In a world where much of how we live our lives is dictated by current trends in society, many of us follow ideas that we understand little about. A phrase that is commonly thrown around in the realm of home renovations is “feng shui”.
But how much of the traditional feng shui concepts have carried through to this current era of commercialization? Is there any logic to this ancient Chinese geomancy or is it merely an appropriated trend used by designers and architects to rachet up their wages?
Feng Shui and Qi: Inextricably Linked
The ancient Chinese art of feng shui, which translates as “wind and water,” can be viewed as a type of Chinese geomancy. According to the theory, feng shui harmonizes people with their surroundings by utilizing cosmic energy. This belief’s central source of special cosmic energy is known as Qi.
This cosmic current uses water and landscape direction to flow through places and structures. Having an in-depth understanding of Qi can be harnessed and used to improve one’s happiness, wealth, and health among many other things. Similar to ying-yang, another Chinese concept revolving around balance, Qi also centers itself around the duality of positive and negative and how we can move forces to create more desirable outcomes.
Believed to have its roots planted in Taoism, feng shui has been reported to go as far back as the Chinese Neolithic Period, approximately 3,500 years ago, before being later developed during the infamous Han Dynasty. Upon discovery of Banpo, a Neolithic settlement slightly east of Xi-an, China, archaeologists found the remains of dwellings dating back to 4,000BC which (they claimed) had been ordered according to the teachings of feng shui.
To understand how this archeological site was constructed we must look at the Book of the Burial, written in the 4th or 5th- century AD by mystic Taoist Guo Pu. In this text Guo Pu wrote about the Form Branch. The Form Branch is today consiodered to be the oldest branch of feng shui.
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This foundational branch focused on three elements that needed to be present when constructing tombs, buildings, and cities. The first was ying-yang; the understanding that everything lived in inseparable duality, female-male or light-dark, in essence, balance.
The second core element necessary was the use of the five-element forces. Water, earth, metal, fire, and wood were to be combined and mixed, an essential for human life.
The final element considered were the Four Auspicious Beasts: the Azure Dragon of the East, the White Tiger of the West, The Vermilion Bird of the South, and the Black Tortoise of the North. Each creature associated with a cardinal direction as well as color, emotion, season, and virtue.
When all three core elements are considered and implemented then space could be embraced and protected in the best possible way.
Archaeologists excavating the ruins at Banpo were quick to notice that in accordance with the winter solstice all the doors of the buildings are all aligned for solar gain. Amongst this, there were other indications to prove that the Neolithic settlers had followed the form branch.
External Balance leads to Internal Balance
By implementing the three concepts, one hoped to orient buildings, tombs, temples, and places of spiritual or personal significance in search of the “perfect spot” in both its location but also axis in time. This perfect spot allows Qi to move through spaces with ease, thus allowing “the breath of cosmic life” to power all living organisms in and around it.
Before the magnetic compass was conceived, builders used an astronomical device called a gnomon to dictate north and south. Then in 206 BC, the Chinese invented the compass to use for military and naval navigation, land and sea (wind and fire). This duality was noticed by practitioners of feng shui and before long the gnomon was replaced with the magnetic compass, creating the contemporary compass branch of feng shui.
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In later years questions were raised regarding the accuracy of compasses because they have no ability to read fluctuations in the magnetic field. The magnetosphere (magnetic energy field) is central in the concepts of qi, and the inability of compasses to read these fluctuations cast doubt over the whole theory.
The New Age and Feng Shui
Within contemporary China feng shui is still considered crucial in construction. Simply looking at every big city in the nation one can notice how the concepts of ancient art are employed.
The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) building intentionally has an open clear space in front of it. Giving employees a direct view of a body of water (one of the five elements) is believed to higher their chances of success. In 2005, Hong Kong Disney paid homage to feng shui when they altered their building plans and shifted the main gate a mere twelve degrees in order to maximize its success.
As with many ancient concepts feng shui eventually made its way over to the Western world, whether it’s been appropriated or respected is a topic of much debate. Many claim it has been commercialized or that it’s a pseudoscience. Sadly, in the majority of causes the ideas of feng shui that has been mishandled and lost in translation.
In 2012 scholar Louis Komjathy, wrote a book titled “Feng Shui (Geomancy)” where he asserts that, “feng shui tends to be reduced to interior design for health and wealth. It has become increasingly visible through ‘feng shui consultants’ and corporate architects, who charge large sums of money for their analysis, advice, and design.”
So, does feng shui work? In the end that is still up for conjecture. Is it really the cosmic force of Qi flowing through time and space that is generating success for the living? Or is it the power of belief which, combined with pleasing and harmonious surroundings, infects its believers and leads them to create their own positive success?
Top Image: The Han Dynasty city of Feng, built to allow Qi to pass free from obstruction according to the principles of Feng Shui. Source: Qing Court Artists / Public Domain.
By Roisin Everard
National Geographic, 2022. Feng Shui. Available at: https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/feng-shui
Academic, 2022. Feng Shui: The Wind and Water. Available at: https://academic.mu.edu/meissnerd/samson.html
Feng Shui Society, 2022. History of Feng Shui. Available at: https://www.fengshuisociety.org.uk/history-of-feng-shui/