Feng Shui Today
Feng shui is much more than just a debunked way to magically arrange furniture.
by Brian Dunning
October 11, 2016
Also available in Russian
Today we're going to push our couch a bit to the left, move our little Costco water fountain from one side of the room to the other, then clench our hands in joy as we begin to realize the wonderful benefits we've just conferred upon ourselves: longer life, great wealth, and influence. For we've just practiced a bit of feng shui (pronounced fung shway), the Chinese art of geomancy, using the Earth's energies to supercharge our lives with qi. Though some take it quite seriously, most find feng shui a bit silly, but few are aware of the true impact it has had on both Eastern and Western cultures. Today we're going to look past the both the skepticism and the belief, and learn the true significance of feng shui.
Feng shui, as we know it today, is largely a child of Western esotericism; more specifically, the New Age movement. It was introduced to Americans at the height of the New Age delirium in the mid-1970s. President Richard Nixon's 1972 state visit to China, which no president had ever done before, was instrumental in triggering the publishing and entertainment industries to enthusiastically embrace all things China, to satisfy the public's ravenous hunger for Eastern mysticism. The TV series Kung Fu with David Carradine came out that same year; the first acupuncture schools opened in the United States in 1974; and the first English language edition of A Barefoot Doctor's Manual was published. At least, about a third of it was published; 600 pages of conventional medical information was cut out, leaving only the traditional remedies. Western New Age audiences were in love with the idea of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which they saw as more spiritually fulfilling and enlightened. Little did they realize that what they considered "enlightenment" was the result of censoring out 600 pages from a 900-page book — in other words, "endarkenment".
This was the Western environment into which feng shui was introduced. As much as Western audiences wanted it, many Chinese were trying to get rid of it. At the time, traditional practices were severely restricted inside China. Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution had been launched in 1966 to purge China of its ancient traditions and its capitalist past, and bring it in line with Mao's vision of communism. Traditionalist intellectuals and the wealthy elite were painted as the villains responsible for all of China's ills. Radicalized student groups called the Red Guard became the enforcers of the Revolution, often physically attacking or killing the bourgeois, and wreaking havoc on the country's ancient cultural sites. Libraries, museums, schools, and temples were destroyed. Cemeteries in particular were targeted and the graves of great philosophers and even emperors were defiled and burned. All the symbols of old China were being cleansed.
Chief among these — by explicit edict of the Cultural Revolution — were the so-called Four Olds. These were Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. The Red Guard destroyed as much of these as they could; it was an unspeakable crime against history. The practice of feng shui was made illegal, as were countless other traditions. This prohibition lasted until the Cultural Revolution was finally abandoned with Mao's death in 1976.
It was a bit ironic that much of the Red Guards' sacking was directed against cemeteries, since the placement of graves and tombs was how the tradition of feng shui got its start. The basic idea was to orient tombs in such a way to maximize qi, the mythical force of Chinese vitalism. Practitioners believed that all kinds of things in nature influenced the flow of qi. Feng shui literally translates to "wind and water", and these were certainly two of the influences. Soil, vegetation, rocks, sunlight, weather, and slope all came into play. Two other important influences were astrology and compass orientation. The earliest feng shui masters, perhaps five to six thousand years ago, determined north and south by the sun and stars. Around two thousand years ago they developed a type of astrolabe used for feng shui, and the first magnetic compasses (which were used for divination) bore the same feng shui markings.
North and south were not the only dichotomies in feng shui; dichotomies in China are usually referred to as the yin and the yang. Feng shui as it pertained to graves of the dead was the yin; pertaining to the homes and structures of the living was the yang. Over the centuries, feng shui principles became central to architecture, city planning, and furniture arrangement. There are, obviously, a lot of common sense aspects to all of these. Things facing south get more sun. There's a better view from higher up. Level floors and tables are more practical. You sleep better where it's darker and quieter. Mellow tones are more relaxing than wild colors. Noise is annoying. All of this common sense, and volumes more of it, were covered by feng shui; and so despite the fact that many different schools of feng shui and different techniques appeared, they would all generally produce the same recommendations; at least, so far as the common sense stuff goes. But when it comes to decisions that were purely matters of preference and did not affect a structure's utility, like whether to put a bookshelf to the left or the right of a nightstand, different feng shui masters would produce different recommendations almost every time.
And as diverse as those various schools of feng shui used to be, that diversity has only increased. All generally rely on various forms of Chinese astrology. Within each school are different methods. Most feng shui practitioners today incorporate one or more aspects of different methods from different schools. Once feng shui was imported into the United States, at least four major new schools were introduced, generally by high-profile self-proclaimed masters writing books for Western consumption. In many cases, these authors invented their own versions based on their own notions or whatever they felt the New Age audience was most eager to consume. Feng shui masters inside China are largely unaware of these new developments outside their country, and tend to focus on the original Chinese schools; while practitioners in the United States and other Western countries tend to focus on those forms developed outside China.
To analyze the validity of feng shui, there are two basic questions we can ask: first, is the underlying science valid; and second, does it work, regardless of how well (or how poorly) the ancients understood its mechanisms.
First, is qi a thing? We don't know. We certainly don't have much reason to think so. No definition for qi exists that includes any physical properties, so it can't be tested for, measured, or even detected at all. We live in a world indistinguishable from a world in which there is no such thing as qi. The other underlying claim for feng shui is astrology, and as we discussed in great detail in episode 173, all forms of astrology have consistently failed every scientific test to which they've been subjected. All we can say about the scientific underpinnings of feng shui is that none have ever been proposed that pass any kind of scrutiny.
The second question, whether feng shui "works", can't be answered. It can't be answered from a physical science perspective, since the fact that qi is either nonexistent or undetectable makes it impossible to do any measurements to compare the results of a feng shui room to a non feng shui room. It also can't be answered from the more useful perspective, which is whether it works for those who use it, according to their individual wishes and expectations. This is simply because that's purely a matter of personal preference. We know for a fact that the many different methods employed by feng shui masters means that they all give different recommendations, and it's probably true that any feng shui believer can eventually find an arrangement of furniture that they like and feel good about. It is simply not possible to design an experiment to test the validity of feng shui. It's not falsifiable, and therefore outside the realm of science.
It may be a simple matter to show that there's no real science behind feng shui (except where it strays into the basic common sense aspects of furniture arrangement and building design). It's also a simple matter to dismiss the mystical energies said to be at its core; they simply don't exist. Most of the popular skepticism about feng shui stops there, after making those two points. For me, such exercises represent the least useful version of skeptical analysis: the simple revelation of a lack of reality where none existed in the first place.
For my money, the more interesting aspect of feng shui is its historical and sociological journey. To a prescientific people doing their best to make sense of the world, the alignment of the buried dead with true north did represent what they thought was a scientific advancement. The blending of astrology with what we now recognize as simple architectural common sense did (predictably) produce more comfortable and practical buildings; and that the ancient Chinese considered it a science adds to our knowledge of the history of science, and enriches the story of the human experience. Feng shui was important; enough that people were beaten, killed, and imprisoned for it. And we can hardly study the twentieth century without a mention of what it symbolized to the Western esotericism movement; or without wondering why comfortable Westerners, opulent with far superior tools, scorned their actual knowledge and turned instead to metaphysics. Above all else, feng shui today is a tantalizing lesson in the humanities.
From August to September 1966, the number of sites of cultural significance destroyed by the Red Guard totaled 4,922. A small tale is told in a book written by one of Mao's guards, Zhang Yaoci, as Mao presided over the chaos that month from his headquarters in Beijing. Mao's grandfather Mao Enpu had been buried in a special tomb, a "dragon's den", with the most powerful kind of feng shui; so powerful, in fact, that there were said to be no more than twelve such sites in all the world. Mao's father Yichang had been a wealthy farmer, and when Enpu died in 1904, Yichang hired the greatest feng shui master of the day to find one of these most powerful dragon's dens. Bu Guo Wu searched for 11 days and located the spot on a mountain called Tiger Resting Hill. When he did, he predicted that the flow of qi from the tomb would make Mao Zedong, who was only a boy of 11, a powerful man in China in 31 years' time, which turned out true to the letter. And with this mighty fortune, reasoned Chairman Mao — even as his Red Guard smashed and burned every feng shui shop and arrested every master who might find a dragon's den for someone else — with this would his future be secure.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Feng Shui Today." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
11 Oct 2016. Web.
26 Apr 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4540>
References & Further Reading
Bogdan, H., Djurdjevic, G. Occultism in a Global Perspective. Durham: Acumen, 2013.
Bruun, O. Fengshui in China: Geomantic Divination between State Orthodoxy and Popular Religion. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003.
Carroll, R. "Feng Shui." The Skeptic's Dictionary. Robert Todd Carroll, 21 Feb. 1999. Web. 4 Oct. 2016. <http://skepdic.com/fengshui.html>
Chan, Y. "Real Feng Shui or Feng Shui Lite?" SkepticBlog. Skeptologist Partners, 7 Dec. 2008. Web. 5 Oct. 2016. <http://www.skepticblog.org/2008/12/07/real-feng-shui-or-feng-shui-lite/>
Eitel, E. Feng-Shui: Or, The Rudiments of Natural Science in China. Hong Kong: Lane, Crawford & Co., 1878.
Zhang, Y. Zhang Yaoci huiyi Mao Zedong. Beijing: Zhonggong zhongyang dangxiao chubanshe, 1996.
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