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Ideas in Place

Feng Shui

The Chinese Art of Placement


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 Feng Shui (pronounced "fung shway"), a practice of balancing energy or Chi based on the philosophy of Taoism, is literally translated as "wind and water," symbolizing movement and energy. It is sometimes called the Chinese art of placement. The analysis of the movement and quality of Chi in the landscape and in the home rests on several key concepts:

  • Yin and Yang, the two fundamental forces in the cosmos, signifying the passive and the active. Yin and Yang are constantly in motion, perpetually giving birth to one another.
  • The five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. These are moods of Chi, or movements of energy that rises, expands, circulates, condenses, and descends. (Follow this link to more on the elements, both Eastern and Western)
  • From the I-Ching, the Book of Changes, the eight trigrams are each composed of three lines on top of one another, representing different configurations of of energy forces. Each line is either broken (Yin) or solid (Yang), with eight possible permutations, from the receptive K'un (triple Yin) to the creative Chien (triple Yang). These eight trigrams form a scheme of categorization and create a map, or compass for understanding how Yin and Yang function across space or time. In Feng Shui, they may be associated with directions in the house or with the astrological profiles of its residents, for example.
  • The five animals--snake, green dragon, white tiger, tortoise, and phoenix--create another kind of map, that represents the relation of chi to local topography. It can be used to determine an auspicious site for a house or auspicious arrangement for the furniture within a room, for example.

This brief outline of the key concepts of Feng Shui demonstrates the poetic richness of the tradition. Meaning and relationships are represented with multiple analogies, drawing on the power of mythology to make the best of the environments in which we dwell, for better or for worse.

I find Feng Shui a useful tool in the practice of the poetics of place, yet I feel that we who have emerged from Western culture will find more resonance in the more familiar symbols of Western tradition and mythology. Feng Shui is therefore valuable both in its own right and also as a call to Westerners to reclaim our own symbolism and use it as powerfully as Feng Shui does the Eastern. This is my approach in the poetics of place, to balance and enrich our experience of dwelling by calling forth the wealth of meaning and symbolism we have so often neglected in our race for the newer, faster, shinier bit of progress.

Coming Soon:

  • More on Feng Shui
  • More on the poetics of place

References and Sources:

  • Peter A. Angeles, The Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy, second edition (New York: HarperCollins, 1992)
  • Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991)
  • William S. Sahakian and Mabel Lewis Sahakian, Ideas of the Great Philosophers (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966)
  • Master Lam Kam Chuen, Feng Shui Handbook: How to Create a Healthier Living and Working Environment (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1996)
  • Lillian Too, The Complete Illustrated Guide to Feng Shui (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1996)

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