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Real Feng-Shui or Feng-Shui Lite?

by Yau-Man Chan, Dec 07 2008

One of the hazards of being a Chinese in the San Francisco Bay Areas is that I frequently get asked to give advice about Feng-Shui. Feng-Shui is perhaps one of the most virulent strain of pseudoscience from the East that has attached itself firmly to the New Age Movement and adopted by many noveau rich of the Silicon Valley and Napa Valley who seem to have an affection for all things associated with Ancient Eastern philosophy or mysticism. I have been at gatherings where the conversation revolves around business successes attributed to good Feng-Shui and bad business outcomes or a failed startup vineyard or venture was blamed on the principals’ willful ignorance of the “fundamentals” of Feng-Shui when designing their corporate headquarters.

Feng-Shui, which literally means “Wind” and “Water”, is the belief that every location has a natural vital energy force “qi” (pronounced as chi) and building and furnishings must be laid out in such a way as to be in harmony with this qi. I’ll leave it to my readers to Google “Feng Shui” to learn all about the history and the intricacies of this very well developed pseudoscience. When you do, pay special attention to how the defenders of Feng-Shui try to define the meaning of qi and justify its existence.

There are really two very different variation of Feng Shui. The first is the kind most people are familiar with and which irks practitioners of “Real” Feng Shui – it’s what I call “Feng-Shui lite.” Feng-Shui lite does not require any belief in qi or any other associated mambo-jumbo. This is the Feng-Shui of the popular press in the US and what most people are really referring to when they talk Feng-Shui. It’s the common sense wisdom about how to position your furniture in your rooms for health and prosperity; how to decorate your office and reception area, where to place a potted plant etc. if you want your business to be successful and have good health to boot! Up to a point, even skeptics like me have no problem with this. It certainly does not take a Harvard MBA to understand that if your place of business is decorated appropriate to your line of business and your reception area or meeting rooms are warm, comfortable and welcoming, you probably will make a better impression on your prospects and customers. Any successfully restaurant owner can attest to that fact that other than good food, a well laid out dinning room with comfortable chairs and eye-pleasing décor will attract returning customers. If your business is successful, you’ll probably be less stressed out and more likely be in better health!

A typical Baqua - for English speaking users

But, no, that’s not it. That’s not what Feng-Shui is all about, say the true believers. “Real” Feng-Shui, they claim has nothing to do with consumer psychology. What they are claiming is that “real” Feng-Shui is a very well developed set of rules of how to align physical objects to be in harmony with the qi lines of the earth. They claim that it is a “science” in its own right. “Real” Feng Shui practitioners who claim to have studied the subject and learned the tools of the trade will be able to really divine the most optimum way to orient buildings, locate the doorways, place furniture and grow the right tree or bush to ensure success for the business, good fortune, health and career success for the occupant of buildings so laid out. In cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, no architect will start locating a building on a site without first consulting a Feng-Shui master. It has been pointed out to me that lately, some architects and builders in North American cities like Vancouver, Toronto, San Francisco and Los Angeles are beginning to hire Feng-Shui consultants if they have any Chinese investor in their development project or if they think they may have a chance to sell the property to Chinese buyers. These Feng-Shui consultants do not come cheap – a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars for consultation fee is not uncommon. They come armed with a “bagua” – a measuring instrument to help lend Feng-Shui some “scientific” validation. You can find many images of the bagua on the net – but the “real” ones used by the highly paid consultants usually come with a small compass in the middle (where most amateur models will have the yin-yang symbol) for more precise alignment of the room, building, garden with the perceived qi of the locale to achieve optimal harmony. In addition, in high profile development projects (such as the recently completed Taipei 101 skyscraper in Taipei, Taiwan) the initial on-site consultation comes with no small amount of pomp and ceremony, complete with the highly paid Feng-Shui Master dressed in Qing Dynasty silk robe – like he just walked off the set of The Last Emperor! (I have never met a woman Feng-Shui consultant but my true believer friends and relatives assured me that there is no proscription against females from partaking in this lucrative profession.) The Feng-Shui consultant is usually respectfully referred to and addressed as Mr. Feng-Shui.

Now, for the uninitiated, you may wonder why all the fuss. Isn’t there a set of rules, or better yet, well established formulae on how to layout a building, room or garden courtyard? Surely after a few thousand years, shouldn’t there be just a look up table or a massive reference manual that any architect or land developer can refer to? “Well, just because you have a Physician’s Desk Manual doesn’t mean you can practice medicine” a kindly Mr. Feng-Shui once explained to me. (He’s a good friend of my mom, and with a degree in civil engineering, he worked for a large multinational construction company before deciding to take up Feng- Shui consulting full time.) “Real Feng-Shui is very complicated and requires many years of studies and hands on training to acquire the competence to be a consultant. And like Traditional Chinese Medicine, understanding Taoism is necessary to understanding Feng-Shui.” He then went on to explain how when he is on site, he “reads” and “feels” the qi lines of force, take note of the nearby hill and streams, prevailing wind directions and other building that may affect the qi flow and then try to predict how the new building will change the overall qi pattern. Really? Really! In an urban setting, it is important to note who your business neighbors are; how the buildings across the street look like, where their front doors open to etc. Some businesses are particularly troublesome – casinos, funeral parlors and business using sharp instruments (butcher shops, workshop etc) have “killer qi” and may affect an otherwise normal qi flow. So, he is trained to “see” how all these factors affect the qi of the area and the resulting qi flow and how the harmony with the occupants will be affected in the new building or a building being renovated. Readers are definitely welcome to imagine me rolling my eyes while he was explaining this to me!

So, does Feng-Shui work? Well practitioners all have their anecdotal stories and the popular press in Asia publishes them uncritically for their believing readership. My classmates and relatives who live in Hong Kong and Singapore delight in frequently emailing to Feng-Shui infidels like me many “success” stories. They all have the same story arc. Here’s a typical “see-it-works!” Feng-Shui story. Some big multinational company (always headquartered in USA, Germany or UK and run by unbelievers) decided to set up a regional headquarter in Singapore (or Hong Kong, or Taipei – pick one) They bought or leased a building, gutted the inside and renovated it without consulting with a Mr. Feng Shui despite pleas by the local staff who obviously knew better. As predicted, after the company moved in, things started to go wrong. Either the staff got sick a lot or the business performance was abysmal. Then the regional boss wised up and hired Mr. Feng Shui to take a look. In one version, the remedy was as simple as hanging a mirror at some strategic location in the front lobby to deflect bad qi emitting from across the street. In more involved versions, Mr. Fung Shui recommended that the front door should be moved a few feet to the South, turn the receptionist desk to face a different direction, convert the lobby restrooms into janitor closets to stop good qi from escaping down the drains, relocate the boss’s office to a different floor and to the opposite corner of the building, change the décor of the conference room etc., etc. Voila! A few million dollars of renovations and $25K to Mr. Feng Shui (payment always wrapped in a red envelope) and the company reported a profit the following quarter. It’s amazing how many such similar stories are circulated in Asian financial centers. The details may differ, but it’s the same story line every time.

While many Chinese in modern Asia may be eschewing Tradition Chinese Medicine in favor of evident-based Western medicine, the belief in the efficacy of Feng-Shui is still firmly entrenched in their psyche.  What I don’t get is how these believers don’t see the inherent dissonance in their thinking.  Many business tycoons have business degrees from the best business schools in the US, UK and Canada.  They send their children to learn from the best (Haas, Sloan, Wharton, Harvard etc) to make sure their business remain competitive and thrive.  Yet, in the end, they put their trust in an ancient superstition.  Maybe it’s the desire to cover all the bases, for in my reading about Asian business tycoons, it seems that the more money they have, the more superstitious they tend to be.  If Feng-Shui really works, why are millions spent by foreign aid agencies and the UN in their effort to help developing nations get the hang of growing a business infrastructure and acquiring business know-how to compete in a market economy? Why bother with all the business incubation programs if all that is needed to assure business success is to have a Feng-Shui consultant setup their business venue? What about the current financial down-turn? Of course some businesses even in Feng-Shui friendly Singapore, Hong Kong or Taipei will eventually be affected. I predict that all the Feng-Shui consultants with clients who survived the recession will tout the value of their trade and will get a lot more business. They will certainly conveniently ignore or just forget to mention their many clients who folded during this financially challenging period despite their best and most sincere Feng-Shui advice.

29 Responses to “Real Feng-Shui or Feng-Shui Lite?”

  1. fluffy says:

    Douglas Adams, in his wonderful speech at Digital Biota 2, had a great explanation of Feng Shui from a rationalist perspective. It’s far too long for me to excerpt here, but the entire speech is worth reading anyway (it’s probably what is most responsible for cementing me as a rational atheist rather than an agnostic).

  2. Wendy says:

    (I’ve mentioned this before, but) I grew up in a little city next to Vancouver, called Richmond. The population is now well over 50% Chinese, so naturally there was a lot of ancient superstition to go around. Red pockets, upside-down luck signs, waving cat statues, the works. And get this… even CITY HALL was feng-shui’ed. And they used each element! Earth, water, wood, metal… Not sure how they fit fire in there… But it’s a beautiful city hall, there’s no doubt about that!

    You can read about it here:

  3. I read in a book about Donald Trump how he hired a Feng Shui consultant on one of his building projects. Not because he believed in it at all, but because he thought that many of his potential tenants could be Asian and it would be a selling point. The relatively small investment in the consultant had a large ultimate return.

  4. Sparhawk says:

    At the lunch table:
    “My friend consults for Feng-Shui”
    “Oh really, How much does it cost?”
    “Only $200″
    “Gee that’s a good price!”

    At that point I burst out laughing and had to leave the table.

  5. I once worked with an elderly man of Chinese descent who died last year at age 87. He joked that when he was young “people would pester me for laundry tips, but now in the 21st century they pester me for feng shui tips. Progress!”

  6. The feng-shui color wheel chart looks just like the Dharma Initiative logo! It’s a conspiracy, I say!

  7. Shahar Lubin says:

    I grew up in a meditation colony in the Galilee in Israel. At one point a craze for Sthapatya Veda. The late Maharishi’s architectual and design “science”. Among other things you’re not allowed to have southern doors. Those the couldn’t afford to build a new door and pave a road to it switched to Feng Shui.
    Insted of redesigning, than, it’s better to find the school that matches the house you already have. I’ve been taking the same approach to food. I keep the same diet and wait for science to agree with me.

  8. c-serpent says:

    I heard a definition of Feng Shui once, though I don’t remember where, that referred to it as the ancient Chinese art of separating a fool from his money.

  9. I had a friend comment on the arrangement of my lounge room once. She said it wasn’t very Feng-Shui. At the time, about 10 years ago, I had never heard of Feng-Shui. I responded with “Feng what?”. I thought she was talking about a new yogurt or cheese.

  10. sonic says:

    I had a business in San Francisco. One of the partners (Chinese) suggested we hire a feng shui guy.
    I liked what he did. The business did wonderfully. I thought the whole thing wonderful in a silly way.
    I like to laugh.

  11. I was just about to repair a new Macbook Pro. Unfortunately the internal arrangement of the Logicboard isn’t Feng-Shui.

    I guess I’ll be going home early.

  12. XingMing says:

    Do you guys know enough about FengShui to ridicule it? The whole article and the comments after are discussing/ the bad practices of Feng Shui.

    Where is the critical discussion about the mechanism and the principles behind Feng Shui?
    What is Yin & Yang? (I hope not just Day vs Night and Males vs. Female….) What is 5 elements? (I hope not just Wood = Plants, Water= H2O….) What are the orders and arrangements of the 64 Hexagrams which make up Yi Jing? (I hope your understanding is not just Richard Wilhelm’s beautiful literature but inaccurate understanding of Yi…. btw, do you understand the annotations of Zhou Yi dictated by Confucius and later written into texts by his students?)
    TAOISM – the religon is NOT the basis of Feng Shui ( or other forms of Chinese Metaphysics. Nor Traditional Chinese Medicine.) In these anicent SCIENCE, the Chinese were talking about Universal FACTS – Dao, and, had an accurate understanding of the Universe, including Earth’s. From there, SCIENCE developed into medicine, culture, language, Feng Shui and accurate systems of divinations and astrology. Integrating Man with an understanding of the Universe and Mother Earth.

    The Xia calandar developed more the 4600 years ago STILL has not missed one bit. And, is the basis of BaZi Astrolgy used today.

    A sub-system of 64 Hexagram in yi Jing, developed in Han dynasty, more than 2000 years, is used predominately in a Feng Shui sub-system. It is able to accurately placed/categorised sonic waves of buildings inline with the Qi of its dwellers. It gives tangible results within days in the hands of proficient Feng Shui practitioners.

    The whole development of Yi and Yin/Yang 5 Elements had 2 peaks in history – Han & Song dynastys. They took thousands of years to come to maturity as Science by some very intelligent men in history. It is not some ‘commonsense’ or mythical tales forced fed to idiots over thousands of years. That, would make the whole thing the biggest con job in Human history.

    The negative stories of Feng Shui you wrote may be true. However, they do not warrant reckless ridicules like this post and the comments which followed.

    Read up on your facts, people. Facts are not hearsay – I ‘feel’, I ‘think’, I ‘hear’ from friends and neighbours who are layperson. They do not know WHAT has been done and based on WHAT applcations. Surely, your doctors cant be telling you why & what he prescibes i details for you?

    There are many empirical evidences in many universities in China esp. on TCM and Feng Shui, and, archaeologic discoveries on the subject. There are also life-long academia researching on various disciplines. But if this is your attitude towards Science then I doubt there will be willing learned academia or practitioner who would want to waste time on whining skeptics.

    I chanced upon your blog and cant help but feel obliged to comment on your negativity/ignorance. Nevertheless, I wish you all a Merry Xmas and an enriching 2009.

    • Jeffrey says:

      Well put! Feng Shui is definitely NOT psudoscience. Unfortunately, there are more quacks out there than real Feng Shui experts, however.

      Your post is most accurate.

  13. MadScientist says:

    I loved Penn and Teller’s episode of “Bullshit!” when they took feng-shui ‘experts’ to task.

    For centuries religions have preyed on the seemingly innate human tendency to say “I can’t understand it and therefore it must be true”. It’s rather ironic – I’m ignorant and therefore I willingly accept and promote ignorance. The most enduring examples I can think of relate to the wondrous remnants of ancient Egypt. How were the pyramids built? Well I really don’t know so I’ll believe that the ancients were in possession of great mystical powers and knowledge lost through the ages or else aliens came to earth and built such monuments as the pyramids at Giza. To believe that the ancients were in possession of long-forgotten knowledge and power is to revel in one’s ignorance. The temples may be amazing and no one in the modern world may know how they were built, but all that proves is that the art of pyramid construction has been lost through the ages. Take a pharaoh from around 2000BC and show him New York city – surely he’d be amazed at the gods that created the city. On the other hand believing in aliens denigrates the intellectual capacity and technological abilities of the humans who did create those ancient monuments.

    I chose monuments of ancient Egypt as an example because there are tangible things that most people can relate to (pyramids, the sphinx, ruins of Luxor, etc). When you talk about feng-shui it’s all babble and absolutely nothing which people can relate to in common. However, the principle that some people are prone to revel in ignorance to the point of deifying it remains the same. My paternal grandfather was Chinese; he was a physician and he saw absolutely nothing good in feng-shui, acupuncture, and similar nonsense; if anything he raved against the ignorance represented by such practices.

    • Jeffrey says:

      Western science is finally catching up on accupuncture. They’re finding out why it works. I guess your paternal grandfather, the physician, would have egg on his face today.

      Though pseudoscience exists, it is always easy to pass off things you don’t yet understand as false. Scientific arrogance is just as bad as pseudoscience.

      • Dave says:

        Jeffrey, humans hardly understand anything – we’ve only just started to scratch the surface. And we started to scratch when science started. We now know about evolution, genetics, astronomy, geology and atomic physics.
        Before we knew absolutely zip. Just wild speculation. And wild speculation is what pseudoscience is. There’s no comparison.

  14. Amanita Verna says:

    In an episode of “Angel”, the spinoff from Joss Whedon’s wonderful “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” series, somebody asked one of the characters (Wesley, probably) what “Feng-Shui” means. He replied, “Feng-Shui is Chinese for ‘Some people will believe anything.'” (Quote recreated from memory.)

  15. XingMing says:

    MadScientist, is your grandfather a Traditional Chinese Physician? IF he was, then he must be using Yin Yang 5 Elements – the fabric of TCM, which made what you posted illogical. Being ethinically Chinese does not make one expert on the language, culture, science and history.

    Sure – your comment is about KNOWING for a FACT what you criticise and criticise CONSTRUCTIVELY. Therefore, put your money where your mouth is. The problem here is zero knowledge. I am not saying ANYTHING ancient is foolproof. Also, what on earth do you KNOW about the structure of a pyramid? Please share constructively.

    Amanita, erm….hmm…. Angel/Buffy the Vampire are TV shows? You cant be real to assume real & intelligent people would take a fiction seriously or to assume scriptwriters know everything???

    I have never been to Texas and therefore I should assume all people there are cowboys? Come on….


    Repeatedly whinning about hearsays and perception still will not make skepticism constructive or productive.

    On the other hand, if all these name calling and insults on Feng Shui is about issues with false or misleading marketing of Feng Shui ‘masters’ – you have my vote on the issues but not on the logic or lack of it.

  16. Simon Chan says:

    To disbelieve is of course, not disprove, and to believe is not to prove. If in truth if through practicing the wisdom of feng shui would evoke “mysterious” forces (as some of you think)in our favor to enhance our well-being, it is all that matters most.

    By the way, I believe there are more non-Asian feng shui “experts” in this part of the world than in China! Go figure!

  17. Rebecca says:

    I like to think that I’m a true skeptic. I’m skeptical about religiosity, I’m skeptical about scientific hypernerdery. It’s interesting that qi, celtic beliefs, native american traditions, whales and geese all seem to rely on the concept of leylines. It’s sort of interesting that western scientific traditions mostly seem to deny the existence of such, though of course auroras and gravitational deviances in localities seem to capture the attention of some sometimes.

    I’m not saying that feng shui has any rational foundation beyond being a system of coherent social rules for construction of functional living, but I do say that it’s sort of ridiculous to pan a millenial tradition simply because certain ahistorical and greedy mentalities are currently capitalizing on a fascination with fixing broken environments. It’s just another asia-oriented trend, like japanning in the 19th century. Isn’t it a little unscientific to reduce the core knowledge to a western-slanted joke merely because a layer of marketing verbage has settled over the concept?

  18. Ewan Homers says:

    I think this article pretty much says it all:

    It’s about how you can become successful in business by keeping your own feng shui wealth vase. To be really effective it should contain coins, gold ingot, crystals, jewelry, semi precious or precious stone ….

    I think you would be better off going to school or working hard.

  19. Diwiyana says:

    My granny told me a story once that applies here:
    A young couple, newly married, were about to cook a ham for supper. The bride deftly cut it in two before putting the pieces in a big pot and setting it on the stove. “Why did you do that?” asked the groom. “I don’t know,” the bride answered. “That’s the way my mama always did it.”
    The next time they saw the bride’s mother, they asked her why she always cut the ham in two before cooking it. She shrugged and answered, “I don’t know. That’s the way MY mama always did it.”
    The next time the young couple saw the bride’s granny, they asked HER why she always cut the ham in two before cooking it. She grinned and answered, “Well, honey, my cookpot wasn’t big enough for the whole thing. So I had to cut it half in two!”
    It goes to show, there’s a reason for things if you go back far enough. But folks don’t necessarily know the real reason they do things. They just do them because that’s the way they learned it. I suspect a lot of traditional lore, including FENG SHUI, is along that line. It may not really have anything to do with chi or five elements or anything of the sort. That may have come along later, as semi-theological justification. After all, we can’t go and ask the great-great-great-great granny who thought up the original system, can we?

  20. Yinn Lang says:

    Would be better if we use “logic” and not try to write without control a bunch of words,
    and tried to persuade and convince ogf what?…..
    Because who originated the topic
    I think,
    he had no intention of forcing anyone to believe
    but some people take so seriously the words
    and follow their long speech is just plain boring.

  21. I am agnostic (I don’t believe the existence of God can be proven although I don’t rule it out either) but I found Feng Shui to be a deeply spiritual subject with close links to form and functionality of objects and space, and aesthetics. I have a great deal of interest in design… so I was drawn to Feng Shui initially for its value in interior design. I believe that every man’s home is his temple and sacred space. Feng Shui incorporated with interior design has helped me make my modest home into a shelter which not only looks and feels aesthetically pleasing, it has a beneficial effect on my well-being as well. Its a bit common-sensical. When you walk into a house and something doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts and leave. Don’t buy the house. But if you already own it, you can make it a nicer place to live in. Feng Shui doesn’t demand that you surround yourself with gold and expensive items in the home. You can always adapt it to suit your budget and needs. Read some good Feng Shui books, and get yourself a compass from the hiking shop… and have fun designing!

  22. Reagent Kit says:

    Few months ago, I’d hired a Feng Shui master to my place hoping to increase both my wealth & business growth. I was advice to have a Five Ghost Carry Treasure formation in my office. In order to activate this formation, I was told to place a water fountain at Northwest location and I followed what had been told. According to what you’d written, having water feature in northwest location means violating the Direct and Indirect Spirit rules. Here’s my concern, does Five Ghost Carry Treasure make an exceptional case? Lastly, do the formation have different grade?

  23. strumpfhosen says:

    I have read that a ideal location for a house would face South, and that the site should be protected from disruptive energies from West and the coldness that come from North. I found a place in a soft decline, facing South/East, and I managed to buy it. Now, after I began the construction of a house with the front door to the South and many windows and side doors facing the wisdom of East, I discovered other theories of Feng Shui that state that I am a person with most unfavorable areas in the Ba-Qua (I was born in June 1958 (=5+8=13=4==10-4=6) just in the South/East area. I am very upset and in despair. Shall I be in trouble in the house I am about to build? What can I do if I am wrong? What is correct in this case?

  24. Eric says:

    All these arguments and comments can be answered simply.
    God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)
    God created man in His image to have fellowship. (Genesis 1:27)
    Man rebelled and sinned against God. (Romans 3:23)
    God humbled himself and came down to earth as Jesus Christ,
    and died on the cross for our sins. (Philippians 2:6-8)
    I am the way, the truth and the life none comes to the Father except through me.(John 3:16)
    I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death and into life.
    (John 5:24)
    These things were written so that you may know you have eternal life.(1 John 5:13)
    Repent and place your faith in Jesus Christ. (Acts 3:19)
    All scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.
    (2 Timothy 3:16)

    God bless you all!

  25. strumpfhosen says:

    Feng Shui, Is it Science, Art or Superstition? Or it’s just a myth.

  26. Really? Really. says:

    Conduct a rational test of Feng-Shui: Hire 3 Mr. F-S’s, see if their advice is identical. If F-S is valid, it should be, right? Maybe a bit expensive, but it would be enlightening.