Hello and welcome to the Classical Corner. In this issue we are looking at the practical emphasis and our question in contention is – which is more important in a dwelling, forms or compass? The secret to the whole mystery that I will endeavour to show you is – nudity is key. For the answer, as always, we turn to the classics.
By the Chinese literary definition, to be a true classic a text needs to have been written during or before the 汉 Hàn dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.). Just having the word 经 jīng ‘classic, cannon or scripture’ on the end of a title doesn’t necessarily make it so (though it must have been as good for marketing as attributing to a legendary mythical figure, both common practices in Chinese scholarly history). There are few remaining Fengshui manuals that meet the criteria. The 葬书 Zàngshū ‘Burial Book’mentioned in last issue’s column could be considered a likely commentary of an earlier lost classic, the 书经 Zàngjīng ‘Burial Classic’, as it preserves many of its lines and elaborates upon them – but itself is not truly a classic. One text that can hold this title though, is the 青囊经 Qīngnángjīng ‘Blue-green Satchel Classic’. 地有四势，气从八方
Line 1 – 势 Shì, a complex concept largely misunderstood in Fengshui, has been translated here as ‘terrain’. This suits the context of the physical aspects of the land matching with the structural aspect of the human body. Shi however, has a far wider meaning and applications in many fields of Chinese philosophy all centring around the idea of its correct translation – ‘force’ and the inherent potential energy within a configuration. Together with Xing ‘form’ it makes up the name of 形势派 Xíngshì Pài ‘Form and Force School’.
Line 6 – Each group of paired characters illustrating features of the site are compared to a pair of characters describing a part of the person. Most of the pairs could be translated as two individual objects or one whole term. The last grouping of ‘gates and doors’ to ‘hats and belts’ suggests both are seen as accessories.
Line 7 – The last line clarifies that this format will be beneficial if it is applied with the varied elements in harmony to one another, in the proper order of things.
The correlation of the body to the environment has commonly been used throughout the history of Chinese philosophy equally in both directions – for both medicine and geography. One early use of this analogy was in superimposing the body over a house to assess human illnesses against malevolent energies in residence. This is an excellent example of the concept systematic correspondence used in Chinese thinking, and of course Fengshui, where the microcosm is said to reflect the macrocosm.
This passage obviously discusses to the whole site, including surrounding land features. Implied is perhaps a kind of hierarchical arrangement of these factors that, through use of parallel terms, we can easily understand. Each has importance, but they appear to not be equally weighted (muscle and bone is surely more vital to human existence than handbags and scarves?). In theory this could mistakenly be interpreted as meaning one is of greater importance than the other. However, the Chinese thought underlying Fengshui is not always so rigidly logical, it is flexible to maintain balance and more abstract to allow for paradox. This can be compared to the idea of resonance and also the ‘doctrine of signatures’2, we all are aware that an image of a dragon is not a dragon, but conveys some of its energy. So in the search for equilibrium items must co-exist harmoniously, yin is never better than yang and vice versa (how useful is an effective circulatory system in the dead of winter if there is no covering to keep it warm?).
Based on this explanation, a colloquial rendering of the passage could be –
Fengshui views the land and natural features surrounding a house as its body and tissues,
It sees the actual structure and fittings as the coverings and decorations.
How then does this apply to assessment of a site and the question of form versus compass? The terrain, water, earth and trees are obviously all assessed predominantly by the form school, the orientations and directions of the dwelling and doors traditionally by the compass school. It has become an all too common practice to look at the compass without considering the forms – as foolish as considering the clothes and forgetting about the body. Both are clearly needed, though the one could argue importance lies with the forms – you can’t have the clothes without the body, but you can have land without houses – beautifully naked nature!
1. The term Jiehua often used to describe a ‘cure’ for a problem, would be better translated as ‘to understand and change’ a problem.
2. Where ‘like treats like’ based on shape, colour or flavour – a kidney bean for the kidney, red dates for the blood, bitter melon for the gallbladder.
Choy, H. ‘The Core Principles of Feng Shui’ in – Mak, M & So, A.T. (2009) ‘Research in Scientific Feng Shui and the Built Environment’ City University of Hong Kong Press
Ong Hean Tatt (2012) ‘Annotated translation of HUANG DI TSIH KING – Huang Di’s Canon of Dwellings or Canon of Buildings’ Gui Management Centre
Paton, M. (1986) ‘Feng Shui’ Unpublished Honours Thesis, Sydney University
Skinner, S. (1982) ‘The Living Earth Manual of Feng-Shui’ Graham Brash