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A beginner’s guide to feng shui concepts

By Alisa Chau 13 April 2021

Header images courtesy of @hjochen and Jade ThaiCatwalk (via Shutterstock)

As with any other form of pseudo-science, the ancient origins and metaphysical associations surrounding feng shui have mystified the practice quite a bit. Although disregarded by naysayers as superstitious gibberish or a get-rich-quick ploy, its influence and deep roots within Hong Kong local culture cannot be denied.

Feng shui itself is a system that involves an expansive network of methodologies. Its elements are constantly being affected by shifts in the environment and can differ based on the space being examined. Feng shui looks at the relationship between us and our surroundings, aiming to find the best way to optimise our lives as a whole through how we organise our day-to-day.

It is impossible to cover the entire study in a single sweep, but a brief look into the fundamentals can help to uncloak the air of mystery often attached to the practice of feng shui. Take a look at the core ideas behind the art of feng shui, and it might just encourage you to make small changes that can help upgrade your life.

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History of feng shui

Dating back thousands of years, the traditional practice of feng shui has origins in Chinese philosophy, with influences from Taoism, metaphysics, and astronomy. Some of the earliest accessible records show the Neolithic Yangshao and Hongshan groups of northeastern China as the initial practitioners of feng shui, having used sundials and the weather to observe geomagnetic forces, long before the invention of the magnetic compass. Intertwined with folk wisdom, it is possible that the ideas feng shui imparts were born out of farmers’ efforts to tackle the landscapes and climes around them, creating the best setting for bountiful harvests and flourishing community networks within their village.

Despite the long-standing history of feng shui, it still draws plenty of raised eyebrows due to its inability to be evaluated according to scientific principles. Yet cross-examinations between the art of feng shui and the studies of environmental psychology, urban planning, as well as ecology have shown parallels in the ideas explored, suggesting that remedial claims presented by some feng shui practices have a solid basis behind its effectiveness.

Key feng shui concepts: Qi

The overarching goal of feng shui is to promote an optimised flow of qi (氣)—a term referring to the ever-moving energy believed to be embedded into all aspects of life. Pictured as a vital force that is indispensable to each and every living entity, arrangements in feng shui are operated with the assumption that we all inherently carry a deep-seated connection to the buzz of energy around us. 

Ideally, the adjustments we make in our setting through feng shui are meant to make way for a positive current of qi between ourselves and our surroundings. Think less “the Force” but instead direct your attention to the atoms embedded into every cell in your body, every particle that forms all the matter around you, all of which transmit qi. 

According to believers, mastering the ideal form of interaction between all these elements can create enhancing effects on our health, wealth, and interpersonal relationships. The concept of qi is also shown to play a key role in Chinese medicine and martial arts as well, serving as a measure to help achieve internal balance.

Key feng shui concepts: Polarity

An interleaving concept with qi, the dualism between yin and yang is another foundational element in feng shui. If qi is the force that toggles our internal balance, the polarity of yin and yang (陰陽) is the fulcrum against which it is placed. Symbolised by the iconic black and white icon, it revolves around the interplay of contradictory principles alongside the vision of maintaining harmony. 

It brings to the forefront complementary aspects and interdependence between opposites such as lightness and darkness, hot and cold, order and chaos. Though these concepts revolve around a dichotomy, one side arguably cannot exist without the other. When expressed in feng shui terms, yin and yang each represent different facets of qi that one can learn to harness to their advantage.

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Key feng shui concepts: Bagua

A bagua (八卦) is a chart that maps out the overarching components affected by yin and yang energies. Translated to “eight areas,” the chart represents the crucial aspects of your life, and how to manage them using the natural elements, colours, shapes, and geographical placements. It is represented as an octagonal shape that sections off energies in a room based on domains such as family and health, wealth and opportunity, fame and reputation, marriage and relationships, children and creativity, wisdom and self-cultivation, career and life path, in addition to compassionate connections and travel.

A bagua is often used as an accompaniment to interior floorplans and building blueprints. It is applied like an overlaying gridline, though it can be applied to any space that you are looking to re-arrange. If you are looking to enhance your job opportunities after deciding to explore a new field, here is where you would look into the relevant block presented in the bagua. In this case, the chart recommends bringing in items that conform to the element of water, the colour black, or a wavy shape. In terms of where you should place the items, it will depend entirely on the orientation determined by how every other thing in the room aligns with each other.

Key feng shui concepts: Command position

The command position of a room is the location where an individual can meet with the optimal qi flow. It is believed that spending your time occupying the “commanding” zone of a room can allow you to gain control to become the commander of your own energies, and subsequently your life. This is deeply important in places you spend a lot of time in, such as your workspace and your living room. 

The most crucial room in your house, the bedroom, is also where you are the most vulnerable, requiring optimised placements so you can make the most out of the underlying commanding energies. According to feng shui guidelines, the command position is the spot furthest from the door, angled diagonally away. You are advised to always have an eye on the door, preferably in a seat that faces it or that offers an unobstructed view to beware of and be ready for approaching challenges.

Feng shui toolkit

Feng shui requires an expert understanding of space in terms of its orientation and coordination, meaning special equipment is utilised to help find precise configurations. A gold plated luopan compass (羅盤; lo4 pun4) is a traditional tool that feng shui masters from many factions of the practice employ. Highly complex, its 40 layers of rings contain a rotating metal “heaven dial,” which is affixed to a wooden “earth plate” base. Its centre features an ever-shifting needle that is read when attempting to analyse and configure a space. 

After acquiring their bearings, some practitioners may use a specialised protractor (立极尺; laap6 gik6 chek3) to trace over the floor plans—this helps to make a note of the parts of the room that need re-adjusting.

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Real-life applications of feng shui

Hong Kong’s skyline is world-renowned for its beauty and unique skyscrapers. Many of our most iconic designs were constructed to accommodate for architectural recommendations promising good feng shui. Perhaps the most well-known out of Hong Kong’s list of auspicious structures is the HSBC Main Building, which incorporates fixtures to maximise the attraction of prosperity. 

Its open ground floor makes way for the surrounding qi of the Victoria Harbour, welcoming the element of water, which symbolises wealth in Chinese beliefs. As the building has a direct view of the harbour, the water can circulate its way up and into the building. 

Evil spirits are barred from entry thanks to the bronze lion statues out front, in addition to the angled escalators and atrium. Two cannon-shaped structures are mounted on the top to dispel negativities from their neighbouring competitor’s headquarters, the Bank of China Building designed by I.M. Pei, which some practitioners have criticised for disregarding good feng shui principles.

Feng shui-infused design is also heavily practised in home interiors and personal arenas as well. One thing to remember though is how individualised and personal each feng shui reading can be. Before you eagerly dash to the closest homeware shop or throw your office set-up into a complete overhaul, it is best to firstly arrange for a personalised reading of your space that is specific to your qi and your needs. Although there are a handful of decorative tips that get thrown around a lot, the guidelines of feng shui are not meant to be taken as universal rules, and are instead rather dependent on the features of different spaces.

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Alisa Chau


Always down for an adventure, Alisa’s general approach to life (and anything, really) is to “just go with the flow.” She believes that the most unforgettable moments are the most spontaneous ones. One thing she will always be certain of, however, is her love for the band My Chemical Romance and potato-based food.