies fraught with superstition and dubious religious connotations. I learnt to separate the science from the folklore.

And about this time, I watched a movie made in China called "The Opium War". There was enough poetry in the script that it made me realise that whilst the Chinese mass culture I had grown up with was mindless and low brow (think TCS Comedy night on Channel 8), there were aspects of Chinese culture that were deep and rich. I understood less than half of what was said and grasped none of the literary references... but I was mesmerised by the music of the Mandarin one never hears people speak in Singapore.

So when the question came up on the topic of Feng Shui, I wondered whether I was being a bigot to pooh-pooh the entire field and to view it as a domain of the highly superstitious and uneducated (though very rich). I decided that perhaps here too, one could separate science from folklore. The problem though is that TCM may be considered a hard science. It is after all, medecine. Inula helenium in the laboratory or out of, has predictable outcomes. If you're a TCM charlatan, you are soon found out.

Psychologists and sociologists will tell you that such precision is unheard of in the soft sciences. Because the fields are fraught with imprecision, it is hard to discern the true expert from the charlatan. If the Feng Shui master's prescriptions don't pan out, is it due to the imprecision characteristic of the soft sciences, or is the guy a charlatan?

In a course module spanning 18 hours, I can cover 8 major human motivation theories. Those who attend my course will be able to converse intelligently on these 8 theories of human motivation. However, what I have not covered are the hundreds of boundary conditions that tell me when to use which theory... and what not to do when applying each... and when some of which theory's predictions will NOT be true. There are rules but there are thousands of exceptions in the social sciences... The rules can be taught in 18 hours, but the exceptions take decades of practice and study to learn.

Any charlatan pretending to know the science of human motivation, can spout the 8 motivation theories after 18 hours of class... and the client cannot tell because the client knows even less. Similarly, any charlatan can pretend to know Feng Shui because a client like me knows even less. And to come across as convincing, the charlatan leverages on the common man's superstition and religious beliefs. All this confuses the issue and it becomes hard to tell where the religion ends and where the science begins.

But I am convinced that there is a science involved. There must be. Even though TCM's theoretical formulations are alien to me (I mean... I have given up trying to understand the principles of hot/cold, dry/wet), I have learnt and experienced the effectiveness of TCM prescriptions and needles. Friends of mine who are building engineers speak of Feng Shui masters who walk on a piece of empty land, make some calculations and conclude that there is the water element under there. Upon digging, the building engineers found an underground spring.

Every theory is man's conceptual representation of reality. It isn't really real. Psychologists depict motivation in little boxes... does motivation look at all like a little box? Surely not.

Hence, so what if the TCM conceptualization of hot/cold and dry/wet... bears little resemblance to the real human body? It suffices that the theory, when applied, generates solutions that work. So, whilst I very much doubt that there are truly dragons underlying the lay of the land and that yin energy and yang energy are palpable realities, I do believe that the entire theoretical formulation that governs the practice of Feng Shui can predict observable outcomes (barring the hundreds of boundary conditions that plague all the soft sciences).

I think that, in some way, it reflects some unseen reality/rules or algorithms that govern human-environment interactions. We mayn't be able to see them but they are nonetheless there and have an effect on the quality of human lives. After all, can you actually see the release of cathecolamines when someone is stressed? Yet we all know what stress is, and we all agree that stress is very real.

In truth, when the unseen reality/rules or algorithms that govern human-environment interactions come to light, they may not even at all resemble the theoretical formulation that Feng Shui masters use. After all, those of us who see pictures of bacteria and viruses will pooh-pooh the theoretical formulations of TCM (earth? metal? hot? cold? what silliness?).

But... but... but... even though the theory looks nothing like reality, its predictions can be so accurate that there must be value in that codified knowledge no?



Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...

very astute in your observations. hardly anyone can make such concise yet objective conclusions as a layman.

there's a litmus test for Fengshui quacks -- ask him/her to tell you something of your house without giving them any birthdate (of the people living in there), layout, full address.

a good one should be able to say something right with little detail provided. a poor one would say they need more info to give anything conclusive.

i belong to the former. =)

petunialee said...

Fry - Gee thanks!! How does one actually go about training to be a feng shui master?

Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...

different ways.

some by classes.
some by tetulage.

i was under the tetulage of my dear Teacher. =)))

but all need the very important Support from the Above to really deliver it. 'cos some learnt Fengshui because of interest and not because of the Calling. a real accomplished Fengshui master will have psychic abilities, and sadly this is the only way to know if he/she is good enough, for no amount of certificates will mean one is good. unlike, like if one is to be a doctor or engineer.

there is a common understanding by informed customers that the more prolific the Fengshui master one is (by way of heavy marketing thru all media), the less likely he/she will be good.