We owe the Chinese a great deal: we have their fertile minds to thank for the compass, printing, paper money, gunpowder, the rectangular wooden coffin, fireworks, tea, noodles, rice cultivation, forensic entomology, toilet paper and more recently the electronic cigarette. That is an impressive roll call, especially when you consider how incomplete this list is and how early they came up with many of these inventions. However, there is a Chinese legacy which I find less inspiring. I have already done my secret history of acupuncture. Today I want to look at feng shui, the so-called science of arranging buildings, objects, space and life to achieve harmony and balance.
Feng shui literally translates from Chinese as “wind” (feng) and water (“shui”). Feng shui, like acupuncture, sees the world as driven by unseen forces. It is necessary to “unblock” the way, so the forces can flow freely and create balance in a space. The first actual use of the word “feng shui” is in the Burial Book from the Chin dynasty (265-420 B.C.). The phrase varies in pronunciation: It’s “foong swee” in Cantonese and “fong schway” in Mandarin.
However, it may not actually be Chinese, as India can also lay claim to the origin of feng shui. Archaeologists have discovered evidence that about 5,500 years ago, Indian mystics practiced vastu shastra, literally translated as building science. It shows how to design and construct buildings, houses and cities. Followers of vastu believe that every building is a living organism with its own energy, and they study the effects of the five elements — earth, water, fire, air and space — on the world around them. According to some historians, about 3,000 years ago, Indian monks crossed through Tibet and into China bringing vastu shastra with them. The Chinese adopted and adapted Vastu principles, which subsequently evolved into the various schools of feng shui. But, those who favour the Chinese origin claim they can trace feng shui’s origins to village gravesites that date as far back as 6000 B.C. Who is right? We have to remember that these two countries have nuclear weapons and that this dispute could get very ugly indeed. Having said that I am more worried about the decades-old dispute between Australia and New Zealand over the pavlova dessert.
Tools and concepts
I need to give a bit of background to feng shui. First is the concept of Xi (Chi), the term for the universal energy, or the energy that permeates everything around us. In feng shui term it refers to the energy inside your body, as well to the energy inside and outside of buildings.
Then we have the five elements through which chi moves:
- Earth (rocks, ceramics)
- Fire (candles, fireplaces)
- Metal (electronics, silver picture frames)
- Water (fountains, aquariums)
- Wood (living plant or tree — dead wood, like furniture, doesn’t count)
And finally we have the bagua one of the main tools used to analyze the energy of spaces in homes, offices or gardens. It is an energy map of your space that shows you which areas of your home are connected to specific areas of your life.
There are plenty of variations of feng shui, but here are three of the most important schools:
The Form School, which is often called “classic feng shui”, originated in southern China and is the oldest of the three. The rugged typography of this region of provided the inspiration for finding the most propitious sites for dwellings and burial sites using a combination of meteorology, geography and geology. It was a way for people who lived in the mountainous regions of China to protect their dwellings from the harsh winds and ever-present danger of floods.
Northern China’s Compass School is based on orientation. It is the most complicated as it requires a feng shui compass, Chinese astrology and mathematics. As the Chinese migrated from the mountains to other areas of China that were less hazardous new methods emerged. The Compass School places importance on the compass directions, a person’s birth date along with favourable and unfavourable directions.
Finally we have the most recent and easiest incarnation, the Black Hat sect, founded by Professor Thomas Lin Yun in the 1980s. It is the most intuitive for beginners who want to feng shui their house. Black Sect is concerned mainly with the interior of a building. The bagua is oriented to the entrance. Each of the eight sectors of the bagua represents a particular area of one’s life. This simplified version seems to be feng shui lite.
It seems to have myriad applications, which you can see by looking online you can find services promising to feng shui your car, hair, garage, toilet and even your partner. Donald Trump, Madonna, Tommy Hilfiger, Bill Gates, Sharon Stone, Steven Speilberg and the former cricketer Geoffrey Boycott are all said to be fans. Many companies have also jumped on the bandwagon. I suppose that western firms doing business in Asia may well have to play along with what is a cherished tradition.
Hong Kong Disneyland
Before opening Hong Kong Disneyland in 2005, the multinational hired a local feng shui master. A piece from The Disneyland Report describes how feng shui was implemented. Here are some of the features:
Hong Kong Disneyland’s main gate and entrance was positioned in a north/south direction for good luck based on the ancient Chinese art of Feng Shui.
Hong Kong Disneyland was carefully positioned on Lantau Island in Penny’s Bay among the surrounding hills and sea for the best luck. The lucky feng shui hill formations in the area include “white tiger” and “green dragon.”
The actual Hong Kong Disneyland Park entrance was modified to maximize energy and guest flow. This would help the park’s success.
Large rocks are placed throughout Hong Kong Disneyland Park because they represent stability in feng shui. Two boulders have been placed within the park, and each Disney hotel in the resort has a feng shui rock in its entrance and courtyard or pool areas. The boulders also prevent good fortune from flowing away from the theme park or hotels.
A bend was put in a walkway near the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort entrance so good “chi” energy doesn’t flow into the South China Sea.
2,238 crystal lotuses decorate the Chinese restaurant at the Disneyland Hotel because the numbers sound like the phrase “easily generate wealth” in Cantonese.
The main ballroom at the Disneyland Hotel at the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort is 888 square meters, because 888 is a “wealthy” number.
The elevators at Hong Kong Disneyland Resort do not have the number four, and no building (including the Hong Kong Disneyland hotels) has a fourth floor. The number four is considered unlucky in Chinese culture because it sounds like the Chinese word for death.
Red is an extremely lucky colour in Chinese culture, so it is seen frequently throughout the park, especially on the buildings on Main Street, USA.
No clocks are sold at the stores in Hong Kong Disneyland because in Chinese the phrase “giving clock” sounds like “going to a funeral.”
No green hats are sold in Hong Kong Disneyland stores because it is said in Chinese culture that a man wearing a green hat is cheating on his wife.
The bleeding obvious
Michael Shermer, publisher and editor in chief of Skeptic magazine has argued that it’s not completely bogus:
“Obviously, there are ways to structure rooms, the interiors of buildings and so on to help make these more efficient, easier to walk through, to make them feel better psychologically.” A lot of this is just common sense. Our lives can be affected by our physical and emotional environment. Feng Shui practitioners have been able to tap into some basic facets of human perception or aesthetic appreciation. It is a good idea to keep your home clean, reduce clutter, have beautiful decoration and live in harmony with nature. But these practitioners are right for the wrong reasons; there is no such force as Xi – feng shui is simply superstition and consumer psychology dressed up as ancient wisdom.
What’s more practitioners want to give it a scientific air by linking the traditional conceptions and terminology of the practice with the lexicon of modern day quantum physics. James Randi, another magician and sceptic has pointed out how they will invoke the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, quarks or a quantum effect to give to make it sound better.
Impossible to parody
It’s very difficult to parody this stuff. On her website Karen Rauch Carter, a professional feng shui consultant tells us how to feng shui the toilet.
There are many ways to counterbalance a toilet so vital energy does not escape by being flushed away from a feng shui standpoint. Here are some ways using traditional cures:
1. Run a line of red (anything red will do) around the outgoing pipe with intentions of not allowing any vital energy from being flushed away. The problem with this fix is that sometimes it is hard to disguise the red. So, let me give you some alternatives to this:
2. Place a mirror face up on top of the toilet tank with intentions of deflecting vital chi back up instead of allowing it to be pulled down and flushed away. The mirror can be sitting there alone, or something decorative can even be sitting on it. Another alternative is to open the tank lid and place the mirror on the bottom of the tank inside (under water) with intentions of deflecting the water energy upwards, and not allowing vital chi to “go down the drain.” I’d recommend at least a 4″ diameter one, or use multiple smaller ones if that does not fit inside or on top of your tank easily.
3. Hang a crystal above the toilet or in the centre of the bathroom ceiling with intentions of dispersing the energy before it has the capacity to congregate over the toilet and get flushed away. Any round, multi-faceted crystal will do (I’m not talking about a natural stone here, but instead, a leaded glass crystal.) I’d recommend a minimum of a 30 mm one.
4. Hang a large wind chime the same as the crystal. I personally prefer the crystals because they are more visually discreet, but either one will do.
I do recommend that you watch the episode of Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! in which the two eccentric magicians deconstruct this dubious Chinese art. They call in three feng shui experts to rearrange furniture in the same Californian house. Although feng shui is supposed to be a science, each of the three “experts” comes up with completely different arrangements of furniture. The first expert said that the red sofa was bad for the family – she mentioned several health problems that would result. Then the second one said red was “absolutely perfect”. Does this prove that feng shui is bullshit? Well no, of course not. Penn and Teller’s show is about entertainment, which it does very well. It’s knockabout stuff. The sample size is too small. But it’s not the job of Penn & Teller or anyone else to prove that feng shui is bullshit. If it is a science, then it is the proponents of feng shui who have to show that it works. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Evidence for its effectiveness appears to be based solely on anecdotes. There is also a lack of a credible methodology. As Penn points out on the video, if the practitioners could demonstrate or measure the Qi force they claim to be able to direct, they’d win a Nobel Prize for Physics. But that would be far less lucrative than what they’re doing. What we see is the conflicting advice you see in Bullshit! I’m convinced that many of the effects are merely placebos. However, I would be interested to know if ay serious scientific studies have been carried out.
Call me closed minded if you will, but I subscribe to that famous quote popularised by Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins:
“By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.” Don’t be hoodwinked by superstition masquerading as oriental wisdom. I realise that feng shui itself is pretty harmless, but I think we need to oppose this kind of sloppy thinking.