NANJING, China — Few places are as steeped in the traditions of feng shui as this ancient city.
The pathways of centuries-old tombs follow the pattern of the Big Dipper's seven stars. Countless homes and modern buildings sport mirrors to deflect bad energy and outdoor fountains to guide riches inside.
So when a university here joined this month with a government agency to offer training in the 3,000-year-old practice of harmonizing buildings with nature, it seemed as natural as, well, feng and shui, or wind and water.
Instead, it has triggered a backlash.
"This is really ridiculous," scoffed Chen Zhihua, an architect and professor at prestigious Qinghua University in Beijing. "It's a fake science.... It only makes money for some swindlers."
Ge Jianxiong, an eminent geography professor at Shanghai's Fudan University, likened feng shui to dregs that have floated up to the surface.
"This shouldn't be happening," he said.
Feng shui has flowed into the mainstream of many countries, including America, where some California winemakers use it to determine spacing between rows of grapes and the direction their vines grow. Home builders bow to its principles when erecting subdivisions.
In Southern California, professional feng shui consultants cater to people who believe that remodeling, rearranging furniture or adding objects to their living spaces can, among other things, boost careers, promote childbearing and achieve good health and happiness.
The furor involving feng shui in the land of its birth follows its surging popularity here in recent years, thanks partly to a massive construction boom and arrivals of overseas Chinese who have fewer hang-ups about it.
Mao Tse-tung denounced feng shui for its propensity for fraud. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and '70s, it was derided as a legacy of China's feudal society. Practitioners often were persecuted. To this day, feng shui masters cannot get business licenses or legally advertise their services in China. People here understand that the practice falls in the category of superstitious activity, which is illegal.
Yet their business is flourishing because many people want good feng shui, even if they may not admit that they believe in it.
"It's like a big public secret," says Xu Shaoshan, a researcher at China Architectural Culture Center, a unit of the Ministry of Construction that is offering the feng shui training in Nanjing.
Xu argues that China should embrace, not malign, something that is unique and historical in the nation's culture.
"It's not superstition, it's applicable philosophy," he says.
But the outcry has prompted Nanjing University to withdraw its sponsorship of the program, which starts next month.
And the issue could pose headaches for Beijing.
The Communist leadership has vigorously promoted nationalism and called for the preservation of Chinese culture. But the government remains wary about people participating in religious activity -- feng shui has origins in Taoism.
Beijing faces pressure from academics who are demanding to know why a government ministry is backing -- and may even be profiting from -- a training course on feng shui. The weeklong program costs the equivalent of $720, more than a year's wages for many Chinese farmers.
Construction ministry spokeswoman Bi Jianling said the program was an academic seminar. She refused to elaborate.
The issue has also brought some bad chi, or energy, in feng shui lingo, inside ordinary Chinese homes.
Ding Houhua, a 52-year-old manager of an electronics company in Nanjing, revealed that when he decided to sign up for the feng shui classes, his wife shot back: "No way, no way, no way."
"It's superstitious, and it's not allowed," she told him.
Ding said he waited two days before he brought up the subject again. It wasn't until after Ding's wife checked with her relatives in the southern province of Fujian, who were more open to the idea, that she backed down.
Ding took an interest in feng shui while he was a physics student at Nanjing University, but he didn't dare let anybody know back then.
That was in the mid-1970s, near the end of the Cultural Revolution, and Ding was scared he would be labeled a fool by fellow students.
Today, the longtime Communist Party member makes no apologies for wanting to take up feng shui again.
"It would be a pity for us to lose these traditional thoughts that survived thousands of years," he says.
Many practitioners, though, prefer to keep a low profile.
Chen Dong, a self-proclaimed feng shui master from Hong Kong, came to Shanghai five years ago for the building boom. The ponytailed 40-year-old makes contact with customers, mostly companies moving to new offices, through his website and by working closely with interior design companies. On a busy month, he says, he would work on 10 properties. His fees: the equivalent of 70 cents for every square foot of space that he inspects.