Feng shui (literally “wind” and “water,” and pronounced “fung shway”) is the ancient Chinese practice of positioning objects to achieve harmony. This involves assessing various factors including flows of qi and patterns of yin and yang. Things that block the flow of qi cause problems; things that allow it to flow freely are good. (I explain more about qi in the next chapter.) Feng shui masters are supposedly able to detect these good and bad metaphysical energies and prescribe actions to optimize or curtail them.
My initially favourable opinion of feng shui as a mixture of superstition, time-tested common sense, and a dash of Asian aesthetic (harmony with nature, quietness, and balance) did not survive my first real-life encounter with it. Arriving at work one day in Taiwan, I found the ground-floor office had been transformed into a coffin-like box. The sliding glass doors at the front and all the windows were boarded up with sheets of plywood. Other than a gap left at the entrance, which was so narrow you had to ease in sideways, the place was sealed up as if we were under siege or ready for fumigation.
My boss explained, “A feng shui master said we need to cover the doors and windows to stop money flowing out of the building.” The result seemed like anti-feng shui; instead of an uncluttered room with natural light and fresh air, it was dark and stuffy, and movement in and out of the office was more difficult. On the master’s insistence, costly potted plants were brought in, oversized palm trees that just made the room more claustrophobic. When the palms started dying (from a complete lack of sunlight, a cynical mind might have ventured), the feng shui expert returned and pronounced this as proof that the “qi problems” were worse than he had first thought. But not to worry — further expensive remedies were proposed.
This case is quite typical. When a business is experiencing financial distress, it is standard practice to bring in a feng shui expert who charges a basic fee and sells various aids such as mirrors that can redirect the qi.
Another of my formative impressions of feng shui came from noticing the great number of fish tanks in homes and businesses. Was Taiwan a nation of fish aficionados? Well, not apart from a fondness for seafood. I learnt that the popularity of fish tanks was due to feng shui; some aquarium owners explained that water was lucky for attracting wealth; some said it was just the fish which were lucky (because yu, the Chinese word for “fish,” sounds like the word for “abundance”), and goldfish were especially lucky. Others said both water and fish were auspicious.
As I mentioned before, I didn’t come to Taiwan with a jaundiced eye. I had thought feng shui a positive influence on Chinese art and architecture — that its emphasis on natural simplicity was a restraining counterbalance to the kind of over-decorative and gaudy impulses evident in Chinese temples. For me, the culture’s aesthetic genius was in subtleties: the upturned eaves of sloping roofs, the curving bridges, the philosophical serenity of gardens. What I discovered was that most Taiwanese and Chinese architecture, whether urban or rural, was of eye-watering ugliness — a chaos of concrete boxes, corrugated iron, and unfinished cement sides streaked with rust stains.
The truth about feng shui is that it’s not about beauty, it’s about luck, a tool for turning misfortune around. There’s nothing wrong with wanting health and money, but given my lofty expectations I found these self-centred utilitarian motivations and the crudity of methods rather disappointing. Many years later and married to the daughter of a part-time feng shui master, my low opinion of the practice hasn’t changed. (To keep my wife happy, I had better mention that her late father didn’t take money for his geomancy work — he was sincere about it and just happy to help people.)
In the West, feng shui has found a certain popularity for interior decorating, exterior landscaping, and for architectural designs. Even sceptics embrace it sometimes, hoping to broaden the appeal of properties to Asian buyers and investors. Practitioners can make a few thousand dollars a day dispensing wisdom. How private individuals choose to spend their money is their own business, but things start to get a bit murky when taxpayers have to pick up the tab. For example, in 2007 the Los Angeles Zoo hired a feng shui expert to help design an exhibit for three Chinese golden monkeys about to be loaned by China. The consultation fee to ensure the monkeys would be happy in their new home was US$4,500, not including the cost of a waterfall that was added on the expert’s recommendation. As it turned out, the Chinese cancelled the deal for unknown reasons, though it’s thought they resented the stipulation that the annual US$100,000 fee for the loan of the monkeys be spent on the conservation of that species.
There is some criticism that the feng shui we see in the West is not authentically Chinese, that it’s some kind of frivolous metrosexual version, an ancient practice debased into feng shui-lite for the house-makeover reality television mind-set. I’m not sure whether most Westerners are ready for the real thing, because we’re not talking about cutesy restyling — rearranging the furniture and throwing in a couple of Asian art features. Far from it. The Californian interpretation might be shallow, but, “We should have the sofa facing east,” sounds a lot better than, “Look, we gotta dig grandpa up and rebury him near that monkey-shaped hill.” The very heart of feng shui — the way it was practised in ancient China and the way it is practised by Chinese today — has to do with auspicious grave sites.
The positioning of graves is more important than the positioning of buildings or furniture; a well-placed fish bowl might bring you some luck but a choice of a gravesite brings either fortune or misfortune for successive generations. Feng shui and Chinese ancestor worship are intertwined. The spirit of a dead person does not pass directly to the afterlife; the lingering soul has two parts, a yin component, which remains with the body in the grave, and a yang component, which stays with the ancestral tablet. These tablets are placed on altars in family homes or in ancestral temples. Offerings are made to keep deceased family members happy and well. As with graves, positioning the tablets correctly is important. While I was writing this book, my brother-in-law moved the family altar (on which the tablets sit) in an attempt to reverse a string of bad luck. It didn’t work, and the altar was soon moved back.
Feng shui masters are sometimes involved in funeral procedures like selecting dates and overseeing funerary rites. Their work can also involve exorcism rituals to drive away evil spirits. A feng shui practitioner’s mainstay, finding grave sites, typically involves visiting various cemeteries with customers. Using a special compass and his own sensory powers, he considers the flow of qi, various manifestations of yin and yang, and the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). It’s these layers of complexity that make it necessary to hire a professional rather than just reading a DIY manual. The best sites have a view of water but are sufficiently elevated to be protected from flooding. A sheltered spot in foothills overlooking a stream, for example, would be perfect.
Being partially surrounded by hills and mountains does not only offer protection from the elements. Certain shapes — for example, a series of dragon-shaped hills — are considered lucky. Topography, however, is not a one-size-fits-all consideration; whether a particular shape is auspicious or not depends on a person’s Chinese zodiac sign and element.
There is no scientific proof for the principles upon which feng shui is based, just an abundance of anecdotal evidence. One rich vein of stories is about failing businesses that are turned around by a feng shui master’s timely intervention. A sub-genre of the basic story involves sceptical foreigners, perhaps a big multinational corporation setting up a regional headquarters. Ignoring various warnings, they build or renovate without consulting a master. Inevitably, things start going wrong — accidents, illness, and financial turmoil ensue. In desperation or perhaps just to placate the local staff, the foreign manager finally consults a feng shui practitioner. He immediately finds the problem and prescribes a solution such as rearranging furniture, minor remodelling or a strategically placing a mirror or water feature. Now, with the qi flowing nicely, the profits come rolling in.
The first comprehensive Western study of feng shui was made by Dutch Sinologist J.J.M. de Groot, who between 1892 and 1910 produced a mammoth six-volume work, The Religious System of China. He described feng shui as “an essential part of the Chinese Religion in its broadest sense,” but seemed peeved to have to cover it. He begged off explaining every detail because he felt “the cobwebs of absurd, puerile speculation, built up by the system, are hardly worthy of serious study.” De Groot saw feng shui as:
a mere chaos of childish absurdities and refined mysticism, cemented together, by sophistic reasonings, into a system, which is in reality a ridiculous caricature of science. But it is highly instructive from an ethnographical point of view…. It fully shows the dense cloud of ignorance which hovers over the whole Chinese people; it exhibits in all its nakedness the low condition of their mental culture, the fact that natural philosophy in that part of the globe is a huge mount of learning without a single trace of true knowledge in it.
Ouch! A lot of foreigners at the time had similar views. As they saw it, feng shui beliefs were impeding China’s much-needed development (and their exploitation of its resources); Chinese officials opposed railway tracks and telegraph lines because the straight lines disturbed the geomantic environment, and, in turn, ancestors’ graves. The first railway in China, a fourteen-kilometre line from Shanghai to Wusong near the mouth of the Yangtze River, commenced operation in 1876. Built by British firm Jardine, Matheson, and Co. in the face of official opposition, the railway operated for only one year. The concession of having built it in a winding pattern to cause less harm didn’t placate Chinese concerns about the disrupted feng shui. The Qing government bought the railway and tore up the tracks.
As harsh as De Groot was in calling feng shui practices “childish absurdities,” his take is closer to the mark than some current Western perceptions who see it as ancient wisdom we could learn from. It’s a pseudoscience at best, an outright fraud at worst. And it’s not even a consistent pseudoscience — there are different feng shui schools and the personal interpretations of individuals. The upshot of this is a multitude of dissimilar and contradictory outcomes. Neither is it convincing pseudoscience. Although the “cosmic energy” angle has a certain attraction, and New Agers may classify it as alternative physics, the myriad other factors — lucky numbers, lucky animal shapes, lucky words, and so on — invoked in the pursuit of harmony are mind-bogglingly primitive. To use an analogy, imagine buying a golden retriever because you thought its presence would “retrieve gold,” and that you had to keep it tied up in the southwest corner of the garden because that was the wealth-attracting area.
Those who say feng shui still has value if we strip away the more superstitious elements don’t realize we would be left with nothing, or something that is not feng shui. As for its anti-development credentials — resisting railroads and such — making it some kind of proto-ecological awareness, more’s the pity. The basic idea of considering how human actions will affect the natural world is a worthwhile one; but feng shui sensibilities haven’t stopped rampant environmental damage in China or Taiwan, nor tempered the hideousness of man’s touch upon both urban and rural landscapes. And the reason is simple: real feng shui is not, and never was, about ecology or beauty.