Feng Shui

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 concerns itself with harmonization with nature. Feng Shui consultants are still used in China and elsewhere to advise on correct positioning and alignment of new buildings as well as layout of houses and gardens. Traditionally it came into highest importance for determining the most auspicious site for burials. In determining directions the intricate and complex 罗盘 luó pǎn compass is used

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 drafts. However, in its more ludicrous pronouncements, it advocates such things as the importance of keeping a toilet seat down. It is the mixture of common sense and the absurd that has made Feng Shui a source of ridicule in the recent past.

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), should not be thought of in the same way as Chemical elements, they are more like the set of elementary phases of matter. From these phases the destruction cycle naturally arises: water can destroy fire; earth dams and adsorbs water; wood feeds on 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 thought of as consisting of a mixture of these elemental properties.

feng shui, compass
Division of a traditional Feng Shui compass

All 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. 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.

In the late Qing dynasty when Europeans began to settle and build factories and railways the the rules of Feng Shui proved an obstacle to development. Even Imperial pronouncements were insufficient to displace age-old faith in the correct siting for new buildings; route of buildings and laying of telegraph cables.

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. As this coincides with most people's idea of a nice place to live it is not surprising that Feng Shui has many followers (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.

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. They can then advise on how to mitigate the effects, often by diverting the direct flow. Plants; wind chimes and mirrors can be used to stem the flow.

Yin and Yang

yin yang,I ching,baguo

Rather than a five-fold division of matter, yīn - yáng deals with the binary choices between opposites (dark/light; cold/hot; sun/moon; female/male; even/odd numbers; weak/strong). 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 bagua 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. One clear example of this principle is the daily cycle of day and night. Day is yang and yet there are still places of darkness: yin, similarly 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. According to one creation myth the one gave birth to two (yin and yang) and from these two everything else came. The character for yin includes moon and the character for yang sun. An old legend of the origin of yin and yang has peoples separated by a river, the southern bank is shaded (yin) while the northern is sunny (yang). At Spring and Summer the two people met at great festivals to intermingle and intermarry.

The trigrams and hexagrams made up of yin-yang lines forms the basis of I Ching (Yi Jing) please see our separate page on this fascinating topic.

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 is then 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.

The philosophy of 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 the correcting proportions of yin/yang.

24 mountain directions

Feng shui places great importance on compass direction, and to achieve greater accuracy 24 rather than 4 compass points are defined. The names used 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 into equal 15° portions.

CharacterTypeYin or yangDirection
kūn trigramyang
qián trigramyang
CharacterTypeYin or yangDirection
gèn trigramyang
xùn trigramyang


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

Important to the understanding of Daoist philosophy is the concept of qi ( ). This 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.

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 Qigong is a more direct reference to qi as 'air'. Daoism has 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, is sought by Daoists. There is a little of the idea of 'The Force' as seen in the Star Wars films here. Qi is an 'unknowable' essence 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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