Feng Shui in the Australian tropics – does it make any sense?

Wikipedia, normally a reliable first-stop-shop for information, judges Feng Shui harshly, calling it a “pseudo-science” before going on to say, more factually, “The term feng shui literally translates as “wind-water” in English. … The feng shui practice discusses architecture in terms of “invisible forces” that bind the universe, earth, and humanity together, known as qi [chi]. Historically, feng shui was widely used to orient buildings—often spiritually significant structures such as tombs, but also dwellings and other structures—in an auspicious manner. Depending on the particular style of feng shui being used, an auspicious site could be determined by reference to local features such as bodies of water, or stars or the compass.”

Feng shui in the West has a distinctly New Age “spiritual” flavour and seems to have lost touch almost entirely with its origins; but its origins are the folk wisdom of people who observed nature closely for their very survival, and I wondered whether those foundations could be retrieved and applied here in Townsville in the twenty-first century. Here are the results of my research.

Basic concepts of Feng Shui

  • Qi or Chi: life force or energy. Ideally, it flows freely through the house or garden.
  • Yin and Yang: the fundamental polarity of all things. Yin is female, dark, passive, etc, while Yang is male, bright, active, etc.
  • Wu Xing: the five elements, metal, earth, fire, water, and wood. Each is associated with particular colours, directions and seasons.
  • The Bagua: the eight trigrams which are familiar to some of us from the I Ching but apparently  predate even that ancient text.

It is worth noting that none of these concepts is unique to Feng Shui: they are all integral to Taoism, in which a harmonious relationship between nature, humanity, and the divine is emphasised, and they permeate Chinese culture.

five elements
The interactions between the Wu Xing. The “generative” cycle is illustrated by grey arrows running clockwise on the outside of the circle, while the “destructive” cycle is represented by red arrows inside the circle. Image: Parnassus, Wikipedia

Traditional Feng Shui practice maps the trigrams onto a compass rose and then uses associations between the trigrams and the five elements to determine the most beneficial orientation and layout of a house or garden. Home and garden are seen as a single unit in traditional Chinese design, so each sector of the home corresponds to the sector of the garden just outside it and they are ruled by the same elements, seasons and colours.

The most fundamental orientation is to the sun: the North is cold and dark, while the South, the sunny side of the property, is warm and bright – in the Northern hemisphere, of course. East and West, morning and evening sun, are also significant. (Optimal orientation to the sun is not by any means a superstitious idea, of course; it is central to good garden design and important to domestic architecture.) That suggests that if we take the Northern hemisphere Bagua – the compass rose – and flip North and South without changing East and West, we should be on the right track.

Here is the result. I have put North at the top of the diagram, since that is our Western mapping convention, and modified the traditional octagon to a square format for convenience.

bagua chart
Feng Shui Bagua adapted to the Southern hemisphere, with main characteristics and associations

Correlations with the Seasons

Summer and Winter are symbolised by Fire and Water Elements, which makes sense in a temperate climate, while Spring and Autumn are Thunder (Wood element) and the Lake (Metal element); Spring = Wood element, for the renewal of plant life, and Thunder, for wild weather, makes sense, but the connection between Metal and Autumn is not so obvious.

This chart aligns the two Earth trigrams to “intermediate” seasons. If we read the bagua anticlockwise, as we must to follow the correct order of seasons, those intermediates bridge the winter-spring and summer-autumn transitions. If the four seasons align with the cardinal directions, as they do in most sources, the Northeast and Southwest should also be thought of as transitional, which is why I have put their seasons in brackets.

But none of the traditional temperate-climate seasons make much sense in our monsoonal climate. Our Winter is dry, our Summer is wet, our growing season is Autumn and our fallow season (when nothing grows) is Spring. I think we have to write that correlation off as “temperate climates only” and move on.

Practical recommendations

Most popular Feng Shui books and articles are written with the Northern hemisphere in mind but since they are generally written in terms of the eight sectors of the Bagua and we have modified that to suit our location, we can use them quite freely.

Recommendations often begin with “get rid of clutter because it impedes the flow of chi,” and, in the garden, “Tidy up and remove dead leaves and other debris to improve the flow of chi.” That’s good practical and aesthetic sense, too.

The constant mantra of “improving the flow of chi” equates in practical terms to setting up conditions in which air (and people) can circulate freely through the space – again beneficial whether you believe in chi or not.

Beyond those constants, recommendations range from uncontroversially useful to “that’s a bit too new-agey for me.” I have collected a random sample and arranged them roughly in that order.

  • The public rooms of the house (kitchen, dining, lounge, office) are ideally on its sunny side (North for us), with bedrooms, storage rooms, etc, on the dark side.
  • The best sectors for a kitchen garden are the Wealth, Career, Health and Family, and Relationships sectors, i.e. East, South, NE and NW.
  • In bedrooms, avoid placing large mirrors where they can be seen from the bed.
  • Encourage the flow of chi by giving it a path to follow. A curved or winding path is best, because that will slow it down. (Fast-moving chi brings agitation. It is too yang)
  • Raise the chi of a sector by increasing its ruling element, or the shapes and colours associated with that element.
  • The ideal sector of the garden for the entertainment area and barbecue is the Fame and recognition sector, the North, ruled by the Fire Element. For similar reasons, symbolic guardian statues are best placed in the SW and a contemplative corner of the garden is ideally in the SE.
  • The flow of water symbolises and affects the flow of wealth, so bathrooms tend to drain wealth and energy from the home. For the same reason, large water features in the garden should have the water flowing towards the house.

Conclusions

My sources for this post have been unusually unreliable, contradictory and frankly irrational. Advice in popular books and articles matches, too neatly for coincidence, contemporary design fashions spiced with a dash of Asian exoticism. I’m therefore going to suggest that we use it only as a very general way of focusing our attention on the environmental aspects of house and garden design. Beyond that, we must fall back on more conventional planning processes.

Any reader interested in taking my original idea further, reconstructing ancient knowledge and applying it to our conditions, might find Roger Green’s Feng Shui for the Southern Hemisphere a good starting point.

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