The Eternal Ways of Wind and Water: How Modern is Western Feng Shui?

In his article “Western Responses to Feng Shui”, James Mills argues that western representations of feng shui act as a mirror for western society, rather than informing us of authentic feng shui practice . Using this theory he claims that modern American conceptions of feng shui reveal the individualistic, commercialised, rootless nature of western society.1 However, this article ultimately falls victim to essentialising Chinese belief systems due to disillusionment with American society. “Traditional” feng shui and the feng shui of the modern west in fact bear surprising similarities, By analysing modern western feng shui, as presented in the magazine “Feng Shui for Modern Living”, we can trace continuity where Mills finds dissonance.

Figure 1: The First Issue of “Feng Shui for Modern Living”

“Feng Shui for Modern Living” was first published in 1998, and, as seen in Figure 1, it claims to be the world’s first full colour magazine on feng shui. As noted by Mills, its pages are predominantly devoted to interior design and the benefits it can have for the individual, with articles such as “12 Mood Lighting Ideas” and “Arrange Your Desk For Success” featuring in the first issue. This, he argues, represents the self-centred nature of western culture. The communal concern for street alignment and settlement layout of traditional feng shui is lost.2 However, feng shui has always been an individualistic pursuit for the common person. Whereas the elites of Chinese society tried to etch cosmic importance into the fabric of cities, common people were always concerned with their personal fortunes. Qi, the force which feng shui was designed to capture was seen as a finite resource, and as a result fostered competition between those who hoped to harness it.3 For example, in cases of parental burial, given each child’s unique cosmological relationship to a potential gravesite, siblings often struggled among themselves to select one which was most auspicious for themselves at the expense of others.4 Feng shui has thus always been an intensely and inherently individual endeavour.

Also missing from the pages of “Feng Shui for Modern Living” is any reference to the siting of tombs, which Mills argues is fundamental to “traditional” feng shui. Burial siting was undeniably an important part of early feng shui. However, Ole Brunn argues that over the course of Chinese history, divination of graves for the dead became less and less orthodox.5 By the 1880s, for the Chinese community in Singapore, burial siting was uncommon. Selecting an ideal burial site was, to a large extent, a privilege of the wealthy. Most had to make do with common graveyards run by Chinese associations, which did not totally disregard cosmological siting but were far less specifically tailored.6 Rather, grave siting took on greater meaning as a strategic discourse of resistance, used to combat British attempts to exert greater control over Chinese Singaporeans. To most of the Chinese community in colonial Singapore, burial feng shui was much more of an ideal used to justify the immunity of certain spaces from colonial interference than an essential practice. To suggest that the exclusion of burial geomancy from western feng shui is a unique omission disregards the plurality of feng shui conceptions over time.

Another of Mills’ critiques is that of over-commercialisation, with western practitioners harnessing the idea of feng shui to sell their services, magazines (such as “Feng Shui for Modern Living”), and correspondence courses.7 According to Mills, the market has been oversaturated and greedy. Yet, feng shui specialists were already omnipresent in Qing times.8 The feng shui market has always been large due to its necessity in nearly all aspects of Chinese life. These practitioners would have demanded fees for their services, and though their base salary may have been comparatively low, they were expected to be hosted lavishly with plenty of good food and drink during the period of their work, which could last for several days or more.9 In addition, Ole Brunn suggests that feng shui was used as a bargaining tool to extort money from foreigners attempting to build infrastructure into China during the 1840s and 50s.10 Overall, there is no reason to romanticise feng shui as an altruistic practice. From its origin, it has been a pragmatically deployed trade and tool.

That is not to say that modern western feng shui is the same as the ancient Chinese practice or that it tells us nothing of our current times. It is, indeed, a unique conception of feng shui born from its context. However, the same is true of feng shui in every time and place, as it is truly an umbrella term which encompasses a diversity of practices and beliefs. We should therefore be cautious of any fixed conception of feng shui at all. Attempting to contrast modern applications of feng shui with a “traditional” alternative is a baseless task, which ultimately leads to the essentialisation of eastern belief systems.

  1. James Mills, ‘Western Responses to Feng Shui’, Middle States Geographer 32:1 (1999), p. 75. []
  2. Ibid, p. 74. []
  3. Ole Brunn, An Introduction to Feng Shui (Cambridge, 2008), p. 63. []
  4. Richard Smith, Fortune-tellers and Philosophers (New York, 1992), p. 164. []
  5. Ole Brunn, An Introduction to Feng Shui (Cambridge, 2008), p. 11. []
  6. Brenda Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore (Singapore, 2003), p. 297. []
  7. James Mills, ‘Western Responses to Feng Shui’, Middle States Geographer 32:1 (1999), p. 74. []
  8. Richard Smith, Fortune-tellers and Philosophers (New York, 1992), p. 132. []
  9. Ibid, p. 155. []
  10. Ole Brunn, An Introduction to Feng Shui (Cambridge, 2008), p. 40. []