Feng shui is the ancient Chinese practice of placement and arrangement of space which is claimed to achieve harmony with the environment. Skeptics consider it to be nothing but superstition.
Feng shui, meaning “wind (feng) and water (shui)”, is not a decorating style, but a discipline with guidelines compatible with many different decorating styles.
The source of the term is purported to come from the Burial Book written by Guo Pu (郭璞) in the Jin Dynasty (晉朝). Qi (氣) is reputedly dispersed when it rides the wind and stops when it meets water. The ancients collected qi so that it did not dissipate, and directed it so that it was retained. For this reason this art is called Feng Shui.
Feng shui is a discrete Chinese belief system involving a mix of geographical, religious, philosophical, mathematical, aesthetic, and astrological ideas.
For a place to have “good feng shui” is for it to be in harmony with nature, and to have “bad feng shui” is to be incongruous with nature, although people aren’t usually described as having good or bad feng shui themselves. Believers in feng shui say that certain people by force of personality or visual appearance are able to add or subtract from the feng shui of their surroundings.
It is generally believed that Qin fire had all Feng Shui books burnt. The most authoritative work is “Qing Nang Jing” given by Huang Shi Gong to Zhang Liang during the late Qin Dynasty. In the Tang Dynasty, Yang Yun Song and his disciples wrote several books that are considered the most authoritative work by all Feng Shui schools. However, these books were written in cryptic language and knowledge primarily passed down through the oral tradition, but it was also believed to be intuitive and derivable from common sense and our feeling of what is natural. Eitel traces the origins of feng shui as a distinct belief system to Chu Hsi’s writings and commentaries from the Song dynasty (1126-1278). Chu Hsi’s thought greatly influenced Confucianism and became the foundation of feng shui. But, more broadly speaking, feng shui’s roots go back to the origins of Chinese philosophy.
In the 19th century, the Chinese government regularly published almanacs containing all the charts, diagrams, and numerical data used in feng shui practice. At the same time, disputes over the proper application of feng shui were resolved in official courts of law. When rebellious groups arose, an initial governmental response was often to desecrate the graves of the rebels’ ancestors (see Use in burials, below).
Early English-speaking settlers in China in the mid-19th century reportedly ran into difficulties sparked by feng shui. Much like modern landowners having problems with building codes, these settlers had trouble in construction and renovation because their proposals did not conform to feng shui principles. Further, when unwanted foreigners tried to purchase land, they would be directed to spots with topographies causing very bad feng shui. This happened, for instance, to the English consul who, when demanding land, was ceded the island of Sha-meen on a mud flat on the Canton river. The houses were overrun by termites.
Early Western commentators on feng shui were often skeptical and derogatory. A typical one in 1885 wrote “if any one wishes to see to what a howling wilderness of erratic dogmatism the human mind can arrive, when speculation usurps the place of science, and theories are reverenced equally with facts, let him endeavour to fathom even the elementary principles of that abyss of insane vagaries, the science of Feng-Shui.” Others noted that, while naive as a science, it is more accurate than some Western mythologies.
Some scholars have noted that the general guidelines of feng shui have been followed across times and cultures using different languages and with different justifications.
Underlying the practical guidelines of feng shui is a general theory of Nature. Nature is generally held to be a discrete organism that breathes qi (a kind of life force or spiritual energy). The details about the metaphysics of what Nature is, what qi is and does, and what breath consists of vary and conflict. It is not generally understood as physical, but it is neither meant to be metaphorical nor fictionalistic (the latter being the view that even though an entity is fictional, it is useful to talk as if it really exists). It’s the virtual energy and force that flows all around.
Feng Shui translates to English as Wind and Water. These are the two containers for Qi. Since life exists within either air or water, qi is said to be the life energy that flows within these two environments.
The goal of feng shui guidelines is to locate and orient dwellings, possessions, land and landscaping, etc., so as to be attuned with the flow of qi. Location is considered to be of far greater significance than orientation. This is in line with modern thinking, where the 3 principles of buying a piece of property are location, location and location.
The bagua (or pa kua) of the Yi Ching (Book of Changes) is an octagonal diagram used in feng shui analysis. Each direction on the octagon (north, northeast, etc.) is claimed to have certain significant aspects, partly depending on the birthdate of the person using it. By mapping the bagua onto a home, village, cemetery, etc., information about correct orientation and placement can allegedly be gleaned.
The eight parts (directions) of the bagua are associated with the following elements:
- North - water
- South - fire
- East - wood
- West - metal
- Northwest - metal
- Northeast - earth
- Southwest - earth
- Southeast - wood
An example of use of the bagua is — the stove (kitchen) should not be placed in the north part of a house, as water extinguishes fire. This is only a rule of thumb, and there are many other considerations in locating a kitchen. It is supposed this applies to the Northern Hemisphere.
Feng Shui developed thousands of years ago in little villages of the Orient. It was called Folk Feng Shui because each village had their own guidelines on how to use it. Their livelihoods were dependent on it. They studied the formations of the land and ways of the wind & water (Feng Shui translated means the way of Wind & Water) to determine the best sitting for their survival. Over time Feng Shui developed and was used by emperors to ensure their success.
The original Feng Shui Masters were hired by emperors to wage war. It is said that they had the power to manipulate the wind, water and fog to help the outcome of battles. Folk Lore has it that the Emperor was fearful that they would use their skills against him, so he ordered the Feng Shui Masters put to death.
Many of the Feng Shui Masters went into hiding in the Buddhist Monasteries in fear for their lives. Many Monks were trained in the ways of Feng Shui. This is why today there is a Black Hat School of Feng Shui.
This is the origin of Feng Shui and what is called Form School Feng Shui. It addresses the energies of the roads, rivers, mountains and placement of structures in relationship to them. Its premises are based upon the forces of Mother Nature. Typically you will find that Form School is utilized by both the Black Hat School and the Compass school.
Compass School has its roots in Chinese Astrology, relating the energetic patterning of an area to the magnetic influences of the Earth and the planets. The Chinese system relies upon the position of Jupiter as the bringer of Good Luck and Fortune and other numerological information. The 12 part map employed allows for more detail than the more commonly used 8 part systems popular today.
One technique employed is the use of the Local Space Chart, which was reproduced in a generic form through the use of the luopan or geomantic compass. This device helps to determine the directional alignment of buildings. True traditional Compass School has been radically changed with the advent of new systems furthering the illusions popularized by feng shui practitioners. Many are based on mis-translations of ancient texts and concepts. One such misnomer is the reference to the five Chinese elements. Wood, fire, earth, metal and water are not really elements. They are stages of matter. Ancient teaching called them thus and added two more qualities; heat and energy. This knowledge was simplified for use by the common people however today’s cultures require more details and specificity in order to be used to full potential.
There are two primary forms of Feng Shui that utilizes the luopan. The first is called the East and West Group method or 8 House (8 Mansion) method. This method examines the directional influence on the people and the building to determine how and where best to align oneself within the building.
A second application is to use the luopan to find the orientation, combined with a time aspect creates a detailed chart of the qi within the building. This method is also known as Xuan Kong Feng Shui. Xuan Kong is also called the Time and Space method. It is concerned with looking at the qi within the building and mapping the floorplan to determine the auspicious and inauspicious areas. Utilizing the five Chinese elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water, feng shui practitioners can create a balance within the qi, similar to needles correcting the qi in accupuncture.
Black Sect is a recent development of feng shui in the West, led by Grandmaster Thomas Lin Yun Rinpoche. It is sometimes called Black Hat Sect Tantric Buddhist. Black Sect feng shui relies less on directional energies, horoscopes, and astrology, and instead focuses on the internal orientation and organization of the space. For instance, the Black Sect always orients the bagua in line with the space’s entrance, rather than northwards.
Some in the West prefer Black Sect feng shui, preferring to dispense with the astrological aspects of feng shui and focusing greater emphasis on its psychological benefits. Traditional chinese Feng Shui schools do not officially recognize the Black Hat Sect due to its failure to adhere to previously set principles.
The effect of proper feng shui on the living is thought to carry over to the afterlife. In traditional feng shui belief, the feng shui of cemeteries affects the state of the dead spirits and, indirectly, their living descendants. Spirits of the buried were believed to remain at their gravesites or by the homes of their kin, and just as bad feng shui harms relaxation and ease of mind among the living, the spirits of people buried with bad feng shui will be anxious and restless, and therefore more likely to trouble the living. This reasoning led to careful feng shui planning of cemeteries. Conversely, desecrating the feng shui of the grave of an enemy’s ancestor was thought to be a powerful weapon.
The straight lines and sharp corners should not point at a gravesite or at the cemetery generally, a smooth or gradual landscape is preferable to rocky or otherwise sharp terrain. Waterways should be visible from the gravesite, but not loose rocks or boulders, which can be hidden by trees or bamboo.
The use of early forms of feng shui or geomancy in picking burial sites can be traced back at least to The Book of Burial (c. 300 CE), written by Guo Pu of the Jin Dynasty.
Many Westerners are quick to dismiss Feng Shui as superstition. Eitel calls it “a conglomeration of rough guesses at nature, sublimated by fanciful play with puerile diagrams.”
More recently, the high consultancy fees charged by feng shui masters have raised eyebrows. This has led to accusations of fraud, and practitioners being called cult members or snake oil salesmen.
Magicians Penn and Teller discussed Feng Shui in their Showtime series, Bullshit! (Season 1, Episode 7. “Feng Shui/ Bottled Water”.) While recording with hidden cameras, the duo ask several Feng Shui “experts” to arrange the same room for maximum harmony, but no two arranged the furniture in the same manner. This is countered by Feng Shui practitioners noting that good Feng Shui can be metastable with multiple optimal configurations. Additionally, practitioners claim many different levels of knowledge and skill.
In recent decades many feng shui books have been published in English, often focusing on interior design, architecture, interior decorating, and landscape design. Audiences have reacted skeptically towards the purported benefits of crystals, wind chimes, table fountains, and mirrored balls, etc., on one’s life, finances, and relationships. Often, these claims are dismissed as New Age, pseudoscience, relying on the placebo effect, or even outright fraud. The high prices charged by some feng shui analysts is sometimes cited as evidence of the fraud claim.
Other audiences reject feng shui’s justification for its rules (movement of various energies, etc.), but believe that some of its more practical rules (such as not working with one’s back to a door) are very useful. There is also no scientific evidence as of today that Feng Shui exists. The fact that it has worked for some does not mean it will work for everyone.
It is unclear what relationship these Western interpretations of feng shui have to the Eastern tradition. Many traditional feng shui practitioners in Asia regard Western adaptations as inauthentic.
The Los Angeles Times reported that News Corp., Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, Hewlett-Packard and Ford Motors are also using Feng Shui.