SHENZHEN, China — The life of an official in China’s closed political system can be anxious and uncertain. Anyone who doubts that should stride up the initial flight of nine steps leading into the courthouse here. The courthouse used to have 11 steps. Two were removed.
Workers also broadened the stairway, and placed two fierce ceremonial stone lions at another entrance. The reasons for the redesign haven't been made public. But news reports suggest that agitated officials wanted to halt a run of bad luck, including the jailing of three judges for corruption.
So they decided to feng shui their way out of the fix.
Feng shui, which translates as "wind-water" in Chinese, refers to the ancient practice of positioning objects or buildings in certain harmonious ways to affect health, energy and wealth. Under the principles of feng shui (pronounced "fung shway"), energy can be liberated or stifled by the arrangement of living and work spaces.
The renovation of the courthouse in this industrial boom city across from Hong Kong is only one of a spate of recent cases in which local officials appear to have resorted to ancient beliefs despite membership in the Communist Party, which upholds atheism and condemns feng shui and other such practices as feudal superstitions.
Low-level government officials are building bridges, moving tombs, redesigning buildings and turning to divination and talismans.
Last month, a party magazine, Seeking Truth, gave voice to those concerns.
"A small number of party members are wavering in their loyalty to the party now, which should be paid great attention to," the article by Chen Zhangyuan said. "For instance, some party members believe in ghosts and gods instead of Marx and Lenin." At its core, the party’s worry is that Marxism holds little appeal in today’s fiercely capitalist China. So party members turn to tradition for guidance on practical matters.
"Some party members have lost their belief in Marxism. Feng shui is close to everyday life, providing psychological and spiritual guidance, while Marxism is a theory or doctrine," said Xu Daowen, a sociologist at Shenzhen University.
Xu said some local party cadres in official posts lacked confidence in the future.
"Officials are more susceptible to feng shui beliefs than ordinary citizens because they are faced with more uncertainties," Xu said. "Sometimes we joke that civil servants engage in a high-risk industry since they often encounter sudden arrest for corruption."
Civil servants usually are members of the Communist Party. The party’s disciplinary committee says it punished 97,260 of the 70 million members for corruption last year.
Anxiety over promotions and demotions is acute in the run-up to a Communist Party congress, held once every five years, which will unseat a number of senior and midlevel officials later this year and make way for a major shakeup in the bureaucracy.
The Beijing News broke the story of the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court last month, saying court officials had contracted a feng shui master in Hong Kong to design renovations after the arrests last year of a deputy director and three midlevel judges. The stone lions would "instill power and prestige" to an area that’s subject to sneak attack, the Hong Kong master advised.
A gardener at the courthouse said an initial flight of outdoor stairs was altered early this year. "The number of stairs was changed from 11 to nine. Nine is a luckier number than 11," Zeng Dehua said.
A local feng shui master, Wang Yanjie said dozens of feng shui studios had opened in the city and that party officials frequently turned to them for consultations.
"They are very sensitive about consulting a feng shui master. I won't tell you more about it because I have to respect my customers’ privacy. Otherwise I won’t have any business," said Wang, who said he wasn’t involved in the courthouse makeover.
Among recent cases of officials employing feng shui: