Feng Shui versus Superstition
Feng Shui is the name for the ancient, venerable Chinese field of study that is concerned with the effects of various aspects of an environment upon its occupants. Also known as “Chinese Geomancy”, it is a way of reading the land or one’s surroundings. The words “Feng Shui” literally mean “Wind and Water”, because the core principles of Feng Shui reflect the universal patterns of natural law, which, like the patterns of wind and water, flow spontaneously and repeatedly emerge in nature. Some older traditional names for Feng Shui are di li (The Laws of Earth) and kan yi (The Way of Heaven and Earth).
Through a long history of observing Nature’s patterns, the knowledge gained from these studies has been accumulated and refined into a very sophisticated system. It enables people to discern the energy in the land through the patterns of the landscape and through the composition of its features: mountains, hills, flat areas (energy spot) and bodies of water.
Form defines energy (chi), which affects the people who live with the forms. Throughout Chinese history, this knowledge has guided people in choosing the locations of cities, homes, grave sites, and the design and arrangement of structures, gardens and other landscape features.
Under the influence of ancient Chinese culture and philosophy, a central principle of Feng Shui was that human beings should live in harmony with nature rather than control it and force it into their own patterns. This attitude is even more important now, as we awaken to the destructive results of a domineering, forceful attitude toward nature. Great and swift changes are taking place in the modern world, making the need for this Feng Shui perspective and knowledge more urgent each day.
In recent years, however, as Feng Shui has swept through the United States and Europe, many misinterpretations have swept along with it. As one architect with a serious interest in Feng Shui said to me, “I find this Feng Shui ideal of living in harmony with nature very fascinating and convincing. But most of what’s written about it is all crystals, bamboo flutes, putting mirrors over the stove and so on. What does all that have to do with living in harmony with nature?”
In fact, these practices have nothing to do with Feng Shui or living in harmony with nature. Much of what is presented as Feng Shui in the US today has been influenced by essentially modern ideas. Now there are many mixtures of superstition, folklore and religion, wearing masks of Feng Shui, but whose teachings do not appear anywhere in the eight hundred or so existing volumes of Feng Shui classics.
Something that addresses the relationship between people and their environments should be universal, independent of culture, religion or local customs. Unfortunately, most of the popular Feng Shui currently practiced in the West derives from a mixture of exactly these things. It has found quite an audience, because it promises quick and simple results. It offers hundreds of gadgets for fixing problems with relationships, money, careers, health and so on.
Perhaps the most familiar of these gadgets is the mirror, sometimes called the “aspirin of Feng Shui”. In a doorway, a mirror is said to improve the flow of chi. Over a stove, it will allegedly build fortune. Hung above an entrance, the mirror will supposedly dispel evil and encourage auspicious energy. If a nearby building looms oppressively, a cracked mirror is believed to break up the structure’s image, softening its effect. But a mirror, in reality, has no magical computer chip that lets it distinguish between good and bad energy, or that enables it to decide what to let in and what to keep out. Mirrors do have real functions: to create a false image of larger space, to reflect more light into a dimly-lit room and, of course, to check our own images, but these uses have nothing to do with Feng Shui.
Bamboo flutes are another popular gadget meant to expel evil energy and bring good fortune. The Chinese word for a bamboo flute, xiao, sounds like the Chinese word meaning “to cut” or “slice”, prompting the idea that a bamboo flute will “cut out” negative energy. A bamboo flute has knots, jie in Chinese, which sounds like the word for “stage”, as in “ascending in stages”, suggesting a gradual improvement in status. But in English, this Chinese word-association game is a lost cause.
At least one currently popular practitioner recommends that a main entrance should be painted red, because red is an auspicious color in China, where it has always played a significant role in special occasions. Chinese brides traditionally wear red, but in the United States, the bride’s color is white (which in China would be used for a funeral). These are no more than cultural symbols; there is nothing universal about them.
In classic Feng Shui theory, the flow of water (or of traffic) is used as a financial indicator. While it is true that most big business cities are near large bodies of water, a naive interpretation takes this to mean that water equals money. So indoor fountains have become a hot item. People think that putting a fountain in the “fortune corner” of a house will attract wealth. While an indoor fountain can be a nice touch, the pleasant quality it lends to a house has nothing to do with bringing wealth or fortune to the inhabitants.
Using the eight parts of the traditional Ba Gua diagram to label and assign attributes to the parts of a house may seem neatly logical and appealing, but it is not authentic Feng Shui. The Ba Gua is an important feature of classical Chinese tradition, but its teachings are not concerned with assignment of points and directions to the Ba Gua diagram. This recently devised practice has more in common with traditional Chinese palm-reading than with Feng Shui.
No matter how unrelated these methods are to authentic Feng Shui, some people swear by them. A new client once insisted to me that mirrors were very effective. Having been disturbed by people dropping in to her office, she had followed the suggestions of a popular Feng Shui “expert” to put mirrors all around her office. She was no longer bothered by unwelcome visitors, but she admitted that even welcome friends had also stopped coming by. This was not due to mysterious forces – nobody feels comfortable surrounded by mirrors.
Without ever studying it seriously, people often pick up on isolated bits of Feng Shui. They might share this “secret knowledge” that a house should face south, a tree in front of the house must be taken down, the entrance should not face a T-intersection or dead end, a stair-case should not face an entrance, it is bad to sit under a ceiling beam, and so on. There may be some Feng Shui principles behind these notions, but it is a big mistake to apply them blindly. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, it is rare to find a house without a tree somewhere in front of it. But there is a big difference between a large tree looming up right in front of the door and a dwarf tree or sapling that is fifty yards away. To master the art, one must have a real understanding of the meaning behind such “rules”.
With so many books on Feng Shui coming out, some people may be intrigued and even partially convinced by the first one they see. They might be puzzled by disagreement between it and the second one they read. By the time they look at a third book on the subject, they are totally confused and ready to dismiss the whole idea.
How does one resolve the disagreements and judge which books are useful and which are not? Understanding Feng Shui starts with understanding the fundamentals: the equilibrium of Yin and Yang in the four features of the landscape — mountains, hills, energy spot and water. A true understanding also involves the ability to apply the principles to any level or scale of organization, from the planet to a single room. After learning the principles, people should be able to sharpen their sensitivity, develop their intuition, and transmute the information into knowledge and the knowledge into wisdom. The information thus obtained should make sense on its own, and not need to be taken on faith.
For more on this topic, please read our book: Feng Shui: Truths, Myths & Misconceptions