UW students find lasting impact in Feng Shui program in Beijing

The Chinese Culture, Arts, Design and Feng Shui Program is described as a faculty-led seminar that takes students to Beijing to learn about the Chinese concept of Feng Shui, its application and impact on Chinese art, design, history, culture, and society.  But many students discover that the impact of this popular program – created and led by Professor Wei Dong of the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Human Ecology – transcends academics and influences their lives.

“Wei had a key phrase that he taught us that will stick with me forever: ‘It’s about the journey, not the destination,’” says Clare Scharf, a UW–Madison alumna who works for Art Partners Group, an art consulting company in Minnesota.

“I wrote my final paper in China about this, as it can mean so many things in life,” Scharf says. “While studying Feng Shui there, that phrase is really instilled in design and the general way of life.”

Wei Dong, whose expertise in traditional Chinese Feng Shui has drawn national attention, developed the seminar 10 years ago to introduce students to traditional Chinese architectural styles, which are being supplanted by Western designs. Since then, his program has taken approximately 220 students to China’s capital city.

Dong has received numerous honors for his research, creative work, service, and teaching. He is known for his comparative study of Asian and Western architectural and interior designs, and has received major grants to study the nearly vanished buildings of the Chinese ethnic group and traditional courtyard and cave houses.

Wei Dong at Study Abroad Fair
Professor Wei Dong talks about the program at the 2012 Study Abroad Fair.

He takes particular pride in how his study abroad program has influenced students.

“The key principle of Feng Shui is the balance of yin and yang,” Dong explains. “The co-existence of opposite elements is a crucial message to students as they can apply it to their lives. They go to the bars and party hard, but they also study equally hard. It is what I call ‘dynamic balancing.’”

He adds, “Harmony, another principle, is about how the individual, earth and universe co-exist. The five elements of nature – wood, water, metal, fire and earth (soil) – can be constructive or destructive together.”

Dong focuses on the oldest school of Feng Shui thought, the Form School, which “studies the environment and how human behavior influences it,” he says.

Scharf talks about her experience, relating it both to design and life: “Walkways may be designed in a zig-zag pattern rather than a straight path, as it is about the journey … not the destination. Life in general is slower-paced. We would see people in their 70s playing checkers with their friends on the sidewalk at night. There was a great sense of community and that community really embracing life.”

Guided by principles

“The concepts I learned about through this program have greatly influenced my work and continue to do so,” says Amy Brockdorf, a teaching assistant at UW–Madison who majored in interior design. “The central Feng Shui principles of integration and balance guide my work as an interior design practitioner in everything I do.”

Brockdorf says, “I look at design problems in a much more holistic fashion and have a greater understanding that each decision I make has an impact on something else.  As I look back, I can see my projects have become more meaningful and my connection to the environment has been enhanced.”

While in Beijing, students attend morning lectures and do field work in the afternoon – “learning inside and outside the classroom.”

Wei Dong at Temple of Heaven
Professor Wei Dong prepares to lead a tour through Beijing’s Temple of Heaven

Dong says, “Students visit the Temple of Heaven, among other sites, to observe the principles of Feng Shui in architecture. This also exposes them to the difference between Eastern and Western learning.”

“A typical day started with a class taught by Professor Dong or a guest professor from Peking University that would focus on design concepts related to Feng Shui, such as the spatial arrangement of space, calligraphy, furniture design, and tai chi,” says Eric Schuchardt, a 2008 UW–Madison graduate in landscape architecture who went on to study landscape architecture in urban design at Harvard University.

“To me, the second half of the day was the most exciting; this was when we ended up visiting places that exemplified the design principles we learned about in the morning session,” says Schuchardt, who has returned to UW–Madison as an associate lecturer in the Department of Landscape Architecture.

“My favorite experience was exploring the maze-like spatial layout of the one- to two-story historic Beijing hutongs by rickshaw, and then, in the same day, visiting a new housing development with four 100-meter towers rising from the ground. The contrast of building scale was amazing, but the best part was seeing how the spatial arrangement of the contemporary residential units in the new 200-foot tower still related to those in the historic hutongs.”

Like peeling an onion

“Many of the Chinese households have the concepts of Feng Shui embedded in them,” Dong says. “For example, the Chinese gardens run between the inside and outside of houses – the idea of inter-running and ‘living environment.’ This is unlike the West, where gardens are only outside houses.”

Wei Dong at hutong home entrance.
Professor Wei Dong explains the design of an entrance to a home in a Beijing hutong.

“When you walk into houses in China, the best part of the house takes time and effort to get to. This is the idea of a journey versus a destination,” he says. “A person gets to look at the ‘essence’ of the house from different angles before approaching it directly.”

He explains: “You can compare this to an onion – you peel it until you get to the juicy part below all the layers. In America, you enter a church and you can see the statue of Jesus Christ, but in China you have to go through several doors within a temple to see the deity.”

He adds, “A lot of this kind of architecture may also be unconscious; people don’t think it’s Feng Shui.”

Being able to connect the classroom lessons to personal experiences helped Brockdorf understand everything she was learning at a deeper level, she says.

“This program is set up to learn about concepts while you are seeing and experiencing them,” she explains.  “Instead of watching a presentation about Chinese culture, you take tai chi classes with a master and experience acupuncture with a traditional Chinese practitioner.  Instead of reading about color theory, you go to museums and temples to witness the interaction of color and light.”

She adds, “Students begin to understand the concepts in a much more holistic way than if one were reading about them in a book or watching a presentation. It offers many opportunities to individualize your education, because of the diversity of experiences presented to you.”

Enlarging students’ visions

By introducing students to traditional Chinese Feng Shui, Dong has his eye as much on the future as on the past. He notes that Feng Shui has close connections to sustainable development.

“In the West, sustainability in architecture is theatrical; it is systematically designed. But in China it is a part of the architectural style and students see live examples of that,” he says.

Wei Dong talks with resident.
Professor Wei Dong talks with a resident of a Beijing hutong.

Ultimately, Dong wants his program to enlarge student visions – to move students from the American Midwest outside of their comfort zones.

Former students, meanwhile, offer praise both for the program and their professor.

“This study abroad program is unique because it is tied so closely to a specific professor, which, in my opinion, strengthens the experience,” Brockdorf says.  “From the moment you step off the plane, you feel as though you are stepping into Professor Dong’s home.  He is dedicated to orchestrating a meaningful experience for his students and providing opportunities for each person to make the most of their time in China.”

Scharf says she learned a lot about herself on the program. “I would highly recommend this trip to anyone considering. Wei Dong is such a genuinely great person and teacher. He dedicates so much of his time planning this trip and really wants to make it an incredible experience for the students. I am very grateful I was able to participate in this study abroad program.”

In addition to the program itself, she adds, “We were able to see so many different landmarks in and outside the city, with a very entertaining bus driver! We also got to have a lot of meals out as groups, enabling us to try a variety of food as everything was served family-style. There was an optional two-day trip to climb the Great Wall, which was something I will never forget, and also a weekend trip to Shanghai. There was more free time to explore the city during the second two weeks of the program – I would definitely recommend bartering at markets.”

Schuchardt applies lessons from the program in his own teaching today: “The best way to learn about a place and its people, either in China or Wisconsin, is to visit the place in person. This was a simple yet an important concept I learned as a young design student traveling to Beijing with Professor Dong.”

“Today this concept still holds true, as I currently teach the year-long senior capstone project in the Department of Landscape Architecture,” he says. “Before my students start their design and planning projects, they must visit their project sites, which are in towns and cities all over Wisconsin, at least twice and interact with local stakeholder organizations in order to gain a better understanding of the local culture.”

– by Neha Alluri

Photographs by Kerry G. Hill