Feng Shui, Yin-yang and Qi

feng shui, turtle, tortoise, calligraphy
Bronze tortoise used in Feng Shui

Feng Shui is a Chinese tradition going back thousands of years. It is closely associated with the Daoist tradition as it is concerned with living in harmony with nature. Feng Shui consultants are still used in China and around the world to advise on correct positioning and alignment of new buildings as well as layout of houses and gardens. Traditionally it has its highest importance for determining the most auspicious site for burials; this was because the spirits of the dead are considered particularly sensitive to placement. In determining directions the intricate and complex 罗盘 luó pǎn compass is used. The landscape was considered to be full of hidden good and bad flows of 'qi' and the compass together with the geomancer's skill would be able to determine the best position.

As Feng Shui is literally translated as wind fēng and water shuǐ its elemental origins are evident. The principle is sound enough; position everything for maximum harmony. A house should be oriented to catch the sun and avoid cold winds. However, in its more ludicrous pronouncements, it advocates such things as the importance of keeping a toilet seat down for good fortune. It is the mixture of common sense and the absurd that has made Feng Shui a source of ridicule in the recent past.

Elemental properties

The tradition can be seen as a sensible way to try to make sense of the world. The five essential properties (fire; water; wood; metal and earth) wǔ xíng, should not be thought of in the same way as Chemical elements, they are more like the set of elementary phases of matter, so anything liquid is showing its inherent 'water' property and anything gaseous 'fire'. From these phases the destruction cycle naturally arises: water can destroy fire; earth dams and adsorbs water; wood is nourished by earth; metal cuts wood; and to complete the cycle fire melts metal. Ingeniously there is a generation cycle that is not simply the reverse: water irrigates wood; wood fuels fire; fire creates ash (earth); earth contains metal (ores) and metal attracts water (as in dew). Each essence also has a fairly sensible color associated with it (e.g. green for wood) and has an associated compass point (e.g. fire with south as this is where the fiery sun is located). Similarly each season and year has an essence, so you can see how a whole system can be built up around the basic properties of matter. Any substance can be considered a mixture of these elemental properties.

feng shui, compass
Division of a traditional Feng Shui compass

Wide Influence

This theory goes back at least 2,000 years to the Han dynasty, Emperor Wudi amongst others held great belief in the system; for example he timed the most propitious day to launch military campaigns based on Feng Shui. Each dynasty had an element associated with it, and the current 'element' determined the color of court uniforms and even the key note of court music. This is why an understanding of Feng Shui is needed to understand the details of Chinese history. For example the reason the Yellow Turban rebels in the Han dynasty chose yellow was that the destruction cycle of elements meant yellow should be able to conquer the ruling Han dynastic color of red. In the Forbidden City all the roofs are yellow except for the library which has a black roof because black is the color for water and so should act to protect the books. Imperial officials used to change the color of their clothes on the change of season to match the cycle of elements, its influence was all pervasive. Another example concerns the association of autumn with death, and so executions only took place in autumn.

The shape of the forms of the landscape are important in Feng Shui. If the form of a dragon is identified it is very bad practice to construct anything that appears to cut off a limb of the dragon.

In the late Qing dynasty when Europeans began to settle and build factories and railways; the rules of Feng Shui proved an obstacle to development. The construction of anything linear such as railway lines is considered dangerous Feng Shui as the Qi follows the line with too destructive a force. Coal mines were also seen as damaging in Feng Shui terms as well as disturbing the Earth dragons, in 1882 coal mining was suspended in Hebei after widespread local protests. Imperial pronouncements were insufficient to dislodge age-old faith in the correct siting for new buildings; route of buildings and laying of telegraph cables. Even today objections to building developments are often couched in terms of disturbance to the Feng Shui resulting in suitable monetary compensation.

Taiwan is where Feng Shui still has a strong influence, it was even a big issue in the 2004 Presidential election. A consultant advises on all sorts of things such as why road traffic accidents take place. It also has remained strong in Hong Kong where the advice of a practitioner will be sought on all construction projects. In Mainland China the effect of the suppression during the period 1949 to 1990 is still felt, there is far less importance given to Feng Shui concerns. In recent years it has seen a revival and anyone rich enough may seek a practitioners advice on grave location, house location.

Wood GreenSpringEast
Fire huǒ RedEarly SummerSouth
Earth Yellow and BrownLate SummerCenter
Metal jīnWhite and GoldAutumnWest
Water shuǐBlack and Dark BlueWinterNorth
ElementMusical notesYin-YangAnimalsWeatherEmotion
Wood E (mi) Lesser yangFishWindAnger
Fire G (so) YangBirdsHotJoy
Earth C (do) BalanceHumansThunderDesire
Metal D (re) Lesser yinMammalsColdSorrow
Water A (la) YinInvertebratesRainFear
Wood WaterFireMetalWaterLiver
Fire WoodEarthEarthMetalHeart
Earth FireMetalWaterWoodStomach
Metal EarthWaterWoodFireLungs
Water MetalWoodFireEarthSpleen, Kidneys
Wood Chicken8sourJupiter
Fire Goat7bitterMars
Earth Cow5sweetSaturn
Metal Horse9pungentVenus
Water Pig6saltyMercury

Life then is a matter of taking account of these essential properties to live in harmony with the world. The placement of a house in the landscape will ideally be facing south in front of a bend in a river with a hill behind it. The Forbidden City is the supreme example of this. The location chosen lacked a 'hill' to the north, so this was built artificially and stands as Jingshan 'Coal' hill to this day. The 'Golden River Stream' was channeled to run in a loop south of the main complex of buildings. The ideal sunny location for a house coincides with most people's idea of a nice place to live it is not surprising that Feng Shui has many followers including Donald Trump (recently the cricketer Geoff Boycott revealed himself to be a believer). Practitioners take into account the wider context of the environment, a holistic approach, not objects studied in isolation. Some years ago Feng Shui became a fad in both America and Europe. For a Western audience the ancient system lost the spiritual side (demons, graves) and concentrated on the more materialistic claims (good fortune, health).

There are two main schools of Feng Shui: the Forms school that take the position in landscape as the key factor and the Orientation school that use an accurate compass on its own to determine properties of places. Modern schools also include the Bagua school that uses the Yi Jing trigrams as main inspiration; the Flying Star school that takes the stars surrounding the Great Bear constellation as their starting point and the Black Hat sect created by Lin Yun in the US.

Feng Shui practitioners are particularly concerned to produce a smooth and curved movement of Qi; any sharp, straight tower or path or road can generate a poisoned arrow of too vigorous a flow of Qi. Obstacles that block the flow of Qi should also be avoided. Practitioners can then advise on how to mitigate the effects, often by diverting the direct flow ; plants; wind chimes and mirrors can be used to calm the flow.

Yin and Yang

yin yang,I ching,baguo

Rather than a five-fold division of matter into elemental essences, yīn - yáng deals with the binary choices between opposites (light/dark; hot/cold; sun/moon; male/female/; odd/even numbers; strong/weak; solid/broken; Imperial/barbarian). Yin-Yang is used extensively to achieve an appropriate balance, for example in cuisine where hot/cold or sweet/spicy flavors need careful adjustment. The iconic taiji representation is shown to the left with ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ swirling around each other. Within yin is some yang and within yang is some yin and this demonstrates the interdependence, yin can not exist without yang and vice-versa; they have to exist in balance and harmony. This is not the same as good and evil, both yin and yang have their virtues and flaws. One clear example of this principle is the daily cycle of day and night. Day is ‘yang’ and yet there are still places of shadow: similarly, yin, ‘night’ is defined by the absence of the sun not by night itself; day and night are inseparable and interdependent. The bā guà figure shows the cycle of change from yin to yang and back again. By combining yin-yang four divisions can be made, for example the four seasons can be identified as winter (yin in yin); spring (yang in yin); summer (yang in yang) and autumn (yin in yang).

According to one creation myth the one gave birth to two (yin and yang) and from these two everything else came. It was believed that the different combinations of yin and yang could represent all things. The character for yin includes moon and the character for yang sun, they both have the radical for 'hill'. An old legend for the origin of yin and yang has peoples separated by a river, the southern bank is shaded (yin) while the northern is sunny (yang). During Spring and Summer the two people met at great festivals to intermingle and intermarry. Considering the rather 'positive' attributes of yang it is surprising that the pair always puts yin first, it is always ‘yin and yang’ and not ‘yang and yin’.

I Ching (Yi Jing) ancient Chinese fortune telling

I Ching (Yi Jing) ancient Chinese fortune telling


In ancient China the Emperor would do very little without consulting the Yi Jing (I Ching). The Imperial court had experts to interpret the answers given by this method of Divination. Because it produces a set for 'now' and also a 'change' it is called the Book of Changes and contains explanations of the transformation.

The philosophy of seeking correct balance between opposites has had huge influence on Chinese culture. It makes dogmatic opinions appear unbalanced, as an ingredient of the opposing view would then be absent. This is one of the roots of the problems of introducing religions to China that take a dogmatic right or wrong position, culturally China admits to blur and compromise. Mao Zedong's philosophical work ‘On Contradiction ’ can be seen as following on from what had gone before. This idea is supported by the Confucian ‘Doctrine of the Mean’ where a middle course between opposing alternatives is always sought.

The harmonious mixture of opposites makes its way into all things. In food, a meal must seek to balance “yin” and “yang”. Yin foods are cool and soothing (fruit; uncooked vegetables; bean-curd; sugar and green tea); yang foods are the opposite: (chilli; ginger; beef and salt). The health of an individual was also considered to be controlled by the yin-yang system. Traditional Medicines sought to restore balance to the body by providing medicines with correcting proportions of yin and yang.

24 Mountain Directions

Feng shui places great importance on compass direction, and to achieve greater accuracy 24 rather than 4 compass points are used. They are the 12 earthly branches; 8 of the 10 heavenly stems and 4 of the 8 trigrams. The twenty four directions form the most important ring of symbols on a 罗盘 luó pǎn (lopan) compass which divides the circle into equal 15° portions.

CharacterTypeYin or yangDirection
bǐngstemyangDirection SSE
branchyinDirection S
dīngstemyinDirection SSW
wèibranchyinDirection SSW
kūn trigramyangDirection SW
shēnbranchyangDirection WSW
gēngstemyangDirection WSW
yǒubranchyinDirection W
xīnstemyinDirection WNW
branchyinDirection WNW
qián trigramyangDirection NW
hàibranchyangDirection NNW
CharacterTypeYin or yangDirection
rénstemyangDirection NNW
branchyinDirection N
guǐstemyinDirection NNE
chǒubranchyinDirection NNE
gèn trigramyangDirection NE
yínbranchyangDirection ENE
jiǎstemyangDirection ENE
mǎobranchyinDirection E
stemyinDirection ESE
chénbranchyinDirection ESE
xùn trigramyangDirection SE
branchyangDirection SSE


Taichi, Chongqing
Chinese man practicing traditional martial art (Datang quan) in Chongqing

The concept of qi ( ) is important to the understanding of Daoist philosophy. Qi is difficult to translate into English as there are some misleading parallels. It can be thought of as an all pervading life force - a divine essence. Strengthening the flow and accumulation of qi is a key activity of Daoists.

The practice of Feng Shui takes into account the natural flow of qi, where it considered more like an 'air' than a 'life force'. Buildings should be located where there is a meandering but steady flow of qi. Straight lines in the form of roads, rivers, power lines give too strong a direct flow of qi, while obstacles can lead to 'bad' stagnant qi where there is no natural flow. A happy medium should be achieved where it flows in smooth curves and can set up eddies. This can be seen in the design of Chinese gardens as well as in building and city design. Pagodas are built where the flow of qi is stagnant. High buildings would block the flow and is one reason why traditional housing was generally of at most two levels.

Ancient observatory

Near to the great Song mountain in Henan lies the Gaocheng observatory that has been active for three thousand years. Astronomical observations were key to setting the Chinese calendar. The main instrument is a stone gnonom that allows heights of stars and planets to be measured to great accuracy.
Read More

Personal meditation and contemplation can build up qi in the body to bring good health and a long life. In Traditional Chinese Medicine the regulation of the flow of qi in the body can give energy and cure ailments. Acupuncture is used to block and control the flow around the body. The careful control of breathing as practiced in qì gōng is a more direct reference to qi as 'air'. Daoists have sought the secrets of immortality and Chinese Emperors have often taken special elixirs to prolong their lives.

At a more philosophical level, qi to Daoists is an all pervading essence; harmony between everything in the world, not just between people,. There is a little of the idea of ‘The Force’ as seen in the Star Wars films here. Qi is an 'unknowable' life force that only skilled practitioners can use to their advantage, understanding the universal animating essence leads to a knowledge of how the whole universe works.

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Citation information: Chinasage, 'Feng Shui', last updated 1 Dec 2016, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/fengshui.htm.

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