Stephen L. FIELD

The yin-yang and bagua symbols. In the practice of feng shui, a bagua compass can be used to locate the eight trigrams, or energy fields, of a space.

Feng shui is the Chinese art of site orientation, which is based on the belief that the house (the dwelling of the living) or the tomb (the dwelling of the dead) can be situated physically to take advantage of the flow of qi within the environment.

In a holistic view of the cosmos, the human anatomy is a microcosm of the earth, and the blood veins of one correspond to rivers and streams of the other. The Chinese art of feng shui (literally meaning “wind water”) seeks to take advantage of this state of affairs. When the ground is broken and the well is dug for a new house, or when the excavation for a tomb is conducted, such action taps the qi meridians of the earth—called “dragon veins.” There are two major schools of feng shui—the Form School, where the physical aspects of the landscape are the focus, and the Compass School, where the astrological or cosmological orientation of the site is the focus of examination. Regardless of the type of feng shui, all site orientation methods purport to locate and characterize qi in the physical plane.

Form School of Feng Shui

The earliest Chinese text to discuss the physical environment of Form School feng shui is the Book of Burial, written in the fourth century CE. It describes the environment as follows:

Arteries spring from low land terrain; bones spring from mountain terrain. They wind sinuously from east to west and from south to north. Thousands of feet high is called forces; hundreds of feet high is called features. Forces advance and finish in features…. Where forces cease and features soar high, with a stream in front and a hill behind, here hides the head of the dragon…. Where terrain winds about and collects at the center, this is called the belly of the dragon.

This is the geophysical character of the optimum site—called the dragon lair, but there is also a very important meteorological element in the physical description of the site. The following passage from the Book of Burial is the first time in recorded history that the term feng shui is used:

Qi rides the wind (feng) and scatters, but is retained when encountering water (shui). The ancients collected it to prevent its dissipation, and guided it to assure its retention. Thus it was called feng shui. According to the laws of feng shui, the site that attracts water is optimal, followed by the site that catches wind.

Wind and water are the means by which qi is controlled. Wind scatters qi, so its ingress should be blocked. Water collects qi, so its presence should be encouraged. This will ensure that sufficient qi surrounds the tomb or house. A proper translation of feng shui therefore is “(hinder the) wind (and hoard the) water.”

Locating Qi in the Environment

It is the duty of the feng shui master to search the physical environment of the dwelling to locate the flow of qi. The Book of Burial describes how to find the elusive flow. “Where the ground holds auspicious qi, the earth conforms and rises. When ridges hold accumulated qi, water conforms and accompanies them.” “Ridges” in this passage is a physiological term referring to the arterial branches or vessels of the dragon veins. Where water flows on the surface, qi flows beneath the surface. In another passage, the relationship between earth, water, and qi is made even more explicit: “Earth is the body of qi—where there is earth there is qi. Qi is the mother of water—where there is qi there is water.” As mother and offspring, qi and water exhibit a natural attraction. Obtaining one is the means of acquiring the other.

When the flow of qi is discovered, then the feng shui master must look for the location where that flow slows down and pools or accumulates. The Book of Burial clarifies in this fashion:

Where the earth takes shape, qi flows accordingly; thereby things are born. For qi courses within the ground, its flow follows the contour of the ground, and its accumulation results from the halt of terrain.

This pooling or concentration of qi is an ancient concept that also began as an explanation of human physiology. The following passage is from a fourth century BCE Daoist book of philosophy called the Zhuangzi: “Man’s life is the assembling of qi. The assembling is deemed birth; the dispersal is deemed death.” This is why a pool of qi is advantageous for the burial site. According to the Book of Burial: “Life is accumulated qi. It solidifies into bone, which alone remains after death. Burial returns qi to the bones, which is how the living are endowed.” Somehow the pooling of qi around the interred bones affects the lives of the descendants of the deceased. This final passage reveals the metaphysical power of qi—its ability to enhance the lives of people in its proximity.

Mutual Resonance of Qi

The process whereby the bones are energized is called “mutual resonance.” According to the Huainanzi, a second century BCE text:

All things are the same as their qi; all things respond to their own class…. Things within the same class mutually move each other; root and twig mutually respond to each other.

The standard proof of mutual resonance given by the ancient philosophers is this: If a string on one lute is plucked, the same string on a nearby lute will simultaneously vibrate. It follows, then, that the qi of the interred corpse and the qi of the living descendants are identical. Therefore, when the vital, life-giving qi of the burial site surrounds the bones, they are energized like a dead battery being recharged, and the lives of the descendants are thereby endowed. The fact that the unplucked lute string vibrates because it is tuned to the sound waves produced by the plucked string was certainly not known by the ancient Chinese, although it is tempting to identify qi as a type of energy wave based on this analogy.

Qi and Magnetism

It is tempting to base scientific conclusions upon another analogy. The Chinese believe that qi flows through meridians within the human body just like it flows within ridges and branches in the earth. The acupuncture point on the human body is also called a cave or lair, so we can say that the mountain lair is simply the acupuncture point on the earth. When the grave is excavated or the foundation of the house is dug, the geophysical meridians are tapped just like those reached by the acupuncture needle in the human body. Certainly there are forces at work within the earth that cannot be seen or consciously felt by humans—especially magnetic fields. Some creatures do have an affinity for magnetic waves—dolphins, whales, sea turtles, and homing pigeons all have magnetite molecules in their brains that give them a magnetic sense of direction. The fact that hemoglobin contains a certain concentration of ferrous atoms leads some to conclude that the magnetic poles of the earth influence the directional orientation of the human body. Some modern feng shui adherents therefore claim that an electromagnetic radiation of some kind is the focus of feng shui. They base their claim on the fact that the compass was invented by the Chinese specifically to assist in
the reading of terrestrial feng shui. While the Chinese may have believed early on that the unseen force called qi was responsible for the function of the compass needle, modern science has been unable to determine the influence of such energy on the well-being of humans. If qi could be proven to exist, or if magnetic fields could be proven to influence human life, then feng shui might be taken more seriously by the scientific community. Until then, its practice might be considered folk ecology rather than an environmental science.

So what exactly is qi? Thousands of pages of commentary have been dedicated to the explication of this term and no English translation can do it justice. While “energy” may capture some of its physical characteristics, such a word does not address its metaphysical qualities. While it originally meant steam or vapor (as in clouds), by the time of Confucius it had come to mean an animating force in the atmosphere (manifested in weather phenomena) that actively influenced the human body (manifested in fever, chills, delusions, etc.). The proto-science of Form School feng shui analyzed this force in the environment with the intention of controlling its manifestations in the individual. Such analysis was scientific only insofar as it was based on empirical observation. When other factors such as numerology and astrology were consulted by adherents of Compass School feng shui, the practice became less a science and more an art.

Compass School of Feng Shui

As we have seen in the Book of Burial, mountainous landscape is the optimum environment in which to trace the flow of qi. But not all landscape is mountainous, so there had to be a way to detect qi when the topographical forms and features did not protrude sufficiently to locate the hidden dragon veins. The Chinese believed that the realms of heaven, earth, and man were infinitely correlated, making it possible to read in the stars the qi of any given locale or any given person on earth. Furthermore, ancient Chinese thinkers believed that numbers underlie the operations of the phenomenal world. By knowing how these numbers change and transform, they could know how the spirits move. The numbers might be thought of as numerical equivalents of metaphysical entities like star spirits (especially the “Nine Stars,” but also including the five “moving stars,” or planets, the probable origin of the Five Elements) or other manifestations of natural forces, such as celestial and earthly conjunctions. One of the most important of such conjunctions was direction, not only the direction toward which a person faced on earth, but more importantly, the direction from which celestial influences were received by those on earth.

The Cosmograph

In ancient China there was no distinction between astronomy and astrology, because the stars in the night sky were celestial deities. Those with an understanding of the movement of stars therefore gained an understanding of the will of heavenly spirits. This was crucial information for the emperor, who was the center of the human realm, as Shang Di, or God on High, was the center of the heavenly realm. Shang Di’s celestial throne was the Big Dipper, around which all other stars revolved. The handle of the Dipper was the focus of his power, and was capable of dealing death and destruction in the direction to which it pointed. The Chinese accordingly created an instrument that was capable of determining the configuration of the Big Dipper in the sky at any time of day or night. This was the shipan, or cosmograph, models of which have been discovered in early Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) tombs.

The instrument consists of a square fixed earth plate on bottom and a rotating heaven disc on top. Around the circumference of both plate and disc are arranged the names of the twenty-eight constellations of the Chinese zodiac as well as the twelve Earthly Branches, representing the twelve months and the twelve double-hours of the day and night. In the center of the dial is a representation of the Big Dipper. The function of the instrument is similar to a planisphere—which allows the user to locate any star or constellation in the sky at any moment of the year, except that it is only the stars of the zodiac and the Big Dipper that are represented on the cosmograph.

While the Big Dipper in the center of the heaven plate is clearly the focus of the instrument, each of the four sides of the earth plate is marked with one of four greater constellations, each made of seven of the lesser constellations. There is the Green Dragon (composed of the Horn, the Neck, the Heart, and the Tail, for example), the Red Bird (composed of the Beak, the Gullet, the Crop, and the Wings, for example), the White Tiger, and the Dark Turtle. In any given season only one of these macro-constellations can be observed in its entirety in the night sky. In the ancient period the central constellation of each of the four deities occupied the center of the southern sky on the solstices and equinoxes. For example, on the summer solstice the Fire Star, the central star of the Heart of the Green Dragon, culminated at dusk. These great macro-constellations are also mentioned in the Book of Burial:

The Dark Turtle hangs its head,

The Red Bird hovers in dance,

The Green Dragon coils sinuously,

The White Tiger crouches down.

But in this manual of burial feng shui the deities represent topographical formations surrounding the lair or tomb site—the coiled dragon toward the east, the crouching tiger toward the west, the hovering bird in the south, and hanging turtle in the north.

The Feng Shui Compass

The shipan cosmograph was the direct ancestor of the magnetic compass, and its earliest use by the Chinese was not for navigation but for properly orienting the dwelling site. The Big Dipper rotating on the heaven dial transformed into the needle of the compass as the shipan evolved into the luopan, or feng shui compass. The luopan is still the standard tool of the feng shui master. In the most popular type of Compass School feng shui the cardinal directions of the square, its four corners, and the center (a total of nine “directions”) are all assigned characteristics based on Chinese correlative cosmology. This is the so-called Nine Star feng shui (after the seven stars of the Big Dipper plus two companion stars) or Palace of Nine Halls (based on the 3-by-3 grid that represents the ideal dwelling).

The Chinese are masters of correlations based on the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of heaven and earth. For example, there is the two-term system of yin and yang; the four-term system of cardinal directions and seasons; the five-term system of the Five Elements or Phases—wood, fire, earth, metal, and water; the eight-term system of the bagua, or eight trigrams of the Book of Changes; the nine-term system of the Nine Stars; the ten Heavenly Stems and twelve Earthly Branches of the sixty-term sexagenary numbering system; the twenty-eight constellations of the zodiac; and so on. Each ring of the luopan represents one or more of these correlative systems. When a particular location is oriented by means of the compass, its various elevations could then be correlated according to any number of factors.

The Five Elements and Feng Shui

Correlative cosmology can be quite complicated. For example, in the Nine Star system, each year is governed by one of the Nine Stars and is therefore characterized by a direction, a number in the Palace of Nine Halls, and a trigram of the Book of Changes. Most importantly, it has a particular phase or elemental character. Thus, based on the year of birth, every individual has his or her own characteristic element, num
ber, direction and trigram. However, of all of the enumerated correlations, it is the element that is supposedly the key to good fortune. According to the concept of the Five Elements, qi naturally progresses through five different phases as time progresses. There are two primary systems of phase shift—the production order and conquest order—exemplified as follows. (See table 1.)

TABLE 1 Production Order and Conquest Order

Earth harbors metal (ores) Earth dams water
Metal condenses water (on bronze mirrors) Water quenches fire
Water nourishes wood (plants) Fire melts metal
Wood feeds fire Metal cuts wood
Fire builds earth (as ashes) Wood saps earth

In Nine Star feng shui, any process that can be considered generative or productive will create good fortune. Destructive processes, on the other hand, create bad luck. For example, a person born under the element of metal would not want to live in a house facing the direction south, because south belongs to the element fire, and fire melts metal in the destruction order of the elements. A good direction for this person’s house to face would be southwest, because southwest belongs to the element earth, which harbors ores, thus producing metal. While the phase shift orders of the five elements are fascinating explanations of phenomenal change, like the Aristotelian concept of the “four humors” which they superficially resemble, they have no basis in scientific fact.

Feng Shui as a Belief System

For the numerous reasons mentioned, feng shui is not considered a science. As explained in the discussion of Form School feng shui, it is not the spirit of the ancestor that endows the living, but the ineffable qi that nourishes the ancestor’s bones. Thus nourished, the bones in turn “resonate” with the qi of the descendants. Without a spiritual aspect, it would appear then that feng shui is also not a religion. One scholar’s definition of qi as a psychophysiological power is an attempt to capture those aspects of the energy of qi that elude measurement. This would account for the purported intuitive powers of feng shui masters to locate qi in the environment, even when the topographical features of a particular locale do not conform well to the requirements of the text of the Book of Burial. This would also help to explain how the proper flow of qi benefits the living when there is no deceased to act as a “medium” between the physical environment and the human being. As a psychophysiological entity or event, feng shui may share its rate of success with a phenomenon in the medical community—the so-called placebo effect. Those whose ailments improve after being administered a placebo supposedly get better because they believe in the effect of the “medicine” they are receiving. If this effect can explain the influence of feng shui in modern society, then its practice is indeed similar to the practice of religion because the practitioner believes in the power of qi.

Further Reading

Aylward, T. F. (Trans.). (2007). The imperial guide to feng shui & Chinese astrology: The only authentic translation from the original Chinese. London: Watkins Publishing.

Bennett, S. J. (1978). Patterns of sky and Earth: A Chinese system of applied cosmology. Chinese Science 3, 1–26.

Chan Wing-Tsit. (1963). A source book in Chinese philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Field, S. (1992). Cosmos, cosmography, and the inquiring poet: New answers to the “Heaven Questions”. Early China, 17, 83–110.

Field, S. (1999). The numerology of nine star feng shui. Journal of Chinese Religion, 27, 13–33.

Field, S. (2001). In Search of Dragons: The folk ecology of feng shui. In N.J. Girardot, James Miller, & Liu Xiaogan (Eds.), Daoism and ecology: Ways within a cosmic landscape (pp. 185–197). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Field, S. (Trans.). (2003). The Zangshu, or Book of burial by Guo Pu. Retrieved July 30, 2008, from

Graham, A. C. (Trans.). (1981). Chuang-tzu: The seven inner chapters and other writings from the book Chuang-tzu. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Major, J. S. (Trans.). (1993). Heaven and Earth in early Han thought: Chapters 35 of the Huainanzi. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Wilhelm, R., & Baynes, C. (Trans). (1967). The I Ching or Book of Changes (3rd ed.), with forward by C. G. Jung, and preface by Hellmut Wilhelm, Bollingen Series XIX. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wong, Eva. (1996). Feng-shui: The ancient wisdom of harmonious living for modern times. Boston and London: Shambhala.

Source: Field, Stephen L.. (2009). Feng Shui. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 808–812. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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