I’ve never been much of a Feng Shui follower, but because of an interview for the position of Research Writer in a Feng Shui-based company yesterday, I was given an assignment of composing my understanding of the introduction of Feng Shui. Also, I have an aunt who is a big fan of the practice, so the interest or urge to find out what this or that meant in the world of Feng Shui pops up occasionally.
Since it was a freehand piece, I decided to take up the mantle of writing it on how it was viewed in the West.
An Introduction to Feng Shui
Feng Shui is a practice that has affected the development of traditional cultural landscapes in East Asia over the centuries. Based on the dynamics of the Qi energy in the human and natural environments of the world, the word ‘Feng’ is a Chinese term for ‘wind’, and ‘Shui’ is the term for ‘water’. While the Eastern world has regarded it as harnessing positive energy to achieve a greater and more fulfilling life, their Western counterparts, however, are less appreciative of the practice. In the 19th century, the general response of the West was negative and described the practice as superstitious, irrational and unprogressive. Although the early part of the 20th century had generally less critical response, the practice was still portrayed as irrational.
Historical Responses to Feng Shui by Westerners
The Western accounts of the practice only materialized after European imperialism introduced East Asia to the merchants and missionaries in the 19th century. It was the attitude of the West that saw the practice as irrational and highly superstitious. As far as critics and observers could tell, Feng Shui was not based on any scientific principle, it was not logically consistent, and they were unable to determine any forces that the Chinese referred to as Qi. The forces of Feng Shui were no more real than ghosts. Perhaps the response towards the practice may have been perceived as having little or nothing to do with Christianity, yet religions such as Buddhism and Islam did not receive the same degree of criticism despite being discounted by the Westerners.
The sharp rebuke towards Feng Shui continued. It was accused of not having an organized theology or priesthood, and the West even claimed that it was a barrier to material progress! Many accounts provided by the British claimed they were hindered in their attempts to build roads, railways, settlements and mining operations in China because of Feng Shui. Protesters were reported to have stood in the way or resorted to violence if they thought the Feng Shui of the area was affected by construction or a commercial project. Since Europeans truly believed in economic development as a means to improving the lives of the people in East Asia, it was easy for them to condemn the practice.
Another aspect of the Western attitude towards the practice of Feng Shui took on a more racist tone. Since Feng Shui was a product of the Chinese mind, thus the mind was obviously not as intelligent or sophisticated as the British. The Chinese were seen as stubborn and unwilling to change, prone to violence, mobs, protesting and rioting, and incomprehensible. Thankfully, there were accounts that were somewhat more sympathetic to Feng Shui, especially in the first half of the 20th century.
In 1920, L. C. Porter tried to understand the practice in greater depth, and was interested in its philosophical bases. Even so, Porter had referred to Feng Shui as “a strange mixture of religion, magic, and attempts at science, and thought that it might be a historical relic that represents the earliest stages of mankind’s groping after truth”. In 1948, Joseph Needham turned his attention to Feng Shui as a part of his larger project; that Feng Shui was “not so much a superstition or evil practice that threatened to thwart modern progress, but rather as a pseudo-science”. In 1968, Andrew March wrote an account on Feng Shui based on a historical and philosophical outlook that became a landmark in the Western perception of the practice. Notably, March’s account painted the practice as “a legitimate and complex aspect of sophisticated Asian cultures”.
Postmodern Practice of Feng Shui in the West
As the years progressed, Feng Shui was gradually being accepted into the context of ‘new age’ spirituality, along with other ideas and practices, and one of the first ‘new age’ books that included the practice was written by John Michell, entitled ‘The New View over Atlantis’ and published in 1969. Michell hypothesized that the aspects of Feng Shui were related to each other and represented some kind of supernatural system that were understood by the ancients, yet lost to the modern world. Other areas of the postmodern West allowed Feng Shui to be associated with commercialism. It became so popular that celebrities such as former members of the Spice Girls, Donald Trump and George Bush, Sr. were said to have jumped onto the bandwagon and hired individuals to evaluate their living quarters. Eventually, the practice began focusing almost entirely on interior design and decorating. However, the siting of tombs, one of the foundations of traditional Feng Shui, has virtually disappeared from discussion. The communal awareness of street alignment, village layout and other facets of the encompassing cultural landscape is absent from the isolated and privatized postmodern Feng Shui of the West.
The history of Feng Shui may have had a checkered past in the West, but the practice is no longer considered a threat; merely an interesting phenomena of the past, albeit one which does not fit easily into the categories of thought and value. The practice of Feng Shui has crept into our lives as a means of evaluating the variety of urban and rural landscapes, which allows us to achieve a greater environmental awareness and see fresher perspectives in wider social and ecological communities. Despite being touted as irrational and unprogressive, the practice has taught people to look at their surroundings in great detail and understand that the surroundings have both direct and indirect effects on our wellbeing. Despite the negative criticism the practice has received, Feng Shui should be regarded as a religious phenomenon because it gave people in East Asia a way to live in a world of cosmic harmony and spiritual experience.
Reference: Western Responses to Feng Shui by James E. Mills (1999).