What is Feng shui? Is it a fad? Am I required to rearrange my entire home? Or am I able to do only areas that need to become in better harmony?
Feng shui is a Chinese philosophical system of harmonizing everyone with the surrounding environment. The term Feng shui literally translates as “wind-water” in English. This is cultural shorthand taken from the passage of the now-lost Classic of Burial recorded in Guo Pu’s commentary: Feng shui is one of the Five Arts of Chinese Metaphysics, classified as physiognomy (observation of appearances through formulas and calculations). The Feng shui practice discusses architecture in metaphoric terms of “invisible forces” that bind the universe, earth, and man together, known as qi.
Historically, Feng shui was widely used to orient buildings—often spiritually significant structures such as tombs, but also dwellings and other structures—in an auspicious manner. Depending on the particular style of Feng shui being used, an auspicious site could be determined by reference to local features such as bodies of water, stars, or a compass.
Qi rides the wind and scatters, but is retained when encountering water. Feng shui was suppressed in mainland China during the cultural revolution in the 1960s, but since then has increased in popularity.
More recently, the Yangshao and Hongshan cultures provide the earliest known evidence for the use of Feng shui. Until the invention of the magnetic compass, Feng shui apparently relied on astronomy to find correlations between humans and the universe. In 4000 BC, the doors of Bampo dwellings aligned with the asterism Yingshi just after the winter solstice—this sited the homes for solar gain. During the Zhou era, Yingshi was known as Ding and used to indicate the appropriate time to build a capital city, according to the Shijing. The late Yangshao site at Dadiwan includes a palace-like building at the center. The building faces south and borders a large plaza. It stands on a north-south axis with another building that apparently housed communal activities. Regional communities may have used the complex.
A grave at Puyang that contains mosaics— actually a Chinese star map of the Dragon and Tiger asterisms and Beidou— is oriented along a north-south axis. The presence of both round and square shapes in the Puyang tomb, at Hongshan ceremonial centers and at the late Longshan settlement at Lutaigang, suggests that gaitian cosmography (heaven-round, earth-square) existed in Chinese society long before it appeared in the Zhou Bi Suan Jing.
Beginning with palatial structures at Erlitou, all capital cities of China followed rules of Feng shui for their design and layout. During the Zhou era, the Kaogong ji (codified these rules. The carpenter’s manual Lu ban jing; “Lu ban’s manuscript”) codified rules for builders. Graves and tombs also followed rules of Feng shui, from Puyang to Mawangdui and beyond. From the earliest records, the structures of the graves and dwellings seem to have followed the same rules.
The history of Feng shui covers 3,500+ years before the invention of the magnetic compass. It originated in Chinese astronomy. Some current techniques can be traced to Neolithic China, while others were added later (most notably the Han, Tang, Song and Ming dynasties).
The astronomical history of Feng shui is evident in the development of instruments and techniques. According to the Zhouli, the original Feng shui instrument may have been a gnomon. Chinese used circumpolar stars to determine the north-south axis of settlements. This technique explains why Shang palaces at Xiaotun lie 10° east of due north. In some cases, as Paul Wheatley observed, they bisected the angle between the directions of the rising and setting sun to find north. This technique provided the more precise alignments of the Shang walls at Yanshi and Zhengzhou. Rituals for using a Feng shui instrument required a diviner to examine current sky phenomena to set the device and adjust their position in relation to the device.
The oldest examples of instruments used for Feng shui are liuren astrolabes, also known as shi. These consist of a lacquered, two-sided board with astronomical sightlines. The earliest examples of liuren astrolabes have been unearthed from tombs that date between 278 BC and 209 BC. Along with divination for Da Lin Ren the boards were commonly used to chart the motion of Taiyi through the nine palaces. The markings on a liuren/shi and the first magnetic compasses are virtually identical.
The magnetic compass was invented for Feng shui and has been in use since its invention. Traditional Feng shui instrumentation consists of the Luopan or the earlier south-pointing – though a conventional compass could suffice if one understood the differences. A Feng shui ruler (a later invention) may also be employed. The goal of Feng shui as practiced today is to situate the human-built environment on spots with good qi. The “perfect spot” is a location and an axis in time.
Qi (pronounced “chee” in English) is a movable positive or negative life force which plays an essential role in Feng shui. In Feng shui, as in Chinese martial arts, it refers to ‘energy’, in the sense of life force or elan vital. A traditional explanation of qi as it relates to Feng shui would include the orientation of a structure, its age, and its interaction with the surrounding environment, including the local microclimates, the slope of the land, vegetation, and soil quality. The Book of Burial says that burial takes advantage of “vital QI”. Wu Yuanyin (Qing dynasty) said that vital qi was “congealed qi”, which is the state of qi that engenders life. The goal of Feng shui is to take advantage of vital qi by appropriate siting of graves and structures. Some people destroyed graveyards of their enemies to weaken their qi. Often people with good karma live in land with good qi.
Polarity is expressed in Feng shui as yin and yang theory. Polarity expressed through yin and yang is similar to a magnetic dipole. That is, it is of two parts: one creating an exertion and one receiving the exertion. Yang acting and yin receiving could be considered an early understanding of chirality. The development of this theory and its corollary, five phase theory, has also been linked with astronomical observations of sunspots.
The Five Elements or Forces (wu xing) – which, according to the Chinese, are metal, earth, fire, water, and wood – are first mentioned in Chinese literature in a chapter of the classic Book of History. They play a very important part in Chinese thought: ‘elements’ meaning generally not so much the actual substances as the forces essential to human life. Earth is a buffer, or equilibrium achieved when the polarities cancel each other. While the goal of Chinese medicine is to balance yin and yang in the body, the goal of Feng shui has been described as aligning a city, site, building, or object with yin-yang force fields.
Two diagrams known as bagua (pa kua) loom large in Feng shui, and both predate their mentions in the Yijing. The Lo (River) Chart (Loushu) was developed fir and is sometimes associated with Later Heaven arrangement of the bagua. The Luoshu and the River Chart are linked to astronomical events of the sixth millennium BC, and with the Turtle Calendar from the time of Yao. The Turtle Calendar of Yao dates to 2300 BC, plus or minus 250 years.
In Yaodian, the cardinal directions are determined by the marker-stars of the mega-constellations known as the Four Celestial Animals:
East: The Azure Dragon (Spring equinox)—Niao (Bird);
South: The Vermillion Bird (Summer solstice)—Huo (Fire);
West: The White Tiger (Autumn equinox)—Mao (Hair);
North: The Black Tortoise (Winter solstice)—Xu (Emptiness).
The diagrams are also linked with the sifang (four directions) method of divination used during the Shang dynasty. The sifang is much older, however. It was used at Niuheliang, and figured large in Hongsham culture’s astronomy.
Traditional Feng shui is an ancient system based upon the observation of heavenly time and earthly space. The literature of ancient China, as well as archaeological evidence, provide some idea of the origins and nature of the original Feng shui techniques.
The “form” in Form School refers to the shape of the environment, such as mountains, rivers, plateaus, buildings, and general surroundings. It considers the five celestial animals (phoenix, green dragon, white tiger, black turtle, and the yellow snake), the yin-yang concept and the traditional five elements (Wu Xing: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water).
The Form School analyses the shape of the land and flow of the wind and water to find a place with ideal qi. It also considers the time of important events such as the birth of the resident and the building of the structure