"Intercultural consultant" Angi Ma Wong's home office. Note the angled furniture and the dark rug on a light carpet to balance the chi.

Lara Jo Regan/Liaison/Getty Images­

Introduction to How Feng Shui Works

­Whether you're looking for balance and harmony in your home, office or diet, feng shui is the latest (by Western standards, anyway) miracle cure for all that ails you. But, in fact, the concept of "chi," the energy that feng shui strives to balance, can be traced to Taoism, a Chinese philosophy that dates back to the sixth century B.C. The Taoist belief asserts that human language is incapable of ex­plaining our existence in the world. Chi is a power beyond the physical world.

Some dismiss feng shui as an old Chinese myth or a fad for kooky new agers, but feng shui advocates say that it can improve everything from harmony in the home to wealth and well-being.

But what exactly is feng shui? Is it science or superstition? Where did it come from? And how do you use it? In this article, we'll address all of your questions about the art of feng shui.

­Feng shui literally translates from Chinese as "wind" (feng) and water ("shui"). It's the art of arranging buildings, objects, space and life to achieve harmony and balance. Feng shui works on the assumption that the world is driven by unseen forces. The idea behind it is to "unblock" the way, so the forces may flow freely and create balance in a space (or life).

The main difference between the practices of feng shui (or "vastu" in the Hindu culture) and Western traditions is a belief that we as humans are connected to the spaces we inhabit. Believers in feng shui see sacred purposes and mystical meanings behind design -- not just artistically appealing buildings or superficially pretty surroundings. They view the world in terms of cosmic energy.

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Feng shui consultant Angi Ma Wong helps orient the home of a California couple.

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Feng Shui History

­India and China both lay claim to feng shui ancestry. Archeologists have discovered evidence that about 5,500 years ago, Indian mystics practiced the principles of "vastu shastra," literally translated as "building science." It's a system that explains how to design and construct buildings, houses and cities. Followers of vastu believe that every building is a living organism with its own energy, and they study the effects of the five elements -- earth, water, fire, air and space -- on the world around them.

According to some historians, about 3,000 years ago, Indian vastu practitioners (typically monks) crossed through Tibet and into China. The Chinese adopted and adapted Vastu principles, which evolved into the various schools of feng shui.

Those in the feng shui camp trace the philosophy's origins to village gravesites that date as far back as 6000 B.C. Most scholars agree that feng shui originated as a method of burial that evolved over time. There is even some evidence of feng shui principles in prehistoric Europe -- Stonehenge, for example.

The Chinese, like the Indians, used the philosophy's design principles to lay out their cities. The Book of Ritual from the Chou dynasty (1030-722 B.C.) describes the plans for a capital city, dictating the use of squares and placement of gates at the four compass points. It is considered the basis for all Chinese city designs, most notably Beijing.

Feng shui made its earliest tangible leap to the United States in the 1980s and has been growing steadily ever since. In recent years, interest in feng shui's architectural and design elements has greatly expanded in North America, Europe and Australia.

­Angi Ma Wong ties Chinese coins to her telephone and fax machine, "where business enters," to encourage money and prosperity.

­Lara Jo Regan/Liaison/Getty Images

Feng Shui Schools

There are plenty of variations of feng shui, but they essentially fall into three camps.

  • The Form School, which originated in southern China, is based on the environment and proper placement in relation to topography and water formations. Sometimes referred to as "classic feng shui" because it is the oldest, the Form School is founded upon the ancient need to find a safe place to live. In hilly southern China, the sloping landscape was used to the dwelling's advantage. The hills acted as a natural wind block, and the fresh water flowing down the hill was essential to existence. Followers often use metaphors like dragons and tigers, a carryover from ancient practices.
  • Northern China's Compass School is based on orientation -- using a magnetic compass and the relation of the Earth to seasons, stars and planets. This was mostly for practical reasons: The terrain in northern China is flatter than in the south, so it calls for a different guiding principle. The Compass School is often considered the most difficult to understand because it relies so heavily on the feng shui compass, Chinese astrology and mathematics.
  • Professor Thomas Lin Yun founded the Black Hat sect of feng shui in the 1980s, which is considered the easiest for novices to follow. It relies mostly on ­intuition, and the only commonly used feng shui tool is the road map,­ or bagua. Some feng shui masters and scholars don't even acknowledge Black Hat because it relies on the placement of objects. Since placing things in a room is much easier to understand than interpreting compass readings and working with the environment, it appeals to Westerners looking to "feng shui up" their house or office.

The schools do have three main things in common, though -- we'll learn about them next.

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Feng Shui Symbols

The five elements

These are the phases through which chi moves.

  1. Earth (rocks, ceramics)
  2. Fire (candles, fireplaces)
  3. Metal (electronics, silver picture frames)
  4. Water (fountains, aquariums)
  5. Wood (living plant or tree -- dead wood, like furniture, doesn't count)

You can think of the elements acting on each other as an advanced game of "Rock, Paper, Scissors" -- there are two cycles, productive and destructive.

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The yin-yang

The yin-yang

This ­symbol is one of the most readily recognizable of Chinese culture. The black and white swooshes are connected, with a dot of the opposite color in each. The concept behind the yin and yang are that they are opposite states of chi (energy). One cannot exist without the other. Yin (black) is associated with femininity, matter, nighttime, coldness, passivity and softness, and yang (white) is about masculinity, spirit, daytime, warmth, activity and hardness. If you didn't have night, you couldn't understand what day is, so neither can exist on its own. In the world of feng shui, the yin and yang must be balanced.

While chi, and thus yin and yang, are constantly in motion, the symbol is traditionally displayed with the yang on top, under the assumption that heat rises.­ ­

Bagua

Boxes are the basic building blocks of feng shui -- they help form the feng shui road map, called the bagua.

The three-by-three grid is especially important. Its earliest form shows up in the Chinese "Book of Changes" from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) as the Lo Shu Square (also called the magic square).

The numbers in the Lo Shu Square add up to 15 vertically, horizontally and diagonally. This is the same number of days in a lunar cycle, which is why much of feng shui is rooted in Chinese astrology.

The bagua grid connects the elements to the Lo Shu Square. There are still relations between the numbers and the elements (for example, the number five is considered an earthly, centering number), but depending on the user, there can be a variety of related material associated with a square.

The lines correspond to the binary system of mathematics -- the same system used in computers. The yang is represented by a solid line, and the yin is represented by a broken line. Colors are also associated with the grid, but they also vary according to the practicer. Yellow is consistently in the center square, though.

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The symbols representing the squares are called the trigram, and these eight multiply to make the 64 hexagrams that figure prominently in the mathematical calculations of the scientific-formula-based feng shui.

The bagua grid evolves into the bagua map (also known as the "pah kwa"), which is commonly used in everything from feng shui design to the TV show "Lost." Let's take a look at a bagua map, and how each area corresponds to the bagua grid.

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Practitioners who use the bagua map will overlay this diagram on a room or house to determine what should be placed in each area, aligning the bottom of the chart (black) with the entrance wall. The following would promote each area:

  • Black (career): Mirrors, fountains
  • Blue (skills and wisdom): Books, computers
  • Green (family): Plants, family photos
  • Purple (prosperity): Sailing ships and related materials, healthy plants
  • Red (fame and reputation): Awards, animal-related items
  • Pink (love and relationships): Paired items, pictures of loved ones
  • White (creativity and children): Artwork, children's photos (according to feng shui practitioners, this area must be kept neat if you want happy, well-behaved children)
  • Gray (helpful people, travel): Religious items, travel souvenirs
  • Yellow (health): Pottery, stone objects

In the next sections we'll learn about the practical applications of feng shui in your office and home.

Feng Shui Uses

­Once again, depending on whom you ask, feng shui can be applied strictly to ar­chitecture and design -- or it can pertain to anything from choosing your house site to increasing your wealth or choosing the name of your business.

Architecture and city planning

Architecture and city planning were clearly a part of the origins of the Chinese tradition. The basic premise is that our homes and offices should be built with nature rather than against it.

In city planning, grids with courtyards at the center of town allow the chi to move without "rushing" it.

In architecture, a horseshoe-shaped structure, with the entrance facing a courtyard, allows chi to flow in. According to the Form School, a house should be built on slightly elevated ground with its back protected from the wind by trees, another building or earth (like a hill). Building on a dead-end street or an irregular piece of land is not desirable because it stops the energy from flowing. A rectangular plot of land is ideal.

Offices

The earliest adopters of feng shui in the West were hospitals, and businesses have been quick to follow. Hospitals were among the first to recognize the benefit of applying feng shui to hallways. In the past, hospital corridors were long, narrow and straight. Feng shui experts say this makes energy accelerate unnaturally, which causes stress. Now many hospitals -- and offices -- break up the straight lines by widening hallways and placing plants and paintings to create a more soothing energy.

Chinese artwork isn't considered particularly helpful to an office's chi -- despite what some art dealers might say -- but artwork in general can affect the atmosphere. A painting of a sinking ship, for example, wouldn't bode well for a business trying to stay afloat. Many who criticize Black Hat feng shui point out that people are paying handsomely for often common-sense advice, such as keeping the environment clutter-free and using incandescent lighting instead of harsh fluorescent bulbs.

However, many businesspeople, including Donald Trump, Virgin Atlantic Airways founder Sir Richard Branson and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, say they use feng shui in some form or another. In the past, they have used consultants for advice on everything from door placement to the use of aquariums (which bring water energy to the office environment).

Next, we'll learn about feng shui in interior design.

Feng Shui Tips

­­Feng shui really starts getting tricky when you're talking about interior design: Everybody has an opinion, and hardly anyone agrees. Traditional Form School followers say the arrangement of objects and space is all you need to get the chi flowing. Others claim that some plants and other objects can have negative influences on the energy of the house. For instance, some practitioners prohibit cacti in their homes, and mirrors in the bedroom are considered bad if they face the bed (it invites a third party into the bed). And if the bathroom is in the money sector of the house, some say that the homeowners will "flush" their wealth down the drain (although most modern feng shui masters discount this).

Black Hat followers advise laying a bagua map over a diagram of the room or house. If the space is rectangular, simply trace along the lines of the diagram that correspond to the lines of the bagua map, with the career or black section of the bagua map at the entrance. So, for example, a yellow rug (to represent earth, center or No. 5) could be in the center to ground a room, with a ficus tree to the left and center to promote health and family. Should the room or house not be rectangular, feng shui consultants may advise hanging crystals or coins to correct the "dead" space.

Most practitioners accept the principles about working with nature. For instance, windows should face pleasing views -- if that isn't possible, dress them up with window treatments or a window box. Don't arrange furniture with the backs to door­s or windows. Simplicity, order, proportion and balance are valued, as are natural colors and textures: ceilings light like the sky, walls mid-toned like the grass and water, and floors dark like the earth.

Gardens function on similar principles. They can be laid out using a bagua map, with the bottom of the map at the entrance to the garden. Different schools of thought may recommend different plants. For instance, sweet-smelling honeysuckle, roses or jasmine growing up along an open-sided building is conducive to chi. Once again, however, opinions conflict. While some consultants advise putting stone figurines and crystals in a garden to attract good chi, others say that the objects themselves are irrelevant and that placement is all that is necessary to get chi properly flowing.

In the United States, there is no certification for feng shui advisers, so many professionals use the recommendations of past customers to prove their worth. There are hundreds of books that subscribe to modified versions of feng shui (in the United States, they're mostly some form of Black Hat feng shui), and many contradict each other. Most feng shui consultants advise trying more than one form of feng shui to find out what best fits your chi.

To find out more about feng shui, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • Barker, Elizabeth. “The healing home: make your house a haven of healthy energy: Vital Signs: ideas and inspirations for a healthier you.” Natural Health Sept 2005: p17
  • Encyclopedia Brittanica online"Feng Shui for profits." Furniture & Interiors, Summer 2007: 5. “Feng Shui revival defies prohibition in China’s cities” Xinhua General News Service. 31 Aug. 2006.
  • Ford-Martin, Paula. "Feng shui." The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine. 2nd Edition. Jacqueline L. Longe, Editor. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2005.
  • “Hong Kong Conference Aims to Make Feng Shui More Scientific” Voice of America News, 23 Oct 2006.Hwabgbo, Alfred B. “An Alternative Tradition in Architecture: Conceptions in Feng Shui and its Continuous Tradition.
  • Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, v. 19 no. 2 (Summer 2002): 110-30.
  • Jay, Roni. Feng Shui in Your Garden. Boston, Mass.: Tuttle Publishing, 1998.
  • Kennedy, David Daniel. Feng Shui for Dummies. Running Press, 2000.
  • Mastro, Michael and Robin. The Way of Vastu — Creating Prosperity Through the Power of the Vedas. Seattle, Washington: Balanced Books, 2006.
  • McArdle, Ann.East West Style. Gloucester, Mass.: Rockport Publishers, Inc., 2000.
  • Moran, Elizabeth Joseph Yu, and Val Biktashev. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feng Shui. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books, 2002.
  • Underdown, Jim. "Feng Shui and monkey madness at the L.A. Zoo." Skeptical Inquirer, July-August 2007: 7
  • The Walt Disney Company 2006 Annual Report
  • Weltman, Barbara, and Michael Hayes. "Feng shui for beginners: an organized, harmonious work environment is a business asset." Journal of Accountancy, Dec 2005: 36.
  • Yap, Joey. “Acute case of symbols paranoia?” New Straits Times (Malaysia), 23 Oct 2005: 9.
  • Yap, Joey. “To consult or not to consult?” New Straits Times (Malaysia), 25 Sept 2005: 8