You’ve likely heard the term “feng shui” used in reference to arranging a room or creating a pleasing interior design. However, you might not realize that this modern design principle actually has ancient roots in Chinese philosophy that go back thousands of years. Whether you’re interested in the history of feng shui or how best to apply its principles to improve the energy of your home or office, here we’ll take you through the foundational concepts and basic principles to help you on your journey of discovery.
What Is Feng Shui?
The Chinese words feng and shui literally translate to wind and water, both of which represent good health and are associated with good fortune in Chinese culture. Together, the philosophy of feng shui is a practice with origins that are thousands of years old.
The philosophy of feng shui aims to auspiciously arrange cities, buildings, tombs, architecture, design, plants, furniture, and pieces of any space to create balance with the natural environment’s energy flow to harness the energy and establish harmony between the natural world and the people who inhabit it.
The Origins of Feng Shui
There are few records regarding the earliest origins of feng shui and its development. Although, it is clear that feng shui’s roots likely sprung from Taoism and its traditions. Some of the earliest evidence of feng shui practices dates back to before 4000 B.C. These early instances of feng shui include the placement and orientation of ancient gravesites and the location and design of ancient Chinese cities.
Although the cardinal directions are critical to modern feng shui practices, feng shui was developed even before compasses were available. Evidence of feng shui practices in China stretches back millennia to when practitioners relied on astronomy, astrolabes, star maps, and constellations to orient themselves in the world.
Today, feng shui practices have evolved and spread throughout the world, with many architects, city planners, and individuals applying the ancient philosophy’s concepts to help create appealing modern designs. Modern feng shui principles can be used to just about any design. Feng shui aids with the arrangement of offices and every room of the home in addition to the design of buildings, interiors, and landscapes.
The Core Foundational Concepts of Feng Shui
Feng shui has its origins in Taoism and the Taoist belief that the life force or energy known as qi (also called chi) inhabits everything – including both the animate and inanimate objects in nature. Qi can be either positive or negative, with positive qi bringing strength and good fortune and negative qi bringing weakness and bad luck.
Both in its ancient and modern practices, feng shui attempts to situate human-built structures in the most optimal position to harness positive qi based on the location’s place and orientation in both space and time.
In feng shui, polarity is expressed through the yin and yang, which is a partnership of opposites or opposing forces in equal strength. Much like the two magnetic poles, in the yin and yang, one side receives force while the other side exerts it.
As well as demonstrating the power of balance and harmony, the concept of yin and yang conveys the idea that opposites might not be opposing forces but actually interconnected, harmonious, and highly interdependent. Fundamentally, one cannot exist without the other.
In feng shui, we aim to balance the yin-yang or opposing forces (also called elements) within a city, building, room, site, or object.
Wuxing (The Five Elements or Forces)
The Five Elements or Forces naturally flow from the Chinese concept of yin and yang. In feng shui, the goal is to balance these elements in a space to promote positive energy, balance, and harmony in life. Each element has associated qualities, shapes, colors, seasons, areas of life, and interactions. The five elements or forces include:
1. Wood (Mù)
- Qualities – Vitality, expansive, and upward
- Shapes – Rectangular or columnar
- Colors – Blues and greens
- Season – Spring
- Areas – Wealth and family
- Interactions – Feeds fire
2. Fire (Huŏ)
- Qualities – Brilliant, illuminating, and passion
- Shapes – Pointy or triangular
- Colors – Red
- Season – Summer
- Areas – Fame
- Interactions – Produces earth
3. Earth (Tǔ)
- Qualities – Stable, grounded, and self-caring
- Shapes – Square or flat
- Colors – Brown, yellow, and orange
- Season – Transitions between seasons
- Areas – Partnerships, knowledge, and health
- Interactions – Bears metal
4. Water (Shuǐ)
- Qualities – Shifting, flowing, and downward
- Shapes – Curvy and wavy
- Colors – Black
- Season – Winter
- Areas – Career
- Interactions – Nourishes wood
5. Metal (Jīn)
- Qualities – Precise, beautiful, and efficient
- Shapes – Spherical or circular
- Colors – White and metallics
- Season – Autumn
- Areas – Children and helpful people
- Interactions – Collects water
Typically, a space arranged and designed with feng shui in mind will attempt to balance these elements.
Alternatively, feng shui allows you to select a few elements that represent a part of your life that needs improvement to focus on incorporating those elements into your space using the colors and shapes associated with them.
The Bagua Map and Eight Trigrams
Translated to English, the word Bagua means eight areas. These are referred to as trigrams. Each represents a different circumstance of life and is associated with an element or force and color.
The different Bagua areas include:
- Zhen (Family and New Beginnings) – Wood and green, blue, and teal
- Xun (Wealth and Abundance) – Wood and purple
- Tai Qi (Center and Health) – Earth and brown, orange, and yellow
- Qian (Helpful People and Travel) – Metal and gray
- Dui (Children and Completion) – Metal and white
- Gen (Knowledge and Self-Cultivation) – Earth and dark blue
- Li (Fame and Reputation) – Fire and red
- Kan (Career and Life Path) – Water and black
- Kun (Love and Relationships) – Earth and pink
Additionally, a number, season, and shape also represent each Bagua – just like the five elements.
In feng shui, the Bagua creates a map of an energy grid that contains eight of the trigrams or elements. It’s sometimes represented as an octagonal pie with one element per eighth-sized slice and other times as a square-shaped grid containing one section for each trigram. Surrounded by the elements of your life, you are located at the center of the square or octagonal Bagua, where each trigram comes together.
However the Bagua is laid out, it is intended to be scaled and laid over the top of the space you’re designing – whether that be a desk, a bedroom, an office, a hallway, an entire home, a building, or a city. Each section of a space can then be arranged and designed with its respective trigram in mind.
The Commanding Position in Feng Shui
In feng shui, the commanding position (also called the power position) is classified as the dominant location in a room. Whether you’re in an office, bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, or living room, the commanding position is the spot where you will want to spend most of your time because it lends strength of position, good sightlines, and strong, positive energy. Incidentally, the commanding position is also the location in a room where you are likely to feel the most comfortable.
How Do You Locate the Commanding Position in a Room?
To locate the commanding position in a room, you should arrange its primary piece of furniture or function so that it is diagonally opposite from and facing the door.
For example, in a bedroom, the head of the bed should be placed against the wall that’s opposite the door, and it should either be positioned diagonally in the corner opposite the door or to the right or the left of the door, rather than straight on. In an office, the desk should be similarly placed so that the person sitting at the desk will be facing the wall with the door.
With a commanding position, a designer should also consider the nature of the wall opposite the door. If a window or another door is located on that wall, then it weakens the position. A commanding position needs to have a strong backing or backdrop. Adding a headboard to a bed frame can strengthen the commanding position, and rotating the orientation of a desk so that one’s back is not to a window will increase the location’s dominance.
Basic Requirements of a Strong Commanding Position
- Point furthest from the door
- Not directly opposite of the door
- Offers a clear view of the door
- Has strong support or backing behind you
When arranging a room, be sure to assess how you plan to use the room most frequently and ensure that activity will take place in the commanding position – whether that be reclining on the sofa, sleeping in bed, quilting at a sewing table, cooking at the stove, or toiling away at your desk.
For more, see our essential guide to the theory and principles around the front door in feng shui.
Traditional Concepts With Classical Feng Shui
As with any ancient practice, throughout history, feng shui has undergone several divisions, shifts, and evolutions that have created a variety of different feng shui concepts. As you might guess, classical feng shui refers to some of the oldest, most traditional philosophies and practices of feng shui that originated in ancient China.
The primary characteristic of classical feng shui that sets it apart from more modern schools is that it has a macro or an outward-in approach that emphasizes the setting and its composition. Classical feng shui first considers the environment or surroundings, time, and direction of the location before dictating an auspicious spot or arrangement.
Classical feng shui is divided into two different schools: the form branch, and the compass branch.
Form feng shui or landscape feng shui is thought to be the first or oldest type of feng shui. The author Quing Wuzi first described it in “The Book of the Tomb” during the Han Dynasty, and then Guo Pu described it in his “Book of Burial” during the Jin Dynasty. This type of feng shui was primarily concerned with finding the ideal location for grave sites.
What sets it apart from other types of feng shui is its focus on the form of land, topography, geographic features (mountains, valleys, bodies of water, vegetation, buildings, roads, and other man-made structures), the flow of the water, and direction of the wind to find the best qi for burial and strengthening one’s ancestors. In locating optimal qi, the form branch also considers the time of a person’s birth, death, and burial.
While the form school of feng shui focuses on observable elements in the environment, the compass school of feng shui focuses primarily on less concrete elements, such as abstract energies flowing throughout an environment. Instead of assessing the surrounding landforms, the compass branch uses the eight cardinal directions, a disc marked with mathematic formulas called a luopan, and a compass to locate, measure, and assess qi.
Two different schools comprise the compass branch, the yin house and the yang house. The yin house is concerned with burial sites for the dead, while the yang house is concerned with dwellings intended for the living.
Feng Shui in Western Cultures and Modern Times
Although the philosophy and its practices are more than 4000 years old, feng shui has maintained deep roots in modern Chinese culture and has worked its way into Western culture, too. Today, feng shui principles are applied to almost every aspect of modern life in China, from city layout and building architecture to corporate logo design and both personal and professional communications.
While the philosophy and practices of feng shui have yet to find their way into every aspect of life in Western culture, the people of the West have adopted some practices – especially when it comes to incorporating feng shui principles into architecture and interior design.
Though based on the original schools of feng shui, the modern methods of feng shui most commonly practiced in the West are much simpler to learn, digest, and put into practice when compared to their ancient counterparts. Two popular modern schools of feng shui include the aspirations method and new age feng shui.
One of the simplest feng shui methods to apply to any space is the aspirations method, which uses the cardinal directions, a bagua map, and eight aspirations to arrange a space and balance its energy. Unlike other bagua maps, the eight aspirations bagua map is always octagonal and has each trigram specifically designated to one of the cardinal directions.
The aspirations method uses an octagonal bagua map with one trigram correlating to each of the eight cardinal directions as follows:
- North – Water and career
- Northeast – Earth, and education
- East – Wood and health
- Southeast – Wood and wealth
- South – Fire and fame or recognition
- Southwest – Earth and love or marriage
- West – Metal and descendant luck
- Northwest – Metal and helpful friends
In the aspirations method, the five elements are associated with the same colors as they are in the original tradition of the five elements or forces and bagua maps.
To apply eight aspirations feng shui principles in your space, scale the eight aspirations bagua map to overlay your home’s or office’s floorplan or each individual room and orient it with the cardinal directions. You can then identify which objects, colors, and textures to place in which sectors of your home for the most auspicious design.
New Age Feng Shui
New age feng shui is also sometimes referred to as western feng shui, modern feng shui, or intuitive feng shui. This Western adaptation of feng shui is considered to be the most watered-down version of feng shui and is sometimes thought to be overly simplified.
New age feng shui uses the bagua map of eight aspirations outlined above along with the principle of commanding position to arrange environments. Additionally, new age feng shui allows for the incorporation of other elements into the designs that are believed to harness or affect energy within the environment. These items might include various kinds of crystals and gemstones, aromas, figurines, and other types of personal talismans.
Instead of relying solely on design choices as indicated by the five elements and polarity, new age feng shui strongly emphasizes the individual’s intuition. It allows for more freedom of choice when it comes to the colors, shapes, textures, and the placement or arrangement of objects in a space, leaving much of the design up to personal preference, artistic balance, and the elements of modern design rather than the principles of traditional feng shui.
Although individuals who practice new age or modern feng shui have their hearts in the right places, this school of feng shui is less of a school and more of an homage to the rich traditions of the past.
10 Foundational Feng Shui Concepts to Remember:
- Qi (Chi): Central to Feng Shui is the concept of Qi, often translated as “life force” or “energy flow.” Feng Shui aims to allow Qi to flow smoothly and harmoniously, avoiding stagnant or blocked energy.
- Yin and Yang: Representing the duality of life, Yin and Yang are opposing but complementary forces. Yin is passive, soft, and feminine; Yang is active, hard, and masculine. A balanced environment combines elements of both.
- The Five Elements: These are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. They interact in cycles of production and destruction. For instance, Water nourishes Wood, and Wood feeds Fire. But Water extinguishes Fire, and Fire melts Metal. Balancing these elements is key to harmonious energy.
- The Bagua: The Feng Shui energy map, known as the Bagua, divides any space into nine areas, each corresponding to a different life aspect (e.g., Wealth, Career, Relationships). Aligning and enhancing these areas can influence the corresponding life aspect.
- Command Position: This is an essential concept in Feng Shui, especially for significant pieces of furniture like your bed, desk, or stove. The idea is to place these items where you have a clear view of the door but aren’t directly in line with it. This position gives a sense of control and security.
- Clear Clutter: Clutter represents stagnant energy and can block positive Qi. Clearing clutter and keeping spaces tidy and organized is fundamental for good Feng Shui.
- Natural Light and Air: Fresh air and natural light are essential for good Qi. Open windows regularly, and ensure spaces are well-lit, preferably with natural light.
- Plants and Living Things: Plants represent growth and can add to the positive Qi in a space. However, be sure to remove dead or dying plants, as they can attract negative energy.
- Mirrors: Used wisely, mirrors can expand space, reflect beautiful views, and draw in positive energy. However, poorly placed mirrors can repel good Qi, such as when they reflect a bed or a front door.
- Water Features: Water is associated with wealth and abundance in Feng Shui. Features like fountains or aquariums can attract positive energy if placed correctly. However, stagnant water or poorly maintained water features can have the opposite effect.
Feng Shui Principles FAQs:
What does feng shui literally mean?
The Chinese words feng and shui literally translate to wind and water, representing good health and associated with good fortune in Chinese culture.
How was feng shui introduced?
Some of the earliest evidence of feng shui practices dates back to before 4000 B.C. These early instances of feng shui include the placement and orientation of ancient gravesites and the location and design of ancient Chinese cities.
How does Feng Shui work?
The philosophy of feng shui aims to auspiciously arrange cities, buildings, tombs, architecture, design, furniture, and pieces of any space to create balance with the natural environment’s energy flow to harness the energy and establish harmony between the natural world and the people who inhabit it.
How quickly does Feng Shui work?
Whilst there are no fixed guidelines related to the speed and efficacy of feng shui practices, some results may appear immediately to the practitioner, whilst more complex and expansive projects may take anywhere from 3 to 6 months or more to produce results.
How can feng shui help you?
Feng shui aids with the arrangement of offices and every room of the home in addition to the design of buildings, interiors, and landscapes. The fundamental goal is to create balance with the natural environment’s energy flow to harness the energy and establish harmony between the natural world and the people who inhabit it.
Start Practicing Feng Shui in Your Home or Office
Whether you take a modern or more traditional approach to harnessing and balancing the qi in your life, feng shui will help you arrange a space that feels at once harmonious and peaceful. With the principles of feng shui, you can blend colors, shapes, and textures with thoughtfully selected objects to enhance your energy and life force at the home and office.
Further reading: the best feng shui plants for the home or office.