Tristan G. BrownDec 11, 2023
Laws of the Land
Fengshui and the State in Qing Dynasty China
Princeton University Press 2023
Welcome to another episode of New Books in Chinese Studies. I am your host, Julia Keblinska, and I am speaking today to Prof. Tristan Brown about his book, Laws of the Land: Fengshui and the State in Qing Dynasty China (Princeton UP, 2023). Brown’s book considers fengshui, that is, the knowledge of orienting structures, such as graves and houses, in accordance with well-established cosmological principles, as an administrative technology and language of power that was intrinsic to governance through the Qing legal code. Fengshui has long been dismissed as a “superstition” whose historical significance is limited to its obstruction of (narrowly) infrastructural development and (broadly) modernization. Laws of the Land instead pushes us to understand fengshui as a form of knowledge production that allowed the state to govern in an era of increasing resource scarcity and crisis.
The book covers cases related to land use (and misuse) in relation to graves, examination success, and mining concerns. It introduces readers to a cast of claimants, defendants, and legal “experts,” including clerks who meticulously mapped conflicted landscapes and geomancers who gave evidence in court. In his analysis of fengshui and Qing dynastic collapse, Brown builds upon the work of other scholars who reject narratives of Chinese “reaction” to Western influence and incursion; he posits instead the legal system’s entanglement with fengshui shows a vibrant interaction of various epistemological systems. I am very much looking forward to my conversation with Prof. Brown about the “life and death of Qing landscape.”
Julia Keblinska is a postdoc at the East Asian Studies Center at the Ohio State University specializing in Chinese media history and comparative socialisms.