Tyler J. Rowe has been involved in post graduate studies of classical Chinese texts for the past 10 years. In this article he examines ancient Chinese history in order to uncover the early origins of modern day Feng Shui.
Long before the birth of Feng Shui as we know it, in the upper antiquity of Chinese history, there existed a kind of ‘proto-fengshui’ that was to guide the development of Ceremonial for centuries to come. These practices were governed by 礼 Lǐ ‘Rites’, Confucian ceremonial customs and ancient rituals, founded in the 周礼 Zhōu Dynasty (1045 – 256 B.C.E). Recorded in three key classic texts, many of these conventions and protocols were applied to city and imperial design as well as everyday living. Analysis of the concept of Li and the textual traditions involved can shed light on a number of important areas of contention in modern Fengshui. This article will investigate the classical literature to gain better understanding of some of the underlying theories, their beginnings, development, influence and finally, reveal their practical applications today.
To begin, let us look at the Li. A product of the 儒家 Rújiā ‘Confucian School’ of thought, these can be considered the ‘human’ component of the classical 三才 Sāncái methodology of Heaven-Earth-Humanity. Specifically, a set of rules, created by man, governing the proper relationship of ourselves to heaven and earth. This was said to follow a natural hierarchical order of knowing what is appropriate conduct in any given situation and when to apply this. The aim of these rites was to create social balance through morals – respect, humility, propriety and restoring a primitive simplicity of the past. They came about in a period of unrest, when people were increasingly turning away from their government and were born out of a need to restore harmony and re-establish unity amongst a disparate people. Chiefly based around common sense appropriate to the era, and self control, these principles were said to be the innate expressions a mind sensitive to truth and the deeper meaning of things. The product was not an inflexible ideal but a constantly modified, man-made, ethical flow that changed with the times. Of particular importance in the current context is that they were also perceived as a way to transform a sometimes dangerous world at the whim of divinities, ghosts and spirits – an attempt to organize and domesticate all under heaven, through human ritual.
The Three Rites Classics of Chinese Literature are the primary sources for information on Li. Scattered amongst them are the first laws governing building design and arrangement as well many other related topics. The oldest of these is the 仪礼 Yílǐ ‘Ceremony and Rites’. Attributed to the 周公 Zhōu Gōng ‘Duke of Zhou’ (of 易经 Yìjīng ‘Classic of Changes’ fame), the text contains descriptions of ceremonies concerning a low level aristocrat of the Zhou era, a 士 Shì ‘Scholar-Gentleman. Included in its 17 chapters are a host of rituals, adorned with layers of symbology, dealing with ‘Ancestor worship’ – funerals, mourning, burial and sacrifices, amongst other things. What has survived to today is probably only a fragment of a much greater volume.
“[Deceased] Father, Grandfather, Great Grandfather”
– Yili, chapter 16 (Rite of the Lesser Sacrificial Food Offering)A supreme ancestor, the founder of a family line, may also have been honoured. The ghosts of these predecessors were believed to have the ability to influence the life of their descendants to ‘pull strings’ from the spirit world and improve or worsen situations of living. To engage their help a ‘care package’ could be sent in the form of offerings of food or wine, precious objects, sacrifice and prayer – in a sense, making life in the netherworld more comfortable for the dead. This was usually conducted at a family altar, ancestral temple or gravesite.It is commonly believed that one of the original methodologies of Fengshui was that of 阴宅 Yīnzhái ‘Grave-sites’ – so called for its use in determining suitable points to inter the bones of the departed. Whilst it is conceivable that this custom was precipitated by the cultural inclination toward ancestor worship, and at first glance may appear to be the same, the purpose and execution differ. The reasoning behind Fengshui burial is contingent upon the idea of 感应 gǎnyìng ‘mutual resonance’ – sympathetic vibrations pervading the 气 qì ‘energy’ field of the cosmos creating a persistent affinity of attraction between similar things (this is also how fengshui cures and remedies are said to work, by application of systematic correspondence and use of symbolic representation). This meant that there existed recognition that remains were linked to the living on some primordial level, a connection implying that if a late relation were to be buried in a suitably fortuitous location, the offspring may reap proportional benefits of health and prosperity in life. This of course opens the way to advantage in obtaining desirable entombment for not only the direct masculine line but any blood relation male or female, elder or younger. Hence it seems that a societal predisposition to ancestor worship may have inspired the first primal breaths of Fengshui but one is not necessarily analogous to the other.Some of the first references to the importance of orientation in the situating of residences (for the living or dead) come from the Liji ‘Record of Rites’ –
“Therefore the deceased have their heads [placed] to the north,
the living look toward the south”
– Liji, book 9 (The Conveyance Rites) line 5
The directions were calculated by use of a ‘gnomon’ a vertical stake set in the ground from who’s cast shadow throughout a day true north could be established. There are a number of similar quotes throughout the document, but this is perhaps the most concise and meaningful. The source goes on to mention that even in the age of the Zhou dynasty, this had been customary for some time. The model is liable to have naturally evolved out of the geography of China itself. Generally speaking, to the north (the Mongolian plains) higher latitudes and closer proximity to the pole, brings lower temperatures. In the south the opposite is true – the nearness to the equatorial tropics and the path of the sun, increases the heat. This did not (and still doesn’t) apply to all regions under Chinese rule, but fits the majority enough to be considered universal. Yin yang theory (see figure 1.), associates the South with the midday sun, summer, warmth, light and the positive yang principle. All that is dark, the cold, midnight, winter and the north correspond to the yin negative principle.
“In State [sanctioned] major relocations [of the capital] the Grand Diviner,
follows the auguries of the tortoise.”
– Zhouli, book 2 (Terrestrial Offices) chapter 24
Divining the location was done by means of one of three methods popular at the time – ‘Scapulomancy’ where predictions were recorded by interpreting vertical cracks formed in the shoulder blades of oxen, created by placing heated rods into pre-carved holes; ‘Plastromancy’ a similar process that used instead the underbellies of tortoises; and ‘Milfoil’ another name for casting stalks of the yarrow plant. This last was of course the traditional method for consulting the Yijing ‘Classic of Changes’. In fact three ‘Changes texts’ were referred to, of these only the Yijing ‘Classic of Changes’ (more correctly called the Zhouyi ‘Changes of the 3rd Dynasty’ when the ten wings attributed to Confucius are included) survives to today. The other two comprised of different names and arrangements for the trigrams – the 连山易 Liánshān yì ‘Linked Mountains Changes’ and the 归藏易 Guīcáng yì ‘Return to the Contained Changes’ they both preceded our current text, but have since been lost.
“Craftsmen construct the state capital. A square of nine li, each side has three gates. Within the capital are nine central (north-south) thoroughfares and nine transverse (east-west). The main thoroughfares are nine [chariot] tracks in width.”
– Zhouli, book 6 (Winter Offices) line 72
‘WELL’ PICTOGRAM & IDEOGRAM
This system came to be used, somewhat like the modern western convention of longitude and latitude, to demarcate not only open land, but urban areas too. The imperial capital was divided in this way by its overall dimensions, gates and roads. Within its footprint are ongoing repeated instances of nine squares within nine squares. From this it was easy to then locate the other buildings within, their relative auspiciousness measurable according to their position within the compound. These included the royal palace, ancestral halls, altars, markets, residences and storehouses.
The next logical step was taken when the nine squares were overlayed onto floor plans. This influenced the architecture of many classical dwellings with central courtyards surrounded by various rooms and halls. Feng shui masters also adopted this system for calculating various lucky and unlucky ‘stars’ in the 玄空飞星 Xuánkōng Fēixīng ’Flying Stars’ technique. It is critical to remember that although the Jiu gong ‘Nine palaces’ is based on sacred numerology (the number 9), and cosmological form (square, earth) it is a man-made mapping convention, not a natural distribution of energy. While it can be useful for arithmetical purposes, it cannot be considered representative of the flow of 气 Qì ‘Energy’. The commonly adopted pie chart used by modern practitioners seems more appropriate in this case as it considers the qi arriving from the eight directions (four cardinal and four inter-cardinal) and condensing upon the spot.
One interesting earlier application of the nine squares being applied to the built environment was a sacred structure known as the 明堂 Míngtáng ‘Bright hall’ or ‘Hall of Light’. Differing from the latter use of the term in Feng shui to identify the site a residence or tomb sat upon, (and later still, only the area immediately in front) this was the name given to the front hall, and the entire complex of a great temple observatory. This simple building was considered the point at which the emperor, son of heaven, communicated with the celestial vault above. Highly ritualised ceremonies were performed here to harmonise the seasons, vitally important in a crop dependant world. The emperor moved clockwise from room to room, reflecting the path of 北斗 Běi dǒu ‘The Northern Ladle’ as it pointed to different directions through spring, summer, autumn and winter. This passage and the rites conducted along the way were known as the 月令 Yuè ling ‘Monthly Observances’ and written in a chapter of the same name in the Liji ‘Record of Rites’ –
“In the middle month of spring, the Son of Heaven occupies the Bright Blue-Green (eastern) [Hall] of the Great Temple. Rides in a carriage, drawn by dragon [horses], carrying a blue-green standard, wearing blue-green clothing with jade [pendants].”
– Liji, Book 6 (Monthly Ordinances) lines 10~12
This austere place of worship consisted of nine halls, five containing one shrine (the cardinal and centre directions) and four containing two shrines each (the inter-cardinal directions). The shrines housed thrones where the monarch could sit facing the appropriate direction each month of the year to perform the sacrifices. A circular space topped edifice where the necessary astronomical calculations could be made, making a circle (representing heaven) over a square (representing earth). The four sided base of course followed the Jiu gong ‘nine palaces’ pattern, but in this instance each was associated with one of the famous 九星 Jiǔ xīng ‘Nine stars’ of the Bei dou ‘Northern Ladle’ and by virtue of that, completed a magic square known as the 洛书 Luò Shū ‘River Diagram’ (see figure 3.). This ancient mathematical construct has long been associated with the 后天 Hòu tiān ‘Later Heaven Sequence’ of the 八卦 Bāguà ‘Eight trigrams’, and it is from here that many of the concordances in the twelve services have their origins. Corresponding 五行 Wǔxíng ‘Five Elemental-Phase’ colours, days, planets, gods, clothing, animals, smells, tastes, food, utensils, musical notes etc. are all applied in their governing timely direction.
This is possibly the first time the Ba gua ‘Eight Trigrams’ were used in such a way, and became the creative impetus behind many of the more recent Feng shui formulas that have their roots in these changing lines – such as 八宅 Bā zhái Eight Houses’ and a plethora of 罗盘 Luó pán ‘Chinese Compass’ practices also. It does not however justify the simplified contemporary ‘3 Door Bagua’ or ‘Eight Life Aspirations’ Feng shui invented by Thomas Lin Yun in America in the 1970’s. Often inappropriately referred to nowadays as ‘compass school’, this speaks of ‘romance’, ‘helpful people’, ‘fame’ and other aspects never traditionally attached to the eight gua.
It likely clear now that the ‘Rites’ demonstrated in this triad of classical works had substantial influence on the formation of Feng shui. It should also be equally clear that these cosmological principles, whilst resembling Feng shui, are not. Perhaps we should see them as ‘Proto-Fengshui’. This does lead us to be able to answer one question though – How old is Feng shui? Being that the processes outlined above are of Zhou ‘3rd Dynasty’ origin (and we have decided, not Feng shui), the answer – not older than the 汉 Hàn ‘5th Dynasty’ (206 B.C.E – 220 C.E), about 2000 years at most, significantly less than popular heritages given.
Knowing these important, but predominantly lost details, can help to better understand current practices of Feng shui, deepen our appreciation of what we have and show us directions it possibly could, (and also how it shouldn’t) develop in the future. There are yet more gems hidden within the pages of these three weighty tomes that deserve our attention, just waiting for the right eyes and an open mind to uncover them. If you feel so tasked, good luck!
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