Feng shui is an ancient Chinese system of aesthetics believed to use the laws of both Heaven (astronomy) and Earth (geography) to help one improve life by receiving positive qi.
The original designation for the discipline is Kan Yu. The term literally translates as “wind-water” in English.
This is a cultural shorthand taken from the following passage of the Zangshu (Book of Burial) by Guo Pu of the Jin Dynasty: Qi rides the wind and scatters, but is retained when encountering water.
Historically, it was widely used to orient buildings – often spiritually significant structures such as tombs, but also dwellings and other structures – in an auspicious manner.
Depending on the particular style of feng shui being used, an auspicious site could be determined by reference to local features such as bodies of water, stars, or a compass.
Feng shui was suppressed in China during the cultural revolution in the 1960s, but has since seen an increase in popularity, particularly in the United States.
Currently Yangshao and Hongshan cultures provide the earliest evidence for the practice of feng shui. Until the invention of the magnetic compass, feng shui apparently relied on astronomy to find correlations between humans and the universe.
In 4000 BC, the doors of Banpo dwellings were aligned to the asterism Yingshi just after the winter solstice—this sited the homes for solar gain. During the Zhou era, Yingshi was known as Ding and used to indicate the appropriate time to build a capital city, according to the Shijing.
The late Yangshao site at Dadiwan (c. 3500-3000 BC) includes a palace-like building (F901) at the center. The building faces south and borders a large plaza. It is on a north-south axis with another building that apparently housed communal activities.
The complex may have been used by regional communities.
A grave at Puyang (c. 4000 BC) that contains mosaics—actually a Chinese star map of the Dragon and Tiger asterisms and Beidou (the Big Dipper, Ladle or Bushel) — is oriented along a north-south axis.
The presence of both round and square shapes in the Puyang tomb, at Hongshan ceremonial centers and the late Longshan settlement at Lutaigang, suggests that gaitian cosmography (heaven-round, earth-square) was present in Chinese society long before it appeared in the Zhou Bi Suan Jing.
Cosmography that bears a striking resemblance to modern feng shui devices and formulas was found on a jade unearthed at Hanshan and dated around 3000 BC. The design is linked by archaeologist Li Xueqin to the liuren astrolabe, zhinan zhen, and Luopan.
Beginning with palatial structures at Erlitou, all capital cities of China followed rules of feng shui for their design and layout. These rules were codified during the Zhou era in the Kaogong ji.
Rules for builders were codified in the carpenter’s manual Lu ban jing Graves and tombs also followed rules of feng shui, from Puyang to Mawangdui and beyond. From the earliest records, it seems that the rules for the structures of the graves and dwellings were the same.
Early Instruments & Techniques
The history of feng shui covers 3,500+ years before the invention of the magnetic compass. It originated in Chinese astronomy.
Some current techniques can be traced to Neolithic China, while others were added later (most notably the Han dynasty, the Tang, the Song, and the Ming).
The astronomical history of feng shui is evident in the development of instruments and techniques. According to the Zhouli the original feng shui instrument may have been a gnomon. Chinese used circumpolar stars to determine the north-south axis of settlements.
This technique explains why Shang palaces at Xiaotun lie 10° east of due north. In some cases, as Paul Wheatley observed, they bisected the angle between the directions of the rising and setting sun to find north.
This technique provided the more precise alignments of the Shang walls at Yanshi and Zhengzhou.
Rituals for using a feng shui instrument required a diviner to examine current sky phenomena to set the device and adjust their position in relation to the device.
The oldest examples of instruments used for feng shui are liuren astrolabes, also known as shi. These consist of a lacquered, two-sided board with astronomical sightlines.
The earliest examples of liuren astrolabes have been unearthed from tombs that date between 278 BC and 209 BC. Along with divination for Da Liu Ren the boards were commonly used to chart the motion of Taiyi through the nine palaces.
The markings on a liuren/shi and the first magnetic compasses are virtually identical.
The magnetic compass was invented for feng shui and has been in use since its invention. Traditional feng shui instrumentation consists of the Luopan or the earlier south-pointing spoon —though a conventional compass could suffice if one understood the differences.
A feng shui ruler (a later invention) may also be employed.
The goal of feng shui as practiced today is to situate the human built environment on spots with good qi. The “perfect spot” is a location and an axis in time.
Qi (roughly pronounced as the sound ‘chee’ in English) is a movable positive or negative life force which plays an essential role in feng shui. In Chinese martial arts, it refers to ‘energy’, in the sense of ‘life force’ or élan vital.
A traditional explanation of qi as it relates to feng shui would include the orientation of a structure, its age, and its interaction with the surrounding environment including the local microclimates, the slope of the land, vegetation, and soil quality.
The Book of Burial says that burial takes advantage of “vital qi.” Wu Yuanyin (Qing dynasty) said that vital qi was “congealed qi,” which is the state of qi that engenders life.
The goal of feng shui is to take advantage of vital qi by appropriate siting of graves and structures.
One use for a Luopan is to detect the flow of qi. Magnetic compasses reflect local geomagnetism which includes geomagnetically induced currents caused by space weather. Professor Max Knoll suggested in a 1951 lecture that qi is a form of solar radiation.
As space weather changes over time, and the quality of qi rises and falls over time, feng shui with a compass might be considered a form of divination that assesses the quality of the local environment—including the effects of space weather.
Polarity is expressed in feng shui as Yin and Yang Theory. Polarity expressed through yin and yang is similar to a magnetic dipole.
That is, it is of two parts: one creating an exertion and one receiving the exertion. Yang acting and yin receiving could be considered an early understanding of chirality.
The development of Yin Yang Theory and its corollary, Five Phase Theory (Five Element Theory), have also been linked with astronomical observations of sunspots.
The Five Elements or Forces (wu xing) — which, according to the Chinese, are metal, earth, fire, water, and wood — are first mentioned in Chinese literature in a chapter of the classic Book of History.
They play a very important part in Chinese thought: ‘elements’ meaning generally not so much the actual substances as the forces essential to human, life.
Earth is a buffer, or an equilibrium achieved when the polarities cancel each otherWhile the goal of Chinese medicine is to balance yin and yang in the body, the goal of feng shui has been described as aligning a city, site, building, or object with yin-yang force fields.
Bagua (Eight Trigrams)
Two diagrams known as bagua (or pa kua) loom large in feng shui, and both predate their mentions in the Yijing (or I Ching). The Lo (River) Chart (Luoshu, or Later Heaven Sequence) was developed first.
The Luoshu and the River Chart (Hetu, or Early Heaven Sequence) are linked to astronomical events of the sixth millennium BC, and with the Turtle Calendar from the time of Yao. The Turtle Calendar of Yao (found in the Yaodian section of the Shangshu or Book of Documents) dates to 2300 BC, plus or minus 250 years.
In Yaodian, the cardinal directions are determined by the marker-stars of the mega-constellations known as the Four Celestial Animals.
East: the Green Dragon (Spring equinox)—Niao (Bird), Hydrae
South: the Red Phoenix (Summer solstice)—Huo (Fire), Scorpionis
West: the White Tiger (Autumn equinox)—Xu (Emptiness, Void), Aquarii, Aquarii
North: the Dark Turtle (Winter solstice)—Mao (Hair), Tauri (the Pleiades) The diagrams are also linked with the sifang (four directions) method of divination used during the Shang dynasty.
The sifang is much older, however. It was used at Niuheliang, and figured large in Hongshan culture’s astronomy. And it is this area of China that is linked to Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, who allegedly invented the south-pointing spoon.
A building in Hong Kong with a hollow middle hole, maximizing on feng shui benefits School A school or stream is a set of techniques or methods. The term should not be confused with an actual school—there are many masters who run schools. Some claim that authentic masters impart their genuine knowledge only to selected students, such as relatives.
Archaeological discoveries from Neolithic China and the literature of ancient China together give us an idea of the origins of feng shui techniques. In premodern China, Yin feng shui (for tombs) had as much importance as Yang feng shui (for homes).
For both types one had to determine direction by observing the skies (what Wang Wei called the Ancestral Hall Method; later identified by Ding Juipu as Liqi pai, which westerners mistakenly label “compass school”), and to determine the Yin and Yang of the land (what Wang Wei called the Kiangxi method and Ding Juipu called Xingshi pai, which westerners mistakenly label “form school”).
Feng shui is typically associated with the following techniques. This is not a complete list; it is merely a list of the most common techniques.
Xingshi Pai (“Forms” Methods)
• Luan Dou Pai, Pinyin: luán tóu pài, (environmental analysis without using a compass)
• Xing Xiang Pai, Pinyin: xíng xiàng pài, (Imaging forms)
• Xingfa Pai, Pinyin: xíng f? pài Liqi Pai (“Compass” Methods) San Yuan Method, (Pinyin: yuán pài)
• Dragon Gate Eight Formation, (Pinyin: lóng mén bà f?)
• Xuan Kong, (time and space methods)
• Xuan Kong Fei Xing (Flying Stars methods of time and directions)
• Xuan Kong Da Gua, (“Secret Decree” or 64 gua relationships) San He Method, (environmental analysis using a compass)
• Accessing Dragon Methods
• Ba Zhai, (Eight Mansions)
• Water Methods,
• Local Embrace
• Four Pillars of Destiny, (a form of hemerology)
• Major & Minor Wandering Stars (Constellations)
• Five phases, (relationship of the five phases or wuxing)
One of the grievances mentioned when the anti-Western Boxer Rebellion erupted was that Westerners were violating the basic principles of feng shui in their construction of railroads and other conspicuous public structures throughout China.
At the time, Westerners had little idea of, or interest in, such Chinese traditions. After Richard Nixon journeyed to the People’s Republic of China in 1972, feng shui became somewhat of an industry in the USA.
It has since been reinvented by New Age entrepreneurs for Western consumption. Feng shui speaks to the profound role of magic, mystery, and order in American life. The following list does not exhaust the modern varieties.
Black Sect—also called BTB Feng Shui—does not match documentary or archaeological evidence, or what is known of the history of Tantra in China.
It relies on “transcendental” methods, the concept of clutter as metaphor for life circumstances, and the use of affirmations or intentions to achieve results.
The BTB Ba gua was developed by Lin Yun. Each of the eight sectors that were once aligned to compass points now represents a particular area of one’s life.
In contemporary China, practitioners of the divination systems of Qi Men Dun Jia and Da Liu Ren adopt these modes of divination for highly detailed and analytic problem-solving in Feng Shui.
Feng shui today Today, feng shui is practiced not only by the Chinese, but also by Westerners.
However, with the passage of time and feng shui’s popularization in the West, much of the knowledge behind it has been lost in translation, not paid proper attention to, frowned upon, or scorned.
Robert T. Carroll sums up what feng shui has become in some cases: “… feng shui has become an aspect of interior decorating in the Western world and alleged masters of feng shui now hire themselves out for hefty sums to tell people such as Donald Trump which way his doors and other things should hang.
Feng shui has also become another New Age “energy” scam with arrays of metaphysical products … offered for sale to help you improve your health, maximize your potential, and guarantee fulfilment of some fortune cookie philosophy.”
Others have noted how, when feng shui is not applied properly, or rather, without common sense, it can even harm the environment, such as was the case of people planting “lucky bamboo” in ecosystems that could not handle them. Still others are simply sceptical.
Nevertheless, even modern feng shui is not always looked at as a superstitious scam. Many people believe it is important and very helpful in living a prosperous and healthy life either avoiding or blocking negative energies that might otherwise have bad effects.
Many of the higher-level forms of feng shui are not so easily practiced without either connections, or a certain amount of wealth because the hiring of an expert, the great altering of architecture or design, and the moving from place to place that is sometimes necessary requires a lot of money.
Because of this, some people of the lower classes lose faith in feng shui, saying that it is only a game for the wealthy.
Others, however, practice less expensive forms of Feng Shui, including hanging special (but cheap) mirrors, forks, or woks in doorways to deflect negative energy.
Even today feng shui is so important to some people that they use it for healing purposes, separate from western medical practice, in addition to using it to guide their businesses and create a peaceful atmosphere in their homes.
In 2005, even Disney acknowledged feng shui as an important part of Chinese culture by shifting the main gate to Hong Kong Disneyland by twelve degrees in their building plans, among many other actions suggested by the master planner of architecture and design at Walt Disney Imagineering, Wing Chao, in an effort to incorporate local culture into the theme park.
The practice of Feng Shui is diverse and multifaceted. There are many different schools and perspectives. The International Feng Shui Guild
(IFSG) is a non-profit professional organization that presents the full diversity of Feng Shui.
At Singapore Polytechnic and other institutions like the New York College of Health Professions, many students (including engineers and interior designers) take courses on feng shui every year and go on to become feng shui (or geomancy) consultants.
Feng shui today is widely considered a pseudoscience, and has been criticised by many organisations devoted to investigating paranormal claims.
For example, James Randi describes feng shui as “an ancient form of claptrap”, while Sceptics describe it as “complete nonsense, nothing more than ancient Chinese superstitions”.
Evidence for its effectiveness is based on anecdote, and there is a lack of a plausible method of action; this leads to conflicting advice from different practitioners of feng shui.
Feng shui practitioners use this as evidence of variations or different schools; critical analysts have described it thus: “Feng shui has always been based upon mere guesswork.”
Penn & Teller did an episode of their television show Bullshit! That featured several feng shui practitioners in the US, and was highly critical of the inconsistent (and frequently odd) advice.
In the show, the entertainers argue that if feng shui is a science (as the American Institute of Feng Shui, for example, claim), it should feature a consistent method.
A travelogue-type article from the Committee for Sceptical Inquiry explained feng shui initially as “a commonsense alignment of structures to conform to the shape of the land, an idea shared by any sensible architect in a land fraught with typhoons and torrential rains.”
However, after reading two books (one by field researcher Ole Bruun), the writer’s conclusion was that feng shui “is more of a mystical belief in cosmic harmony.”
Modern criticism differentiates between feng shui as a traditional proto-religion and the modern practice: “A naturalistic belief, it was originally used to find an auspicious dwelling place for a shrine or a tomb.
However, over the centuries it… has become distorted and degraded into a gross superstition.”
There has been little systematic scientific research into feng shui, since the general scientific consensus is that it is superstition.
Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), one of the founding fathers of Jesuit China missions, may have been the first European to write about feng shui practices. His account in De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas…tells about feng shui masters (geologi, in Latin) studying prospective construction sites or grave sites “with reference to the head and the tail and the feet of the particular dragons which are supposed to dwell beneath that spot”.
As a Catholic missionary, Ricci strongly criticized the “recondite science” of geomancy along with astrology as yet another superstition absurdism of the heathens: “What could be more absurd than their imagining that the safety of a family, honors, and their entire existence must depend upon such trifles as a door being opened from one side or another, as rain falling into a courtyard from the right or from the left, a window opened here or there, or one roof being higher than another?”
Victorian-era commentators on feng shui were generally ethnocentric, and as such sceptical and derogatory of what they knew of feng shui.] In 1896 at a meeting of the Educational Association of China, Rev.
P.W. Pitcher railed at the “rottenness of the whole scheme of Chinese architecture,” and urged fellow missionaries “to erect unabashedly Western edifices of several stories and with towering spires in order to destroy nonsense about fung-shuy.”
Some modern Christians have a similar opinion of feng shui.
It is entirely inconsistent with Christianity to believe that harmony and balance result from the manipulation and channelling of nonphysical forces or energies, or that such can be done by means of the proper placement of physical objects. Such techniques, in fact, belong to the world of sorcery.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, feng shui has been officially deemed as a “feudalistic superstitious practice” and a “social evil” according to the state’s ideology and discouraged or even banned outright at times.
Persecution was the most severe during the Cultural Revolution, when feng shui was classified as a custom under the so-called Four Olds to be wiped out. Feng shui practitioners were beaten and abused by Red Guards and their works burned.
After the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the official attitude became more tolerant but restrictions on feng shui practice are still in place in today’s China.
It is legal in the PRC today to register feng shui consultation as a business and similarly advertising feng shui practice is banned, and there have been frequent crackdowns on feng shui practitioners on the grounds of “promoting feudalistic superstitions” such as one in Qingdao in early 2006 when the city’s business and industrial administration office shut down an art gallery converted into a feng shui practice.
Some communist officials who had consulted feng shui were sacked and were to be expelled from the Communist Party.
Partly because of the Cultural Revolution, in today’s mainland China less than one-third of the population believe in feng shui, and the proportion of believers among young urban Chinese is said to be much lower.
Learning feng shui is still somewhat considered taboo in today’s China. Nevertheless, it is reported that feng shui has gained adherents among Communist Party officials according to a BBC Chinese news commentary in 2006, and since the beginning of Chinese economic reforms the number of feng shui practitioners are increasing.
A number of Chinese academics permitted to research on the subject of feng shui are anthropologists or architects by trade, studying the history of feng shui or historical feng shui theories behind the design of heritage buildings, such as Cao Dafeng, the Vice-President of Fudan University, and Liu Shenghuan of Tongji University.
Feng shui practitioners have been skeptical of claims and methods in the “cultural supermarket.” Mark Johnson made a telling point:
This present state of affairs is ludicrous and confusing. Do we really believe that mirrors and flutes are going to change people’s tendencies in any lasting and meaningful way? … There is a lot of investigation that needs to be done or we will all go down the tubes because of our inability to match our exaggerated claims with lasting changes.
A growing body of research exists on the traditional forms of feng shui used and taught in Asia.
Landscape ecologists find traditional feng shui an interesting study.
In many cases, the only remaining patches of old forest in Asia are “feng shui woods,” often associated with cultural heritage, historical continuity, and the preservation of species.
Some researchers interpret the presence of these woods as indicators that the “healthy homes,” sustainability and environmental components of ancient feng shui should not be easily dismissed.
Environmental scientists and landscape architects have researched traditional feng shui and its methodologies.
Architects study feng shui as an ancient and uniquely Asian architectural tradition. Geographers have analyzed the techniques and methods to help locate historical sites in Victoria, Canada, and archaeological sites in the American Southwest, concluding that ancient Native Americans considered astronomy and landscape features.