The Paradox of the Universal Symbol in the Feng Shui Method

The Paradox of the Universal Symbol in the Feng Shui Method

The use of ancient methods to “mend” present-day architecture is one of the prominent symptoms of postmodern society. A society that until recently has accepted “truths” without questioning them, one that gives odd worldviews a fair legitimacy, and one that believes that what had benefited us in the past can do no harm today. The syndrome is not unique to architecture, as it finds expression in various vehicles from esoteric workshops dedicated to the study of the meaning of life, through Kabbalah and ancient religions, to the rise of alternative medicine currently taking a place of honor in every establishment of conventional medicine.

One of the secrets of the success of alternative medicine lies is the fact that it involves spiritual content, as opposed to conventional medicine that concentrates on the physiological. Such methods are interpreted by the patient as something unknown that can improve his condition, where the known had failed. Based on this line of thinking, one can use this formula to compare ‘alternative architecture’ to ‘alternative medicine’. Lacking satisfaction with the building, the user tends to turn to alternative advisors who may improve the situation by re-evaluating it nonconventionally.

Of the alternative design disciplines, the most prominent is Feng Shui. Developed as a form of Chinese survival, the ancient method was mainly dedicated to improving agriculture fertility through the study of topography and climate. At the center of it was the creation of a balanced situation of Yin and Yang - two complementary and co-dependent energy sources.

The literal meaning of Feng Shui is ‘water and wind’ - both essential for existence. While water represents the visible and visceral, wind mainly represents the spiritual and the unseen. This ideal-based approach (like Platos) holds that the visceral world is nothing but a reflection of the world of ideas. In this context, the heavens are conceived as a textbook in which all the rules and guides of the universe are pre-written, that is - a heavenly astrology that provides answers to every question on earth.

However, since modern world is entirely different from the earlier (and rural) one, and especially since the user has much less freedom of choice today, Feng Shui experts are presently confronted with utterly different situations. Users cannot change the direction of the windows of the apartment they had purchased on a limited budget, nor the orientation of the rooms or the aspired relations with the immediate surroundings. With this in mind, it is interesting how Feng Shui still manages to survive as a prosperous method in Western society.

This is not the place to discuss the principles of esoteric disciplines, such as the Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Chinese trigrams, and the Jewish Kabbalah. But it is worth noting that all to one encode their unique knowledge as a means of control through symbols - figurative, verbal or numerical. Although not always to its benefit (since it prevents the accumulation of new knowledge), a great deal of Feng Shuis success lies in this principle.

Universal versus Esoteric

Symbols, by definition, are a default choice. As such they are never the object itself, but rather its optimal substitution. Thus, instead of carrying a bagful of gold we use a piece of paper, instead of carrying the country we use its flag, and when we miss someone dear, we ardently carry his picture. And by analogy in Feng Shui: instead of land we use natural materials or "warm" colors; instead of water we use a water element (fountain) or blue color hues; instead of fire we use red shades, and instead of metal - shades of white.

This is the place to point out the important nature of symbols: despite the fact that symbols are of objective nature, their interpretations are completely subjective. “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” is often said, and the best example is falling in love, an act that is not dependent on the beloved, but on the attitude the lover develops toward him or her. Therefore, a picture (symbol) of a beloved one can evoke deep feelings, even deeper than the actual sight of the person.

From here to the idea that a picture of the sun (a symbol) can bring a sense of renewal, it is a short step away. If it is obvious to the observer that the intention is indeed to the sun, then it is likely that the symbol will serve its purpose. The question is whether this concept will hold true for symbols that are more abstract. The answer, of course, depends on the scope of the cultural base in which the symbol develops and is deciphered. The wider the base, the less is the dependence on time and place, and the greater the likelihood that the symbol will be understood by a wider audience. For example, while it is well known that the Star of David (six-pointed star) represents Judaism, the meaning of stars with different numbers of points is much less so.

The most interesting fact in Chinese astrology is related to this paradoxical dichotomy. While the logical explanation of earthly events is based on universal symbols understood by all, their spiritual interpretation is closely clutched to a scholarly elite group (in this case Feng Shui experts). On the one hand, the idea is to neutralize the dependence of the symbol upon time and place so that it is understood by all, but on the other hand - to keep its interpretation only in the hands of a chosen few.

Since the key to Feng Shui (like Kabbalah or other esoteric systems) lies in its ability to decipher numerical, verbal or formal symbols, there is a strong correlation between the level of knowledge of the Feng Shui advisor and his technique. While the most basic technique deals with the study of the complementary relations between Yin and Yang through the Ba-gua and Min-gua formulas, the Xuan Kong technique requires a much deeper knowledge in astrology, and the “Four Pillars of Destiny” is still kept as secret knowledge.


At the most basic level, the relation between the heavenly and earthly events is interpreted through the Zodiac. Similar to the Judaic and Muslim systems, Chinese astrology has 12 signs. However, the main difference between them is that the Chinese astrology is based on a cycle of 12 years (not months). Each year begins in February and is symbolized by the stereotype character of a particular animal.

Moreover, as opposed to the four-season Western method, Chinese astrology divides the year into twenty four seasons: Spring begins on February 5, Rainy Season - February 19, Insects - March 5, Vernal Equinox - March 30, Bright and Clear - April 5, Fructifying Rain - April 20, Summer - May 5, Grain is Filling - May 21, Grain is in the Ear - June 5, Summer Solstice - June 21,  Little Heat - July 7, Sun is In - July 23, Great Heat - August 7, Heat is Limited - August 23, White Dew - September 8, Autumnal Equinox - September 23, Cold Dew - October 8, Frost Falls - October 23, Great Snow - December 8, Winter Solstice - December 22, Little Cold - January 8, and Great Cold - January 20.


A key feature to understanding the Chinese secrets of heaven are the abodes through which the moon travels in its monthly course along the eclipse. These systems are divided into five sub-groups that are considered the souls of earth - each made up of seven stars located at certain directions. Like the years, the systems also have stereotype characteristics of animals. The first group - the Azure Dragon is located in the east and southeast. The second group - the Sable Warrior is located in the north; the third group - the White Tiger is located in the west and northwest; the fourth - the Phoenix is located in the south, while the fifth is the Snake and controls the central, southwest and northeast areas. All these animals have profound importance in the Feng Shui method, especially regarding the location of the home in relation to its environment.

In this rather complex context, there are five important planets, to which are attributed the finest human characteristics: Venus dwelling in the east symbolizes spring and abundance; Mars dwells in the south, symbolizing summer and fairness; Venus dwells in the west and symbolizes autumn and modesty; Mercury dwells in the north, symbolizing winter and intelligence; while Saturn dwells in the center and symbolizes midsummer and fidelity.


It is important to state that Feng Shui does not aim to replace conventional planning methods, but rather to enrich them with virtues one might not be unaware of; to create an optimal compatibility between the building, its surroundings and its particular user. Likewise, the method does not intend to enforce ancient Chinese architecture principles, but rather to use them to brighten up dark places. In this context, the use of traditional symbols does not aim at creating any link to the East, but to establish a clear and workable architecture wheresoever.

One of the important discoveries that led to the Xuan Kong method was that the stars don’t rest on their laurels, but move along certain routes according to the cycles of time. As such, their influence is not steady but rather dynamic. And thus, symbolized with ‘mouth’, Period 7 which ended in 2004, was well expressed by the media revolution that changed the face of the last century. However, the number 7 also relates to ‘younger daughter’, which has to do with the strength of the woman. Period 8 which began in 2005 is symbolized by ‘earth’, so that all the earthquakes and faults are heavenly witnesses to the notion that ‘alternative thoughts’ are not only meant for mystics.

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