A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the story with feng shui?

January 16, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

What's the deal with feng shui? Every time I see someone on television espousing it, I reach for my wallet, because its fundamentals and supposed benefits seem a total crock to me. Am I just being reactionary and biased against non-European theories, or is feng shui really just flimflam?

Probably it's somewhere in between. Don't worry about your wallet--this is something that you CAN try at home, without spending a lot of money.

WHAT IS IT?

Feng shui (pronounced fung shoy) is the ancient Chinese art of placement. Feng shui tries to explain and manipulate the impact of the environment on people's lives.

The term comes from the two Chinese words for wind and water. There is no equivalent English word, although perhaps geomancy (divination of messages from the earth) comes close. Some practitioners call it an "eco-art," trying to link man to his surroundings.

Feng shui originated in China somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago, although the term itself is more recent. The earliest references in books and texts (though not by name) date back to 200 to 400 BC. Feng shui began as an oral tradition and remains primarily oral today. It first came to serious attention in the west in the 1970s. Several different schools of feng shui have developed over time.

Feng shui is partly mystic and relates to other eastern philosophies and tools such as the I Ching. Feng shui theory is firmly linked to yin and yang, which is familiar to most westerners, and to the concept of chi (more on this later).

From one perspective, feng shui is the art of arranging the environment (the exteriors and interiors of buildings, gardens, and even the body) to optimize the impact on the people who live there. Looked at another way, it is a very complex set of superstitions. And they are powerful superstitions indeed. The construction of large hotels in Hong Kong has to wait for the blueprints to be reviewed and revised by feng shui specialists--moving the escalators, for instance, so that money does not flow out of the building.

An Asian business person can stop a deal cold if the feng shui of the office isn't right. Westerners thus have had to learn feng shui in order to do business in much of Asia. Call it flim-flam if you like, but if you are dealing with Asians, be aware that you may be insulting a cherished tradition.

Whatever may be said for its modern incarnation, feng shui had its origins in a practical appreciation of the environment. The ancient Chinese noticed that homes built in river valleys were often lost to floods, whereas houses on hillsides were protected from the elements and easier to defend against invaders. Hence, hillside buildings had more luck than those in valleys. Similarly, houses facing north were hit by dust storms, while houses facing south got maximum warmth from the sun. Thus facing south was luckier than facing north. (As another consequence of this, Chinese maps were south-oriented, with south on top.)

It's not hard to see how these observations, reflections, and some common sense led to a system of beliefs or superstitions about the placement of buildings, doorways and windows, furniture, and so on. Over the centuries there developed what Simon Brown calls "a complex and integrated system of theory and practice, embracing almost every aspect of people's lives."

WHAT ARE THE BASIC PRINCIPLES?

Not easy to summarize, but the idea is to arrange your environment (home, office, whatever) to create a place where you want to spend time and feel pleasant, rather than a place where you feel uncomfortable. The design, layout, and location of the places you live or work can influence your health, wealth, career, relationships, and fame. George Birdsall says that you "can encourage positive coincidences." (I love that phrasing!) Simon Brown says, "Everything in your overall and immediate surroundings--even the smallest detail of furnishing or décor--can help you or hinder you."

If you've ever bought a house, you probably walked into some that immediately didn't feel right. Practitioners say that you're intuitively sensing bad feng shui.

To understand feng shui we need to talk about chi. Chi is the underlying cosmic energy, spirit, or essence of a person, place, or thing. In the case of a place, chi is its "atmosphere," which can affect your well-being. There is no real English equivalent for chi, atmosphere or spirit perhaps, but it's easiest to think in terms of energy. Chi is called ki or oi in Japan, and prana in India. Chi underlies much of eastern astrology, traditional healing systems like acupuncture, and martial arts like tai chi or aikido.

Think of chi as a flow. It is carried by wind and sun, by light and sound. It moves like these things, but can flow through solid objects as well. Chi is like water, ebbing and flowing with the tides, or like wind. Hence the name "feng shui," from the words for water and wind.

The basic principles of feng shui are to position yourself to take advantage of the natural flow of chi. How do you do that? It's related to yin and yang--isn't everything? I won't go into yin and yang here, which are pretty well understood. Just think of balance and harmony. Yin is earth, yang is heaven; yin is mountain, yang is river; yin is female, yang is male; yin is interior, yang is exterior; yin is round, yang is straight; yin is green and blue, yang is red and orange; yin is pastel colors, yang is strong colors. Yin is moon and yang is sun, yin is dark and yang is light, yin is passive and yang is active. There is yin in yang and yang in yin--harmony in balance, balance in harmony.

Back to chi. If a room has too much chi flowing into it, it may be a source of excessive activity and frustration, and you may want to dampen the flow. Chi is good up to a point, but you don't want too much--a house should be a relaxing place. On the other hand, you may want lots of chi flowing through your office.

Negative or unhealthy chi arises from many synthetic materials (of course), artificial lighting, and electronic equipment like air conditioning and TVs. Dark corners and cluttered rooms can create stagnant chi, which slows your energy and causes a loss of direction in life. Adding a bright light, fountain, or aquarium can help churn stagnant chi.

The exterior shape of a building, its openings, and the materials used in its construction all regulate the flow of chi. Chi flows most easily through openings like doors, next most easily through windows. You need to pay attention to the sun and to surroundings like water and roads, and set the environment to allow chi to flow harmoniously through the building.

Simon Brown says, "If chi energy passes a sharp corner, it begins to spin and swirl, forming eddies and whirlpools like a fast-flowing stream passing a sharp bend." This can lead to disorientation and confusion.

Avoid L-shaped houses, which are unbalanced. There are cures if you're stuck, like planting bushes to make the L into a rectangle. U-shaped houses (like many apartment complexes with an interior courtyard) are unlucky for marriages.

For interiors, the basic tool of feng shui is an octagon. There are eight directions, eight seasons, eight body parts, eight times of day, eight colors, eight numbers, all arranged around this octagon. These are cyclic--if you go in a circle around the compass directions, you wind up back where you started. The year and the days form a cycle, as do the colors (think of a color wheel from art class). Alas, there are only five elements (wood, metal, water, fire, and earth) and five animals, but let's stick to the basic eights.

So draw an octagon. At the top is south, at the far right is west, at the bottom is north, and at the left is east. In each segment, going clockwise, you have the following:

SOUTH
Number: 9
Season: Midsummer
Color: Red
Time: Midday
Life Aspect: Fame
Element: Fire
Animal: Birds
Body: Eye

SOUTHWEST
Number: 2
Season: Early autumn
Color: Yellow
Time: Afternoon
Life Aspects: Marriage, motherhood, partnerships
Element: Earth
Body: Organs

WEST
Number: 7
Season: Autumn
Color: White
Time: Evening
Life Aspects: Children, purity
Element: Metal
Animal: Tiger
Body: Mouth

NORTHWEST
Number: 6
Season: Early winter
Color: Grey
Time: Night
Life Aspect: Fatherhood, travel, helpful people
Element: Heaven/sky
Body: Head

NORTH
Number: 1
Season: Midwinter
Color: Blue/black
Time: Midnight
Life Aspects: Death, career
Element: Water
Animal: Tortoise
Body: Ear

NORTHEAST
Number: 8
Season: Late winter
Color: Turquoise
Time: Early morning
Life Aspects: Knowledge, intelligence, self-learning
Element: Mountain
Body: Hand

EAST
Number: 3
Season: Spring
Color: Green
Time: Mid morning
Life Aspects: Family, health
Element: Wood
Animal: Dragon
Body: Feet

SOUTHEAST
Number: 4
Season: Early summer
Color: Purple
Time: Late morning
Life Aspects: Wealth, fortune
Element: Wind
Body: Hip

This octagon is called ba-gua and is a tool for diagnosis. You start with a floor plan of the house, room, building, yard, or whatever. Overlaying the octagon on the plan helps you interpret the energies and qualities of the space.

There are several schools of feng shui, such as compass, form, and "black hat sect"; each has a different approach to placing the ba-gua on the room. For instance, the compass school says to orient the octagon properly to the compass points (with north on the octagon aligning with magnetic north on the compass.)

Black hat sect is the more westernized form of feng shui, and more easily adapts to western construction and culture. Black hat says that the compass alignment is only symbolic, and you align the octagon to the doors of the room. If the door is in the center of the wall, put north on the door; if the door is to the right, put NW; and if the door is to the left, put NE on the door.

Whatever approach you use for overlaying the ba-gua, you may have to stretch your octagon to fit the room, but the center of the octagon should be in the center of the room.

You then examine the furnishings and décor of the room to see where things are OK and where things are out of balance  For example, a corner jutting into the west or southwest segments of an L-shaped room may create marriage problems. You can remedy this by hanging mirrors or wind-chimes to reflect the chi, or by partitioning the room with furniture.

Feng shui practitioners say that studying the ba-gua and learning where things are out of balance helps get one's life and life aspects more in balance. The house is considered almost like a second body, and life aspects get reflected in the energy in the house.

You can deliberately push emphasis (chi) from one segment of the octagon to another. You can enhance or calm chi with colors, fabric/materials, shapes, plants, water, and light. You can use mirrors to reflect chi from one area to another.

Cures for bad chi include, inter alia, bright lights or reflectors like mirrors or crystals; sounds like bells and wind-chimes; living objects like plants or fish; moving objects like fountains or mobiles; and heavy objects like stones and statues.

For instance, in the south, wood or wicker furniture enhances chi, while ceramic and clay calm it. To add more fortune, fame, or festivity in a room, add red candles (fire) on the southern wall or south corner. Don't put an aquarium in the southern corner, since water puts the fire out. In the south, tall thin verticals (such as tall plants) enhance chi, but avoid plants with spiky leaves, which cut chi. Wide rectangles, stripes or checks calm chi in the south. Red enhances chi in the south, while purple strengthens it and yellow calms it.

You can make connections to get more chi.  For instance, if there is a detached shed, creating a pathway from shed to house will encourage the flow of chi. Or stick a hollow tube in the ground with a light atop it to pull more chi from the earth.

The following bits of feng shui amused me. This article is long enough already, so I'm not going to indicate which examples come from which school. It's probably not good scholarship, but it makes for more interesting reading. If you care, then go and study.

  • The toilet flushes away water and chi. Thus, position the toilet away from the bathroom door, and be sure it's not reflected in a mirror. Keep the toilet closed as much as possible, and certainly when flushing. Water is identified with money, so if the toilet is not properly positioned, money will flow out of the house rather than into the house. As an aside, the term "feng shui" ("wind-water") is also used as slang to mean gambling, because money (equated to water) blows away on the wind.
  • An entry door that opens to a wall blocks the flow of chi. Facing the wall, you feel defeated and you lower your expectations. You have to move around the wall as you enter, and that affects your posture. The whole setup creates struggle rather than harmony. (I used to live in a house with such an entry, and it was certainly a struggle when guests came to get their coats into the closet.)
  • The elements have two cycles, a constructive one and a destructive one. The constructive cycle: fire burns wood to produce ash (earth), earth creates ores (metal), water condenses on the surface of metals, water nourishes growing wood, and wood fuels the fire. The negative cycle: fire melts metal, metal chops wood, wood decays to earth, earth muddies water, and water quenches fire. (I thought this idea of two rock-paper-scissors types of sequences from the same elements was one of those very cool zen things.)
  • Adding water such as a pond , bird bath, or aquarium, brings fresh chi into the area. The aquarium should be east or southeast, and you should use pebbles and shells rather than plastic decoration. Quick, aggressive fish that zip around the tank promote a more dynamic yang flow of chi, where slow, peaceful fish with muted colors produce a yin, a gentle, relaxing atmosphere. Furthermore, fish absorb accidents and bad luck. A bubbling aerator is very effective sound for relaxing chi. (You may have noticed that almost every Chinese restaurant has an aquarium.)
  • Avoid clutter. That doesn't necessarily mean being neat so much as avoiding an accumulation of bric-a-brac, objets d'art, and plain old junk. I tell my wife this all the time; perhaps now she'll believe me.
  • Electronic equipment has a negative effect on chi. Thus, position the television set away from the seating area. (In other words, don't sit too close. Western mothers have always had an intuitive sense of feng shui.)
  • Tables are interesting. A rectangular mahogany table creates lots of yang, and is best for formal dinner parties. An oval table from a soft wood like pine creates more yin, and is best for relaxing family dinners. A round glass-topped table is best for romance, while a square marble-topped table is best for business lunches.

DOES IT WORK?

That's the bottom line question, of course. Believers obviously think it works or they wouldn't bother with it; in Asia, feng shui consultants are big business. Skeptics on the other hand say it's a bunch of superstition, that "luck" is independent of furniture placement and other irrelevancies.

Many modern practitioners (especially the black hat sect) suggest a middle ground: it's possible to "encourage positive coincidences."

Up to a point, feng shui is just common sense.  Take an office. Even a cynical westerner knows that a cramped, cluttered, barren, and uncomfortable workplace can cause a feeling of discomfort or a negative attitude. That negative attitude can affect performance, and the combination of negative attitude and poor performance can affect "luck" such as raises and promotions.

Compare that to the worker who rearranges his/her workspace, adds a potted plant, and puts a large cheerful picture on the wall across from the desk. That person has a positive attitude, better performance, and lots of luck with raises and promotions.  Both the psychologist and the feng shui consultant nod their heads at this point and say, "Well, naturally."

Although feng shui is shrouded in mysticism, the practice generally reflects sound principles of interior design. Does that mean you need to accept the whole business about octagons and energy flows and so on? Of course not. But to the extent that feng shui offers a lens for examining the way in which you organize your environment, it can be a useful tool. 

RESOURCES:

There are lots and lots of books on this topic. These were the most useful and entertaining ones in my local public library:

Brown, Simon, Essential Feng Shui, Carrol & Brown Ltd, London (1997)

Birdsall, George, Feng Shui Companion, Destiny Books, Rochester VT (1995)

Chuen, Master Lam Kam, Feng Shui Handbook, Henry Holt & Co. Inc, NY, 1996

Kennedy, David Daniel, Feng Shui for Dummies

--, Feng Shui Tips for a Better Life

Rossbach, Sarah, Feng Shui - The Chinese Art of Placement, Ed Dutton, NY (1983)

--, Interior Design with Feng Shui, Penguin Books Ltd, UK (1987)

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