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Feng Shui: The Chinese Philosophy Explained

Each year, real estate developers around the world spend millions of dollars consulting feng shui experts to ensure their building designs flow, both practically and spiritually. But for a homeowner without a personal consultant, achieving the same results can be difficult.

In simple terms, feng shui is the practice of arranging your living space in a way that creates balance and harmony between an individual and the natural world. The phrase translates to “the way of wind and water.” Those who practice will often refer to a bagua (a feng shui energy map), a luopan (a Chinese compass), and chi (energy). Talk to enough feng shui masters, and the practice can start to feel both dogmatic and random, and logical and pseudoscientific — all at the same time.  

We’re here to demystify the process and help you understand the origins of this Chinese philosophy.

Rooted in Taoism

Laojun Mountain, Luoyang, Chinese Taoist Holy Land
Credit: HelloRF Zcool/ Shutterstock

Part religion and part philosophy, Taoism has been a dominant part of Chinese life for more than 2,500 years. The outlook was first recorded by the legendary philosopher Lao Tzu (aka Laozi), in a book called the Tao Te Ching.

To put it succinctly, traditional Taoists didn’t worship a monotheistic “god.” Rather, Taoists believe in an ineffable force called “the Tao,” or “the Way.” Like the god of the world’s Abrahamic religions, the Tao is everywhere and in everything. It is undefinable and has pre-existed creation. It connects and unifies all things.

The difference is that Taoists have not deified the Tao. It is not something they worship or praise. They don’t treat it as a supernatural being with a conscience, doling out punishments when necessary. Rather, the Tao is both a metaphysical and physical reality.

The problem, Laozi points out, is that most of us don’t live in harmony with the Tao. The way society is structured — and the way many of us go about our daily lives — grates against the natural ways of the Tao. If the Tao were a river, many of us would be wasting our time swimming upstream. Taoism aims to let the river carry you instead — to “go with the flow.”

Feng shui is an extension of this principle. Taoists believe that humans are connected to everything, including the spaces we inhabit. Feng shui is all about achieving harmony and balance within those spaces.

Everything is Unified

Black and white stones in sand representing yin and yang.
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The Taoist concept of connectedness is extremely important to understanding the roots of feng shui. Take yin and yang, for example. This philosophy — which has become part of popular culture thanks to its eye-catching black and white, circular symbol — suggests that opposite forces are part of an interconnected whole: You cannot have light without dark, or good without evil. In fact, good is not separate from evil but unified with it.

To illustrate this, Taoists like to make an example out of a cup: What makes a cup a cup? Is it the physical, tangible shape of the chalice? Or is it the intangible empty space that holds the liquid? According to yin and yang, the separation between these tangible and intangible elements is just an illusion.

In Taoism, how you fill that emptiness is what matters. If you’re filling your emptiness with gossip and drama, for example, then you will live unhappily. But if you empty your mind through calm meditation, you can free yourself to allow the Tao to enter instead.

A house is very similar. Like the cup, it is not useful because it has walls and a roof. It is useful because it contains emptiness that can be filled. Feng shui embraces the inherent emptiness of your home and attempts to fill it in accordance with “the Way.”

Finding Optimal Chi

Corner of a bedroom with a bed next to a dresser.
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Chi (or qi) is the Taoist life force that animates every being in the world. Chi is not a scientific phenomenon, but a spiritual one. Since everything in the world possesses yin and yang, there is “good” and “bad” chi. The goal of feng shui is to balance these energies.

Over the past 2,000 years, the practice of feng shui has been divided into multiple schools, primarily: ​​Form schools, Compass schools, and BTB. Form schools follow traditional practices, using the land and water to determine the best flow of chi. Compass schools, while also traditional, focus more on using a luopan to guide the energy. Your birth information might also be integrated into this practice. The more modern BTB (Black Tantric Sect Buddhism) combines the Form and Compass practices to discover optimal chi.

Since there are many schools of thought, the ambiguity of what produces good and bad chi in spaces has allowed many feng shui practitioners to completely untether themselves from its Taoist roots, allowing hucksters to run free, selling wind chimes and indoor waterfalls.

Skeptics will say that chi doesn’t exist at all. But anybody who has walked through a poorly designed space can tell when a room’s energy is “off.” For example, formal feng shui guidance advises against long straight hallways because it allows chi to flow too quickly. While “chi flow” may be unverifiable, research shows the long, straight corridors in hospitals can be stressful — and has prompted hospital designers to consult feng shui principles to break things up.

Other feng shui principles that embrace “good chi” might, in fact, just be called good design. Feng shui rules stipulate that a desk should face a doorway to avoid being startled from behind. Not only is this a good idea, but it’s also probably the reason your boss’ desk faces the door.

Feng shui rules also have some great advice for bedroom layouts, stipulating that a person lying in bed should always have a view of the door, their feet should never be pointed directly out the door, and that there should always be space on both sides to balance the yin and yang. Whether one believes in chi or not, we can all agree that there’s definitely some “good energy” to waking up on the “right” side of the bed.