The Art and Science of Fengshui 1998 Dr. Stephen L. Field

Trinity University




As a scholar of traditional Chinese thought I am concerned about the recent proliferation on the worldwide web of superficial and impressionistic descriptions of the ancient and tremendously complex "science" of fengshui. This practice is as old as Chinese culture itself (neolithic Yangshao villages date from about 6000 BCE), and anyone who teaches fengshui without having a good foundation in classical Chinese thought is like someone practicing surgery without first studying anatomy. The purpose of this analysis therefore is to teach the fundamental concepts to the general public so that individuals who have not studied China may have a better appreciation of such a venerable art and science.


Origins of Fengshui

A neolithic grave unearthed recently in Henan province is a microcosm of the Chinese world as it was perceived at this early period. Its southern face (beyond the head of the skeleton) was round, while its northern face (at the skeleton's foot) was square, as in the illustration to the left.

This accords with later images of the cosmos wherein earth was represented by the square body of a chariot and heaven by its round, umbrella-like canopy, as in this illustration.

More importantly, the remains of the body were accompanied by two figures outlined in shells, a dragon to the east and a tiger to the west. In the center of the grave was a representation of Bei Dou, the Northern Ladle (or Dipper). Since the dragon and tiger are also constellations in the Chinese sky, it is clear that the Yangshao people were already orienting their tombs with the annual revolution of the Big Dipper around the North Star.

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

In its earliest form fengshui indeed was utilized to orient the homes of the dead rather than the homes of the living. The term itself appears first in a passage from the Book of Burial which dates to no earlier than the 4th century CE. 1

So what is qi? Thousands of pages of commentary have been dedicated to the explication of this term and, quite frankly, 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. The Book of Burial characterizes it as "life breath." In one of its earliest contexts (The Zuo Commentary, 541 BCE), qi is a meteorological category composed of the six phases of cold, warmth, wind, rain, darkness, and light. 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 science of fengshui 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, fengshui became less a science and more an art. The "art" of fengshui derives little or nothing from the elemental, physiological plane but requires adherence to a belief in something like a force of destiny or fate. Borrowing the less than appropriate Western term, "geomancy," and adapting it to the Chinese tradition, I refer to the art and science of fengshui as "qimancy," divination according to qi.

2 On such-and-such a day, a crack was made. So-and-so divined: "The king would build a city; does the High God assent?" The earliest textual reference to the practice of site selection occurs in various similar passages on oracle bones dating from the middle of the Shang dynasty (1766-1046 BCE). Royal diviners queried Shang Di, the High God, by interpreting cracks appearing in heated animal bones. Here is an example of the pattern as it occurs on oracle bones.2 In this example the gods are being consulted regarding the efficacy of a particular time for establishing a city, but the same method of divination was also used to determine the efficacy of a particular place.
3 Great was Chief Liu--
He surveyed the breadth and length of his lands;
He measured the shadow and observed the hills,
Noting the sunshine and shade.
He located the streams and springs. . . .
The earliest textual reference to the actual practice of qimancy comes from the Book of Odes, the oldest anthology of poetry in the Chinese tradition. In a cycle of poems praising the exploits of the illustrious ancestors of the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE) the hero Gong Liu appears. Chief Liu led an exodus of his people to the fertile lands of Bin in the year 1796 BCE, according to tradition. The poem recounts the founding of his new domain, and this excerpt shows him conducting a geophysical survey.3

Liu was measuring the shadow of the gnomon, or sundial, to determine the cardinal directions. Sunshine and shade are the original meanings of the well-known terms yang and yin, which appear here in one of their earliest textual references. With this information he could determine which side of the hills and vales received the most sunshine during the winter, as well as the proximity of these sunny dells to sources of water. Such knowledge was crucial for an agrarian tribe that claimed to have descended from the demi-god, Prince Millet.

With these two bodies of evidence--archaeological records of neolithic China and literary records of legendary China--we can already see the general outline of ancient qimancy:
  • The orientation of tombs was as important as the orientation of homes.
  • The minimum requirement for either was the determination of direction.
  • Both astronomical and geophysical factors were consulted.

It is this last point that demands our further attention. Astute readers will recognize in these two categories the origins of what eventually became the two major schools of qimancy, the Lifa or "Cosmological School" (a.k.a., "Compass School") and the Xingfa or "Form School."


4 On the kanyu the male is slowly moved in order to know the female.

Early History of Lifa Qimancy

The earliest organized school of qimancy was known as Kanyu. The locus classicus for this term is the astronomy chapter of the Former Han dynasty (206 BCE-25 CE) Daoist text, Huainanzi. Here is the passage in question.4

From its context in the Huainanzi it is clear that some type of astronomical instrument is being manipulated. It may be the shipan, or cosmograph--an ancient planisphere--that is indicated here, models of which have been discovered in Han dynasty tombs. The specific meaning of kan is "canopy" and that of yu is "chassis"--reminiscient of the chariot illustrated above--in which case the term would mean "heaven and earth" or the "cosmos." The School of Kanyu, therefore, is "cosmic qimancy."

As regards the cosmograph, kan would refer to the rotating circular disc--the male component--and yu to the square base plate--the female component--as illustrated in the left panel.

Around both the square and round plates are arranged the names of the 28 constellations of the Chinese zodiac. The twelve months are arranged by decimal number counterclockwise inside the ring of the heaven disc, while the twelve Earthly Branches--a duodecimal numbering system--representing double-hours of the 24 hour day, occur clockwise on the inner square of the earth plate. In the center of the disc is a representation of Bei Dou, the Northern Dipper. Moving the disc to the right would represent the rotation of the Big Dipper clockwise around the North Star. If one observes the southern sky at the same time each night for several nights in succession, the zodiacal constellations will appear to move toward the west. The dial of the cosmograph as it is rotated clockwise on the earth plate corresponds to the arc made by the stars as they pass toward their setting in the west.

  By means of the cosmograph the configuration of the heavens could be determined at any time of day or night for any month during the year. First, the cosmographer would orient the earth board to the cardinal directions, represented by the four sides of the board. Then he would align the number of the month on the heaven disc with the double-hour of the day or night from the earth plate. Finally he would note the constellations on the portion of the disc that fronted the southern edge of the board. These are the asterisms that would appear in the sky in the month and hour of the query. In like manner the direction in which the handle of the Dipper is pointing could be determined. The ancient Chinese believed that the Dipper was the chariot of Shang Di, and the handle represented the focus of his celestial power.

Readers may wonder what part the ancient cosmograph played in the location of auspicious sites. Each of the 28 constellations of the zodiac corresponded to a particular earthly region, as did each of the Earthly Branches and, later in the tradition, the eight trigrams of the Yijing, the five elements or phases, etc. Time and space were thus joined in a prognosticatory system that enabled one to choose a fortunate location for a particular time or a fortunate time for a particular location. The cosmograph is more astrological than geophysical, perhaps, but later accretions would slowly transform it into the familiar luopan, or qimantic compass, of which it is the obvious precursor. The School of Kanyu, therefore, which was one of the first to make use of this proto-compass, is the ancestor of the Lifa school of medieval Chinese qimancy.


5 Water is the blood and breath (qi) of the earth, flowing and communicating as if in sinews and veins.

6 The Classic says: Qi flows where the earth changes shape. The flora and fauna are thereby nourished. It flows within the ground, follows the form of the terrain, and pools where the terrain runs its course.

7 Veins originate in lowland contours; bones originate in alpine contours. They wind sinuously from east to west and from north to south. When thousands of feet distant they are contours; when hundreds of feet nigh they are features. Contours advance and finish in features. This is called total qi.

Early History of Xingfa Qimancy

The earliest textual reference to a concept underlying the theories of the Xingfa, or Form School, of qimancy occurs in chapter 39 of the Guanzi, which dates to no earlier than the 5th century BCE. The passage in question reads as follows.5

Not until the 4th century CE, in the text of the Book of Burial, do we see a fully developed theory of the disposition of qi in the geophysical plane. Quoting an earlier text, the Classic of Burial, which is now lost, but purportedly dates to the Han dynasty (206 BCE-221 CE), the following passage discusses the relationship of xing (form, shape, features) and qi.6

The Burial Book continues with this commentary.7

The proper location of the "lair," or burial site, is where the "features finish," and a large portion of the book describes how to recognize these auspicious forms.

8 The dragon and tiger are what protect the district of the lair. On a hill amid folds of strata, if open to the left or vacant to the right, if empty in front or hollow at the rear, life breath will dissipate in the blowing wind. The Classic says: A lair with leakage will harbor a decaying coffin.

Here for the first time in the textual tradition the Four Celestial Palaces of the Cerulean Dragon, the Vermilion Bird, the White Tiger, and the Dark Turtle (which originally named the four macro-constellations that compose the ring of the 28 zodiacal constellations) are brought down to earth. On earth these celestial forms delineate the terrestrial forms that occupy the directions of east, south, west, and north, respectively (or left, right, front and back when facing south), of the burial site. The Book of Burial continues:8

From a passage cited above we learned that "qi rides the wind and is scattered, but is retained when encountering water," which was the locus classicus of the term fengshui. Here we see that the terrestrial features that block the wind are necessary to prevent the dissipation of the natural flow of qi in and along the ground. Flowing water, like wind, also attracts qi like a magnet, and the auspicious lair is one that encourages water to linger in its vicinity without stagnating.




The mention of wind and water brings the discussion full circle back to the definition of fengshui. The science of fengshui in its earliest recorded context specifically refers to the School of Forms. Terrestrial features serve to block the wind--which captures qi and scatters it, and channel the waters--which collect qi and store it. Fengshui may literally indicate "wind and water," but this is merely shorthand for an environmental policy of "hindering the wind and hoarding the waters." The science of Fengshui, therefore is "windbreak-watercourse qimancy." The art of Kanyu, on the other hand, the precursor of the Compass School, relies strictly on astrology and numerology as a means of fathoming qi on a cosmic scale. While fengshui is local, kanyu is universal. Since the medieval period in China--the existence of competing schools notwithstanding--masters of qimancy were versed in the environmental science as well as the occult art. The term I have coined, qimancy, divination according to qi, applies to both.


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The Art and Science of Fengshui
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Revised February 12, 1998