Feng shui

Feng shui (Chinese: 風水, pronounced [fə́ŋ.ʂwèi] (listen)), also known as Chinese geomancy, is a pseudoscience originating from ancient China, which claims to use energy forces to harmonize individuals with their surrounding environment.[1] The term feng shui literally translates as "wind-water" in English. This is a cultural shorthand taken from the passage of the now-lost Book of Burial recorded in Guo Pu's commentary:[2] Feng shui is one of the Five Arts of Chinese Metaphysics, classified as physiognomy (observation of appearances through formulas and calculations). The feng shui practice discusses architecture in terms of "invisible forces" that bind the universe, earth, and humanity together, known as qi.

Feng shui
"Feng shui" in Traditional (top) and Simplified (bottom) Chinese characters
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese風水
Simplified Chinese风水
Literal meaning"wind-water"
Vietnamese name
Vietnamesephong thủy
Thai name
Thaiฮวงจุ้ย (Huang chui)
Korean name
Japanese name
Filipino name
TagalogPungsóy, Punsóy
Khmer name
Khmerហុងស៊ុយ (hongsaouy)

Historically, feng shui was widely used to orient buildings—often spiritually significant structures such as tombs, but also dwellings and other structures—in an auspicious manner. Depending on the particular style of feng shui being used, an auspicious site could be determined by reference to local features such as bodies of water, or stars or the compass.



As of 2013 the Yangshao and Hongshan cultures provide the earliest known evidence for the use of feng shui. Until the invention of the magnetic compass, feng shui apparently relied on astronomy to find correlations between humans and the universe.[3] In 4000 BC, the doors of Banpo dwellings aligned with the asterism Yingshi just after the winter solstice—this sited the homes for solar gain.[4] During the Zhou era, Yingshi was known as Ding and used to indicate the appropriate time to build a capital city, according to the Shijing. The late Yangshao site at Dadiwan (c. 3500–3000 BC) includes a palace-like building (F901) at the center. The building faces south and borders a large plaza. It stands on a north–south axis with another building that apparently housed communal activities. Regional communities may have used the complex.[5]

A grave at Puyang (around 4000 BC) that contains mosaics— actually a Chinese star map of the Dragon and Tiger asterisms and Beidou (the Big Dipper, Ladle or Bushel)— is oriented along a north–south axis.[6] The presence of both round and square shapes in the Puyang tomb, at Hongshan ceremonial centers and at the late Longshan settlement at Lutaigang,[7] suggests that gaitian cosmography (heaven-round, earth-square) existed in Chinese society long before it appeared in the Zhoubi Suanjing.[8]

Cosmography that bears a striking resemblance to modern feng shui devices and formulas appears on a piece of jade unearthed at Hanshan and dated around 3000 BC. Archaeologist Li Xueqin links the design to the liuren astrolabe, zhinan zhen, and luopan.[9]

Beginning with palatial structures at Erlitou,[10] all capital cities of China followed rules of feng shui for their design and layout. During the Zhou era, the Kaogong ji (simplified Chinese: 考工记; traditional Chinese: 考工記; "Manual of Crafts") codified these rules. The carpenter's manual Lu ban jing (鲁班经; 魯班經; "Lu ban's manuscript") codified rules for builders. Graves and tombs also followed rules of feng shui, from Puyang to Mawangdui and beyond. From the earliest records, the structures of the graves and dwellings seem to have followed the same rules.

Early instruments and techniques

The history of feng shui covers 3,500+ years[11] before the invention of the magnetic compass. It originated in Chinese astronomy.[12] Some current techniques can be traced to Neolithic China,[13] while others were added later (most notably the Han dynasty, the Tang, the Song, and the Ming).[14]

The astronomical history of feng shui is evident in the development of instruments and techniques. According to the Zhouli, the original feng shui instrument may have been a gnomon. Chinese used circumpolar stars to determine the north–south axis of settlements. This technique explains why Shang palaces at Xiaotun lie 10° east of due north. In some of the cases, as Paul Wheatley observed, they bisected the angle between the directions of the rising and setting sun to find north.[15] This technique provided the more precise alignments of the Shang walls at Yanshi and Zhengzhou. Rituals for using a feng shui instrument required a diviner to examine current sky phenomena to set the device and adjust their position in relation to the device.[16]

The oldest examples of instruments used for feng shui are liuren astrolabes, also known as shi. These consist of a lacquered, two-sided board with astronomical sightlines. The earliest examples of liuren astrolabes have been unearthed from tombs that date between 278 BC and 209 BC. Along with divination for Da Liu Ren[17] the boards were commonly used to chart the motion of Taiyi through the nine palaces.[18] The markings on a liuren/shi and the first magnetic compasses are virtually identical.[19]

The magnetic compass was invented for feng shui[20] and has been in use since its invention. Traditional feng shui instrumentation consists of the Luopan or the earlier south-pointing spoon (指南針 zhinan zhen)—though a conventional compass could suffice if one understood the differences. A feng shui ruler (a later invention) may also be employed.

Foundational concepts

Definition and classification

The goal of feng shui as practiced today is to situate the human-built environment on spots with good qi, an imagined form of "energy". The "perfect spot" is a location and an axis in time.[21][22]

Feng shui is not a science, and is classified as a pseudoscience since it exhibits a number of classic pseudoscientific aspects such as making claims about the functioning of the world which are not amenable to testing with the scientific method.[1]

Qi (ch'i)

Qi)(pronounced "chee" in English) is a movable positive or negative life force which plays an essential role in feng shui.[24]

The Book of Burial says that burial takes advantage of "vital qi". Wu Yuanyin[25] (Qing dynasty) said that vital qi was "congealed qi", which is the state of qi that engenders life. The goal of feng shui is to take advantage of vital qi by appropriate siting of graves and structures.[22] Some people destroyed graveyards of their enemies to weaken their qi.[26][27][28][29][30]


Polarity is expressed in feng shui as yin and yang theory. Polarity expressed through yin and yang is similar to a magnetic dipole. That is, it is of two parts: one creating an exertion and one receiving the exertion. Yang acting and yin receiving could be considered an early understanding of chirality. The development of this theory and its corollary, five phase theory (five element theory), have also been linked with astronomical observations of sunspots.[31]

The Five Elements or Forces (wu xing) – which, according to the Chinese, are metal, earth, fire, water, and wood – are first mentioned in Chinese literature in a chapter of the classic Book of History. They play a very important part in Chinese thought: ‘elements’ meaning generally not so much the actual substances as the forces essential to human life.[32] Earth is a buffer, or an equilibrium achieved when the polarities cancel each other. While the goal of Chinese medicine is to balance yin and yang in the body, the goal of feng shui has been described as aligning a city, site, building, or object with yin-yang force fields.[33]

Bagua (eight trigrams)

Eight diagrams known as bagua (or pa kua) loom large in feng shui, and both predate their mentions in the Yijing (or I Ching). The Lo (River) Chart (Luoshu) was developed first,[34] and is sometimes associated with Later Heaven arrangement of the bagua. This and the Yellow River Chart (Hetu, sometimes associated with the Earlier Heaven bagua) are linked to astronomical events of the sixth millennium BC, and with the Turtle Calendar from the time of Yao.[35] The Turtle Calendar of Yao (found in the Yaodian section of the Shangshu or Book of Documents) dates to 2300 BC, plus or minus 250 years.[36]

In Yaodian, the cardinal directions are determined by the marker-stars of the mega-constellations known as the Four Celestial Animals:[36]

The diagrams are also linked with the sifang (four directions) method of divination used during the Shang dynasty.[37] The sifang is much older, however. It was used at Niuheliang, and figured large in Hongshan culture's astronomy. And it is this area of China that is linked to Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) who allegedly invented the south-pointing spoon (see compass).[38]

Traditional feng shui

Traditional feng shui is an ancient system based upon the observation of heavenly time and earthly space. The literature of ancient China, as well as archaeological evidence, provide some idea of the origins and nature of the original feng shui techniques.

Form Branch

The Form Branch is the oldest branch of feng shui. Qing Wuzi in the Han dynasty describes it in the "Book of the Tomb"[39] and Guo Pu of the Jin dynasty follows up with a more complete description in The Book of Burial.

The Form branch was originally concerned with the location and orientation of tombs (Yin House feng shui), which was of great importance.[21] The branch then progressed to the consideration of homes and other buildings (Yang House feng shui).

The "form" in Form branch refers to the shape of the environment, such as mountains, rivers, plateaus, buildings, and general surroundings. It considers the five celestial animals (phoenix, green dragon, white tiger, black turtle, and the yellow snake), the yin-yang concept and the traditional five elements (Wu Xing: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water).

The Form branch analyses the shape of the land and flow of the wind and water to find a place with ideal qi.[40] It also considers the time of important events such as the birth of the resident and the building of the structure.

Compass Branch

The Compass branch is a collection of more recent feng shui techniques based on the eight cardinal directions, each of which is said to have unique qi. It uses the Luopan, a disc marked with formulas in concentric rings around a magnetic compass.[41][42][43]

The Compass Branch includes techniques such as Flying Star and Eight Mansions.

Transmission of traditional feng shui techniques

Aside from the books written throughout history by feng shui masters and students, there is also a strong oral history. In many cases, masters have passed on their techniques only to selected students or relatives.[44]

Current usage of traditional branches

There is no contemporary agreement that one of the traditional branches is most correct. Therefore, modern practitioners of feng shui generally draw from multiple branches in their own practices.

Western forms of feng shui

More recent forms of feng shui simplify principles that come from the traditional branches, and focus mainly on the use of the bagua.

Aspirations Method

The Eight Life Aspirations style of feng shui is a simple system which coordinates each of the eight cardinal directions with a specific life aspiration or station such as family, wealth, fame, etc., which come from the Bagua government of the eight aspirations. Life Aspirations is not otherwise a geomantic system.

List of specific feng shui branches

Ti Li (Form Branch)

  • Luan Tou Pai, 巒頭派, Pinyin: luán tóu pài, (environmental analysis without using a compass)
  • Xing Xiang Pai, 形象派 or 形像派, Pinyin: xíng xiàng pài, (Imaging forms)
  • Xingfa Pai, 形法派, Pinyin: xíng fǎ pài

Liiqi Pai (Compass Branch)

San Yuan Method, 三元派 (Pinyin: sān yuán pài)

  • Dragon Gate Eight Formation, 龍門八法 (Pinyin: lóng mén bā fǎ)
  • Xuan Kong, 玄空 (time and space methods)
  • Xuan Kong Fei Xing 玄空飛星 (Flying Stars methods of time and directions)
  • Xuan Kong Da Gua, 玄空大卦 ("Secret Decree" or 64 gua relationships)
  • Xuan Kong Mi Zi, 玄空秘旨 (Mysterious Space Secret Decree)
  • Xuan Kong Liu Fa, 玄空六法 (Mysterious Space Six Techniques)
  • Zi Bai Jue, 紫白诀 (Purple White Scroll)

San He Method, 三合派 (environmental analysis using a compass)

  • Accessing Dragon Methods
  • Ba Zhai, 八宅 (Eight Mansions)
  • Yang Gong Feng Shui, 杨公风水
  • Water Methods, 河洛水法
  • Local Embrace


  • Yin House Feng Shui, 阴宅风水 (Feng Shui for the deceased)
  • Four Pillars of Destiny, 四柱命理 (a form of hemerology)
  • Zi Wei Dou Shu, 紫微斗数 (Purple Star Astrology)
  • I-Ching, 易经 (Book of Changes)
  • Qi Men Dun Jia, 奇门遁甲 (Mysterious Door Escaping Techniques)
  • Da Liu Ren, 大六壬 (Divination: Big Six Heavenly Yang Water Qi)
  • Tai Yi Shen Shu, 太乙神数 (Divination: Tai Yi Magical Calculation Method)
  • Date Selection, 择日 (Selection of auspicious dates and times for important events)
  • Chinese Palmistry, 掌相学 (Destiny reading by palm reading)
  • Chinese Face Reading, 面相学 (Destiny reading by face reading)
  • Major & Minor Wandering Stars (Constellations)
  • Five phases, 五行 (relationship of the five phases or wuxing)
  • BTB Black (Hat) Tantric Buddhist Sect (Westernised or Modern methods not based on Classical teachings)
  • Symbolic Feng Shui, (New Age Feng Shui methods that advocate substitution with symbolic (spiritual, appropriate representation of five elements) objects if natural environment or object/s is/are not available or viable)
  • Pierce Method of Feng Shui ( Sometimes Pronounced : Von Shway ) The practice of melding striking with soothing furniture arrangements to promote peace and prosperity

Contemporary uses of traditional feng shui

  • Landscape ecologists often find traditional feng shui an interesting study.[45] In many cases, the only remaining patches of old forest in Asia are "feng shui woods",[46] associated with cultural heritage, historical continuity, and the preservation of various flora and fauna species.[47] Some researchers interpret the presence of these woods as indicators that the "healthy homes",[48] sustainability[49] and environmental components of ancient feng shui should not be easily dismissed.[50][51]
  • Environmental scientists and landscape architects have researched traditional feng shui and its methodologies.[52][53][54]
  • Architects study feng shui as an ancient and uniquely Asian architectural tradition.[55][56][57][58]
  • Geographers have analyzed the techniques and methods to help locate historical sites in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada,[59] and archaeological sites in the American Southwest, concluding that ancient Native Americans also considered astronomy and landscape features.[60]


Traditional feng shui

Traditional feng shui relies upon the compass to give accurate readings.[61][62] However, critics point out that the compass degrees are often inaccurate as fluctuations caused by solar winds have the ability to greatly disturb the electromagnetic field of the earth.[63] Determining a property or site location based upon Magnetic North will result in inaccuracies because true magnetic north fluctuates.[64]

Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), one of the founding fathers of Jesuit China missions, may have been the first European to write about feng shui practices. His account in De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas... tells about feng shui masters (geologi, in Latin) studying prospective construction sites or grave sites "with reference to the head and the tail and the feet of the particular dragons which are supposed to dwell beneath that spot". As a Catholic missionary, Ricci strongly criticized the "recondite science" of geomancy along with astrology as yet another superstitio absurdissima of the heathens: "What could be more absurd than their imagining that the safety of a family, honors, and their entire existence must depend upon such trifles as a door being opened from one side or another, as rain falling into a courtyard from the right or from the left, a window opened here or there, or one roof being higher than another?".[65]

Victorian-era commentators on feng shui were generally ethnocentric, and as such skeptical and derogatory of what they knew of feng shui.[66] In 1896, at a meeting of the Educational Association of China, Rev. P.W. Pitcher railed at the "rottenness of the whole scheme of Chinese architecture," and urged fellow missionaries "to erect unabashedly Western edifices of several stories and with towering spires in order to destroy nonsense about fung-shuy".[67]

After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, feng shui was officially considered a "feudalistic superstitious practice" and a "social evil" according to the state's ideology and was discouraged and even banned outright at times.[68][69] Feng shui remained popular in Hong Kong, and also in the Republic of China (Taiwan), where traditional culture was not suppressed.[70]

Persecution was the most severe during the Cultural Revolution, when feng shui was classified as a custom under the so-called Four Olds to be wiped out. Feng shui practitioners were beaten and abused by Red Guards and their works burned. After the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the official attitude became more tolerant but restrictions on feng shui practice are still in place in today's China. It is illegal in the PRC today to register feng shui consultation as a business and similarly advertising feng shui practice is banned. There have been frequent crackdowns on feng shui practitioners on the grounds of "promoting feudalistic superstitions" such as one in Qingdao in early 2006 when the city's business and industrial administration office shut down an art gallery converted into a feng shui practice.[71] Some communist officials who had previously consulted feng shui were terminated and expelled from the Communist Party.[72]

Partly because of the Cultural Revolution, in today's mainland China less than one-third of the population believe in feng shui, and the proportion of believers among young urban Chinese is said to be much lower[73] Learning feng shui is still somewhat considered taboo in today's China.[74][75][76] Nevertheless, it is reported that feng shui has gained adherents among Communist Party officials according to a BBC Chinese news commentary in 2006,[77] and since the beginning of Chinese economic reforms the number of feng shui practitioners is increasing. A number of Chinese academics permitted to research on the subject of feng shui are anthropologists or architects by profession, studying the history of feng shui or historical feng shui theories behind the design of heritage buildings, such as Cao Dafeng, the Vice-President of Fudan University,[78] and Liu Shenghuan of Tongji University.

Contemporary feng shui

Westerners were criticized at the start of the anti-Western Boxer Rebellion for violating the basic principles of feng shui in the construction of railroads and other conspicuous public structures throughout China. However, today, feng shui is practiced not only by the Chinese, but also by Westerners and still criticized by Christians around the world. Many modern Christians have an opinion of feng shui similar to that of their predecessors:[79]

It is entirely inconsistent with Christianity to believe that harmony and balance result from the manipulation and channeling of nonphysical forces or energies, or that such can be done by means of the proper placement of physical objects. Such techniques, in fact, belong to the world of sorcery.[80]

Still others are simply skeptical of feng shui. Evidence for its effectiveness is based primarily upon anecdote and users are often offered conflicting advice from different practitioners. Feng shui practitioners use these differences as evidence of variations in practice or different branches of thought. Critical analysts have described it thus: "Feng shui has always been based upon mere guesswork".[81][82] Some are skeptical of feng shui's lasting impact.

This present state of affairs is ludicrous and confusing. Do we really believe that mirrors and flutes are going to change people's tendencies in any lasting and meaningful way? ... There is a lot of investigation that needs to be done or we will all go down the tubes because of our inability to match our exaggerated claims with lasting changes.[83]

Nonetheless, after Richard Nixon journeyed to the People's Republic of China in 1972, feng shui became marketable in the United States and has since been reinvented by New Age entrepreneurs for Western consumption. Critics of contemporary feng shui are concerned that with the passage of time much of the theory behind it has been lost in translation, not paid proper consideration, frowned upon, or even scorned. Robert T. Carroll sums up what feng shui has become in some instances:

...feng shui has become an aspect of interior decorating in the Western world and alleged masters of feng shui now hire themselves out for hefty sums to tell people such as Donald Trump which way his doors and other things should hang. Feng shui has also become another New Age "energy" scam with arrays of metaphysical products...offered for sale to help you improve your health, maximize your potential, and guarantee fulfillment of some fortune cookie philosophy.[84]

Others have noted how, when feng shui is not applied properly, it can even harm the environment, such as was the case of people planting "lucky bamboo" in ecosystems that could not handle them.[85]

Feng shui practitioners in China find superstitious and corrupt officials easy prey, despite official disapproval. In one instance, in 2009, county officials in Gansu, on the advice of feng shui practitioners, spent $732,000 to haul a 369-ton "spirit rock" to the county seat to ward off "bad luck."[86]

The stage magician duo Penn and Teller dedicated an episode of their Bullshit! television show to criticise the construal of contemporary practice of feng shui in the Western world as science. In this episode, they devised a test in which the same dwelling was visited by five different feng shui consultants, all five producing different opinions about said dwelling, by which means it was attempted to show there is no consistency in the professional practice of feng shui.

Contemporary practice

Many Asians, especially people of Chinese descent, believe it is important to live a prosperous and healthy life as evident by the popularity of Fu Lu Shou in the Chinese communities. Many of the higher-level forms of feng shui are not easily practiced without having connections in the community or a certain amount of wealth because hiring an expert, altering architecture or design, and moving from place to place requires a significant financial outlay. This leads some people of the lower classes to lose faith in feng shui, saying that it is only a game for the wealthy.[87] Others, however, practice less expensive forms of feng shui, including hanging special (but cheap) mirrors, forks, or woks in doorways to deflect negative energy.[88]

In recent years, a new brand of easier-to-implement DIY Feng Shui known as Symbolic Feng Shui, which is popularized by best-selling author Lillian Too, is being practised by Feng Shui enthusiasts. It entails placements of auspicious (and preferably aesthetically pleasing) Five Element objects, such as Money God and tortoise, at various locations of the house so as to achieve a pleasing and substitute-alternative Productive-Cycle environment if a good natural environment is not already present or is too expensive to build and implement.

Feng shui is so important to some strong believers, that they use it for healing purposes (although there is no empirical evidence that this practice is in any way effective) in addition to guide their businesses and create a peaceful atmosphere in their homes,[89] in particular in the bedroom where a number of techniques involving colours and arrangement are used to achieve enhanced comfort and more peaceful sleep. In 2005, even Disney acknowledged feng shui as an important part of Chinese culture by shifting the main gate to Hong Kong Disneyland by twelve degrees in their building plans, among many other actions suggested by the master planner of architecture and design at Walt Disney Imagineering, Wing Chao, in an effort to incorporate local culture into the theme park.[90]

At Singapore Polytechnic and other institutions, many working professionals from various disciplines (including engineers, architects, property agents and interior designers) take courses on feng shui and divination every year with a number of them becoming part-time or full-time feng shui (or geomancy) consultants eventually.[91]

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Further reading

  • Ernest John Eitel (1878). Feng-shui: or, The rudiments of natural science in China. Hongkong: Lane, Crawford. Retrieved 2011-07-06.
  • Koch, Aaron Lee (2014). Feng Shui Q&A. 8 Feng Shui Publishing. ISBN 978-1-312-61845-9.
  • Bruun, Ole (1995). "Fengshui and the Chinese Perception of Nature". In Bruun, Ole; Kalland, Arne (eds.). Asian Perceptions of Nature: A Critical Approach. Surrey: Curzon. pp. 173–88.
  • Bruun, Ole (2008). An Introduction to Feng Shui. Cambridge University Press.
  • Bruun, Ole (2003). Fengshui in China: Geomantic Divination between State Orthodoxy and Popular Religion. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 9788791114793.
  • Yoon, Hong-key (2006). Culture of Fengshui in Korea: An Exploration of East Asian Geomancy. Lexington Books.
  • Xie, Shan Shan (2008). Chinese Geographic Feng Shui Theories and Practices. National Multi-Attribute Institute Publishing. ISBN 978-1-59261-004-4.
  • Charvatova, I.; Klokocnik, J.; Kolmas, J.; Kostelecky, J. (2011). "Chinese tombs oriented by a compass: Evidence from paleomagnetic changes versus the age of tombs". Studia Geophysica et Geodaetica. 55 (1): 159–74. doi:10.1007/s11200-011-0009-2.
  • Chen, X.; Wu, J. (2009). "Sustainable landscape architecture: Implications of the Chinese philosophy of 'unity of man with nature' and beyond". Landscape Ecology. 24 (8): 1015–26. doi:10.1007/s10980-009-9350-z.
  • Lacroix, R.; Stamatiou, E. (2006). "Feng shui and spatial planning for a better quality of life". WSEAS Transactions on Environment and Development. 2 (5): 578–83. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/290374661.
  • Kereszturi, A.; Sik, A. (2000). "Feng-shui on mars; history of geomorphological effects of water and wind" (PDF). Abstracts of Papers Submitted to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. 31. abstr. no. 1216.
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