Feng Shui: a translation!

Posted: January 15th, 2012

I believe the purpose of a blog is to incite/inspire a little discourse and debate, so I was delighted to receive the following email after my exceptionally unrewarding Feng Shui experience, as previously detailed both on this blog, and in the February issue of ELLE Decoration. This is an edited version of the email, reprinted with the author’s permission…

Dear Michelle… I read your article about Feng Shui with great interest, and then the post scriptum online. I have a degree in Architecture and recently started my own Interior Design business, and Feng Shui has always been a great passion so I’m thankful that you raised some important questions about it, and its perception in our culture, and I’d like to share my opinion in this discussion.

There has always been a lot of mysticism around Feng Shui. Together with many other Eastern philosophies it was introduced to the West as part of the New Age movement and became really popular in early 90s. Unfortunately, this was largely in the form of superficial articles in housekeeping magazines featuring advice on how to use particular remedies, but taken completely out of context. Raise hands all those who read at least one sensation-spiced article about wind-chimes or crystals bringing good energy to your house? Raise hands those who bought them!?

Even today, Feng Shui still has a bit of a doubtful image, oscillating somewhere between pseudo-science and scam. Perhaps it’s because its origins, which are deeply-rooted in ancient China, are entirely different from our western culture ruled by logos. In short, when this complex and ancient knowledge was introduced into a new Western context, it lost its original meaning. This shift created confusion and resulted in miscommunication, which you mention in your article. And therein lies the challenge: is it ever possible to translate this in-depth subject to make it fit into our western frames?

Let me give you an example: about thirty years ago, the word “yoga” was associated with a spiritual bearded guy, sitting in a weird posture for days, living on air and water and occasionally sleeping on a bed of needles. Albeit popular in enclosed circles, yoga had a dubious reputation, not dissimilar to Feng Shui. So who could have imagined that twenty years later, yoga would not only have enjoyed a revival, but also have become a regular part of many of our exercise routines. We can enjoy the benefits of practicing asanas (yoga positions) purely as a physical and mental workout, or, the opportunity exists to explore its spiritual dimensions, if so desired. As such, yoga has been completely assimilated into our Western culture.

Essentially Feng Shui and yoga are very similar. Both philosophies believe that everything is energy; the omnipresent Qi (or Ch’i). And the belief is that the quality of our life depends on how we interact with this energy within, and around us. In yoga, whether by practicing asanas, meditating and eating a balanced diet, or everything together, one ensures a constant flow of positive energy into one’s body, and can achieve harmony in life. Whereas the practice of Feng Shui is the art of arranging our closest environment to support the flow of Qi, so our dwelling works in our favour and helps us to achieve our full potential and to succeed in the areas important to human beings such as our relationships, career, spiritual life and health. According to Feng Shui, true harmony and happiness in one’s life can only be achieved when energy in these areas is equally balanced. Thus, if we love, and are loved, have jobs we enjoy doing, good health and fruitful relationships with other people, then we can live our lives well looking forward to every single day.

But is there any hope that our culture will one day benefit from Feng Shui as it currently benefits from yoga?  I believe it can. However, its wisdom can only be adopted by western thought if it can be made to be directly relevant to our modern lives. For example, symbols like a frog, a fountain or crystals, the representations of wealth, luck and positive energy would be meaningful only for a person born into an Asian culture. So it’s no surprise that if a Feng Shui guru suggests putting a fountain in one’s front garden to increase the family’s prosperity, the proposal may be questioned, because in Western culture, this object is purely aesthetic, and doesn’t have any significant meaning.

On the other hand if someone frames all their diplomas and certifications and hangs them in the corner of their house or room devoted to career, the energy of this space will instantly change, simply because these diplomas will be a reminder supporting one’s positive energy, therefore generating positive energy in the room. Furthermore, it might be suggested that the frames used should be made from a certain material in a particular colour to support that energy, but those details are secondary.

The remedies in Feng Shui don’t have to be ridiculous – mirrors, candles, plants or even furniture made from particular materials are all everyday elements of décor used in Interior Design – what matters is their placement and the meaning behind them, and this is where the role of the wise Feng Shui master becomes important.

Another way to think of it is that Feng Shui is about the subliminal messages that we send to our surroundings, and ourselves. A full bin outside the house, dead flowers in a pot, flaking paint, a cluttered living area, or a dysfunctional layout – these are just a few, basic examples that Feng Shui would address. At it’s core it’s about creating a healthy, beautiful and functional environment, but with the human being at the centre of his dwelling, and his dwelling seen as a reflection of his life, past, present and future.

But, as a graduate of architecture I came across many beautiful, technically perfect designs, which at the same time were very intimidating and unfriendly towards the user. I felt they were often ego-statements of the architect, rather than spaces designed with an actual recipient in mind. There was an excellent Channel 4 series by architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff, “The Secret Life of Buildings” in which he examined the strong psychological influence of architecture on our behaviour and thinking, whether at home, at work or play. In one episode, Tom made some revelatory and shocking discoveries about the way in which the buildings we spend our working life in, can physically change our brain, and he went on to show why open-plan offices are bad spaces to work in. He also asked whether we have become so obsessed with iconic exteriors that we’ve stopped thinking about the people inside them.

So let me repeat my question: Is it possible to be a designer who not only creates beautiful spaces but also ego-free spaces that make a client happy and productive too? Since I graduated, this question was one of my biggest concerns, and it was one that University couldn’t answer but that Feng Shui gave me some insight into. Nevertheless, the knowledge that Feng Shui offers should only be used as a guide, and should always be tailored to personal requirements. Just because a client is open-minded enough to invite a practitioner to instruct them, doesn’t mean that he should be instantly overwhelmed with Chinese symbols! This is the workshop, which should stay hidden, like the backstage of a play or a fashion show.

I therefore suggest that if Feng Shui is to be fully integrated into Western thinking, then more architects and designers need to consider what Tom Dyckoff asks, and question the quality of the spaces that they design. Feng Shui could then be applied as an everyday tool to help us solve the problem of heartless public spaces and non-functional dwellings.

With best wishes,

Bogna Sarosiek, Freelance Interior Designer


And so, I asked Bogna if she would interpret the indecipherable (to me) bit of paper that I’d been left with previously, the one with all the Chinese symbols on it, which she has graciously agreed to do. Rest assured, I’ll report back if there are any major revelations!

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