Wei Dong is a Full Professor with a distinguished achievement professorship at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, USA. Professor Dong specializes primarily in the study of cultural influence on arts and design - combining, comparing and contrasting between Chinese traditional art/design principles, Feng Shui culture and applications with Western Environment and Behavior studies and sustainable development theories. He has been awarded extensive funding for a variety of his research endeavors and his knowledge of traditional Chinese Feng Shui has drawn international attention.
Additionally, Professor Dong is known nationally and globally for his artwork which have been collected by both private collectors and large companies, particularly in the Virginia and Washington D.C. areas. Wei holds several honoree professorships at a variety of universities throughout the US and China. He has also received several art and design awards from international competitions such as IDEC and the Art and Design Educators competition in the US. His creative work has also been presented in numerous galleries, shows and presentations nationally and internationally as well. Professor Wei Dong has given lectures and workshops across the US, Asia, the Middle East, and has been involved with over fifty universities globally. He continues to write about his creation ideas and techniques by publishing two books in which one has been translated from English into Spanish, and Korean. For his extraordinary records of creative scholarship, outstanding performance in teaching and service, he has received five variety distinguished awards from the University of Wisconsin –Madison, USA.
Claudia Chandra CMC '20 interviewed Wei Dong in April, 2019.
Feng shui is widely used in Asia for building design, interior design and landscaping. What is feng shui and what is its appeal to people across Asia?
Feng shui is by definition is wind and water. But it is way beyond just these physical elements. For most Asian people, feng shui is a philosophical life approach, valuing harmony with the environment and a centered and balanced lifestyle. Among Asian people there are different versions of feng shui. For example, India has their own equivalent of feng shui. Feng shui’s appeal in Chinese culture comes from their belief in the formation of the individual character. One of the three things important to creating one’s individual character is feng shui.
Is there a science behind feng shui? What are its fundamental principles? How specifically does feng shui improve building, interior, and landscaping designs?
In my teaching I always say good feng shui will equal good design. Feng shui incorporates all human needs as well as human and environment interaction. I have this argument that feng shui is a cultural phenomenon. After all, it is based on a natural relationship between the environment and humans. Sometimes people try to use statistical measures to measure feng shui. I don’t think that is an approach we want to be taking. There are many things we cannot scientifically prove by quantitative research and yet it happens. It is like art or a culture. Feng shui is a multidisciplinary approach to enhance people’s happiness, prosperity, and relationship between individual and environment as well as among other people. So many feng shui principles can not only be applied to environmental design (architecture, landscaping), but also can be applied to relationship, business management, and well-being.
Feng shui’s fundamental principle is the integration between the universe, human, and earth in harmony. In Chinese this is called tien zhen hu yi. This is an ancient concept and unfortunately these days so many designs are totally against basic human needs. We are becoming more separated with our basic needs. Another principle of feng shui is the balancing of yin and yang. Yin and yang are the most fundamental concepts of feng shui. They are two opposite elements that co-exist together. Even if you have a bad concept, many things can be improved. For example, day and night or male and female. We are constantly looking for the other side, not only of ourselves or what we see but we constantly try to see beyond our own reasoning and uncover layers to solve problems and to make what we create more comprehensive. The third major principle is the five elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth, create something called a constructive cycle that produces positive energy. If reversed counter clockwise, these elements can create a destructive cycle.
For example, if I design an interior with too much of a fire feel - it does not have to be a fireplace, it could be a bold red color or too many angles - that may make people who come in feel more fired up. So, to balance fire we need water. In that environment you may introduce some blue color, physical water, or some more organic-shaped things, and create a calmer feel to the interior. As a physical link, for example, these days we are all under stress and internally we are “burning up” with fire. The Chinese say that if we eat a lot of lamb and spicy food during this time, you can get more anxious. So maybe take a different approach and eat more veggies and drink more liquids and light foods to be balanced. To be balanced does not mean putting you down or doing things you dislike, but really what it does is to raise the question: have you thought about your balance? Otherwise we would just go to one extreme too much.
How has the art of feng shui stood the test of time?
Feng shui is definitely a part of the blood and culture of so many Asian people including Chinese, Koreans, all the way down to South-East Asians. It is not a genetic thing but a cultural thing that is passed down. For example, as a young boy my grandparents would tell me “oh don’t do that, it’s bad feng shui” or “we should do this according to feng shui.” When feng shui first started, it was about how to best design your tomb for the afterlife. That was the first indicator of feng shui from 3,000 years ago. Archaeologists dug up a tomb and made people start to wonder why they were worried about only their next life. What about their current life? That caused feng shui to split into two schools: Form and Compass (Li Chi). Form school has to do with the environment. What is the best environment to bring you happiness, success and prosperity. Form, or landscape, feng shui, is thought to be the oldest feng shui system, emphasizing on the natural landforms – or forms surrounding the property. When I say “landforms,” I’m talking about the visual shapes and contours of the environment, including the mountains, terrains, topography, lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water, as well as manmade objects, such as nearby buildings and roads.
While Forms school focuses on the physical landscape configuration of the environment, Compass school focuses on assessing the abstract energies that cannot be seen with the naked eye. All of these systems emphasize the use of formulaic calculations – rather than the external physical landforms – to determine how Qi affects you and your home. Therefore, it is considered a more dynamic practice. It has quick and short-term effects, prompting the feng shui fortune of a house to continuously change as time passes (i.e., the quality of Qi changes with time).
In the past before 1949, when the new Chinese government was established, feng shui was widely practiced in Chinese society. Schools and publications talked about it. After 1949, people started practicing feng shui in their own ways because major publications and newspapers were no longer promoting this concept as part of their philosophy anymore.
In the case of China, can you explain the return of feng shui and its rising popularity in the post-Mao era?
Right now, Chinese people are becoming more prosperous and have higher aesthetic standards and demands. Forty years ago, China just opened up to the world and still had a minimum physical living environment and living standards were really low. Now, with all the economic development China and its people care more about their living environment. As they have their basic needs, they are now thinking about how they can live better. They see concrete walls and they think “how can I give it more design to fit into my needs?” One can hire a designer like we do here professionally. But in Chinese culture there is more than functionality and feng shui has to be fitted into individual needs. After we go beyond the functionality of basic human physical needs, then we search for happiness and individual characters. At that level, people look beyond functionality. That is why right now more Asian people are thinking about how to use feng shui to make and justify making the environment more suited to their individual needs.
In official Chinese media, feng shui is often labeled as superstition. Is such a label justified?
No, this is where I think the confusion comes in. I have spent a lot of time with three other creators. We built the Chinese Architectural Feng Shui Cultural Museum in Taizhou, China. As I mentioned before, there are two schools of feng shui. The Form school is easily understood by Westerners because it focuses on environment behavioral study. I have done a good amount of research on comparing and contrasting environment behavioral study and feng shui. Surprisingly or not, they are similar. We are all humans pursuing happiness, comfort, and beauty. The only difference is that East and West approach it from different angles and perspectives and use different models to search for the same thing.
When I say feng shui, I always try to be more specific that I am referring to the Form school. Some people, when they hear feng shui, automatically think “oh that’s like a superstition” or a fortune teller or something. That’s not comprehensive enough and a very limited view. Feng shui is way broader than that. That’s why in the New York Times article entitled “Seeking a Harmonious Life with Feng Shui” has cited my word “feng shui is a philosophy of life.”
Aside from its influence on the architecture and design of buildings, how has feng shui influenced the world, in particular people in Western societies?
I do not think feng shui has such a dramatic influence on the western world. However, the true meaning of feng shui is definitely one of the elements architects and designers in their practicing. I don’t think they use the term feng shui, but again, they are using their own design terminologies they learnt at western school or professionally. But if you dig a little deeper, you will see that they are similar concepts to feng shui. For example, we are now all talking about sustainable development and green design. That is a concept that is suited to feng shui: in harmony with our environment. Green design talks about using local materials transported no further than from 500 miles away. It tries to work with nature, not against it like in the concept of feng shui.
For western designers, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed the “falling water,” that is a beautiful example of being in harmony with the natural environment. He is the one who started integrating inside and outside design of a house, which is the same concept as yin and yang. Again, it’s the same concept but just a different terminology.
Another example is Bill MacDonald who is the pioneer of green design, or sustainable development for architectural design. I would say maybe 15 or 20 years ago he gave a presentation about this whole concept of green design and sustainable development. Back then, respecting nature and living in harmony with it was such a strange concept. But when he gave his presentation, I thought “wow he is talking about so many feng shui concepts by using different terminologies.” During the question and answer, I submitted a question which said something like “from your presentation I saw lots of reflections about Chinese ancient culture of feng shui.” MacDonald explained that he grew up in Asia until the age of 8. That’s a lot of cultural influence. Maybe he never studied feng shui formally as a concept at school, but he was definitely exposed to it.
Does the practice of feng shui in China differ from elsewhere in Asia?
In China, I think feng shui practiced more directly. They have the physical surroundings as well as cultural backgrounds. Practitioners are talking to people who in that environment can accept that concept more and everywhere there are examples of feng shui.
When I practice in the U.S., I need to give a little more background and culture information. I also have to draw the link between western terminology and concepts with feng shui. Most of the time I go through comparing and contrasting between Western and Eastern design to make people better understand the reasoning behind certain designs.
Right now, in the U.S., there are more people looking for alternative ways to find wellbeing and happiness. So many people practice yoga, as you know. Earlier, yoga used to be a more exclusive activity. These days, whenever you are stressed people tell you to go to a yoga class. That, again, goes back to a feng shui principle. Two opposites must co-exist together. Because our society is become faster, more stressed, everything is now on the tip of your fingers, we need the other side to balance that. So, we need to slow down. That slow movement, that pause and re-thinking about our internal balance is becoming more critical. This is why people are thinking about the other side of the equation.
What are, according to feng shui, some inauspicious actions we should avoid in order to achieve better balance and harmony in our homes and lives?
I would say for home design, it’s about transition and layering. Pay attention of the angle your turns, the focal points when you walk in the house. At home, you want a “power place.” That place gives you your core and identity and self-respect and self-confidence. Something in your home must have power. Also, Chinese feng shui uses animal metaphors. On your back should be a turtle because it provides us a solid background. On your left should be dragon. On your right side, somehow, you have a dragon. At the front you want to have a good opening.
Imagine an arm chair and try to think the best feng shui is the arm chair formation. When you sit in an armchair, you have a solid back that protects you. In front, a big opening that no matter who is coming you will see them. Left and right are balanced. This arm chair formation can be applied to so many situations. Think about it, even your team. You are the leader and you want some to function as left arm and right arm and they have a big opening between them to create good discussion. That is a good team working environment as per feng shui.
Many big magnificent houses here don’t have much transition from outside-inside. Feng shui calls for a good transition. That transition can be leading you more into “experience.” Another feng shui concept is called “in the journey vs the destination.” Through journeys you have a more enjoyable time designing your experience. For many of my students in the last 15 years, I took students to China to teach them physical evidence of feng shui, like Chinese gardens. The Chinese garden is not like a western garden In the West, gardens are things that exist outside with flowers and trees. In China, a garden interacts between the inside and outside to create your living environment and experience.
‘Feng Shui garden’ which won the RHS Silver Gilt Medal in 1999 at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. Design: Pamela Woods