Why do Americans Believe in Chinese Feng Shui?

The spread of Feng Shui in the US did not happen within a short span of time. It owed its early success to the dogged efforts of a handful of Chinese Feng Shui experts, both within and outside of that country. But from around the 1990 onwards, numerous Feng Shui schools have sprung up in large American cities.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Chinese art, architecture and philosophy were much admired in the West and Chinese luxury goods like silks, teas and porcelain, among others, were in great demand and they transformed their way of life drastically. However, following China’s accelerated political and economic decline during the 19th and part of 20th centuries resulting in foreign encroachment upon its sovereignty, its cultural appeal lost much of  its shine, except to the well-travelled and discerning foreigners.

With the advent of the United States as the dominant military and economic power since the 1930s, it has been the turn of the East to be mesmerised by its pervasive achievements in various fields of human endeavours. Be that as it may, following the rise of Asia, Westerners, especially Americans, are, once again, looking to Chinese culture to enrich their life. This trend has been gathering momentum and is there to stay. Apart from their love affair with Chinese cuisine, more and more Westerners are now turning to its acupuncture, herbal medicines, martial arts, gongfu films, fashions and art and crafts as a new wave of Chinoiserie (things Chinese) sweeps their countries. Their interest in  China has resulted in a rapidly growing  number of Western tourists travelling to that vast country in order to find out more about its 5000-year old civilisation and to observe it at close quarters.

Chinese language and acupuncture are now taught in many leading US and some European universities and medical schools. Besides acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicines have become an essential component of alternative medicine. More Westerners are now turning to these Chinese medical treatments, especially in chronic medical conditions where Western medical treatments have failed to relieve their pains and sufferings Similarly, hitherto unfamiliar words such as dim sum, ginseng, ginkgo, oolong cha, taiji, qigong, qi, yin and yang and ba-gua have crept into their everyday life.

The latest Chinese cultural icon to make its impact, especially in United States, is geomancy or Feng Shui, literally (wind and water), China’s ancient art of placement in relation to one’s house orientation, household fittings and objects arrangements, landscaping,  burial site, etc, aimed at achieving harmony with nature. In my recent trip to California, virtually all leading book stores and public libraries were well-stocked with plenty of publications on this highly esoteric subject. Who are these Americans and why do they take to Feng Shui like fish to water? They represent a good cross-section of the public, ranging from intellectuals, business tycoons, professional people, politicians, Hollywood celebrities to housewives, retirees and students. Their curiosity was first ignited following President Nixon’s and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s epoch-making trip to China in 1972, which ultimately led to US recognition of that country in place of the long discredited Chinese government in tiny Taiwan.

The spread of Feng Shui in the US did not happen within a short span of time. It owed its early success to the dogged efforts of a handful of Chinese Feng Shui experts, both within and outside of that country. But from around the 1990 onwards, numerous Feng Shui schools have sprung up in large American cities, including San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Boston and Houston. Their enrolments have risen by leaps and bounds since then as more believers are added to its ranks. Among these Chinese pioneers are Malaysian Chinese Lillian Too who has written more books on Feng Shui, at least 80,  than any other Feng Shui practitioners anywhere in the world. She holds a MBA degree from the Harvard Business School and has had a highly successful career with blue chip financial institutions in both US and Asia. Once her interest and fascination in Feng Shui was aroused, she made an unwavering and determined effort to unravel its mystery and  beneficial application in everyday life to individuals as well as business enterprises. She has become an international Feng Shui icon in both US and internationally and her publications have been translated into more than 30 languages. She even hosted a television show in United States, which was very popular with American viewers. Among her illustrious followers are celebrities and business tycoons like billionaire Donald Trump.

Symbol for the five elements of Feng Shui

Symbol for the five elements of Feng Shui

Today, the majority of its US practitioners are Americans themselves, having been trained by the pioneer Chinese Feng Shui masters there and abroad. They offer a wide range of services to both individuals and businesses. The most popular and successful among them are reaping handsome financial rewards and fame. Its adherents find its common-sensical approach to daily living an effective counterweight to rampant materialism, and helps them to reduce the intrusion of technology into their lives. With its emphasis on achieving balance and harmony and peace and tranquillity at home and at work, this time-honoured ancient Chinese art of placement  relaxes their minds and helps them overcome the stresses and strains of modern living. They are convinced that once their mental and physical well-being are in equilibrium, then good health, work efficiency and prosperity will come their way naturally.

A conspicuous manifestation of Feng Shui in the United states is reflected in the proliferation of miniature water fountains strategically placed in the homes, offices, shops, restaurants and at other public places. This is because  this Chinese geomancy places great importance in the  water element because it attracts the all-important life-sustaining qi, or energy. The soothing rhythm of running water gently beating down on pebbles or bamboo sticks can uplift one’s spirits as it symbolises a vital source of life. In such a relaxed state of mind, one would naturally feel at peace with the whole world and temporarily forget the stresses and strains of their everyday work and life. Feng Shui’s popularity in the US is also due, in no small measure, to architects’ and interior decorators’ influence. Not a few of them have become amateur practitioners of this ancient art themselves after having successfully completed part-time courses and learning its intricacies and rationale from professional Feng Shui masters there.

Underpinning the growing popularity of things Chinese is the emergence of China as a potential world political and economic superpower. This coincided with its reopening up to the outside world in the 1980s which has enabled it  to become the word’s second largest economy in just one generation and it is very likely to replace the US as  the number one world economy within the nest two decades. Added to this, the thriving Chinese communities in many American urban centres and their reputation as the model minority have aroused further general American interest and admiration for this distant and ancient land of China, which is so vastly different from theirs. Also, one of the inherent strengths of the United States is that it is truly an openly liberal society. This makes it easier for it to absorb cultural values and practices from other countries and to nurture them so that they become part of the social fabric of its own multiethnic and multicultural community.

Lam Pin Foo

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