“Wisdom from the mouths of ancient sages to the ears of the modern practitioner”
Hello and welcome to the Classical Corner. In this issue the original practical checklist for dwellings. Checklists are always a handy method for ensuring nothing is missed when out in the field. They are also excellent learning tools. In the traditional Chinese arts, mnemonics were used extensively to help reduce complex information into more easily digestible parts. Fengshui is no exception with many classical poems, songs and idioms used throughout its history. One famous such work is that of the 陽宅三十則 Yángzhái sānshízé‘Yang Dwellings 30 Rules’ from 沈氏玄空学Shěnshì Xuánkōngxué ‘Shen Family Mysterious VoidStudy’ by 沈竹礽ShěnZhúréng. But this flying star manual was written only a century ago, surely there were short lists for dwellings older than this? For the answer, as always, we turn to the classics.
The first text that mentions the interior of buildings in the Fengshui context is the 皇帝宅经 Huángdì Zháijīng ‘Yellow Emperor’s Dwelling Classic’. As the earliest complete source on homes for the living, it outlines many of the original principles, methods and rules that later became fundamental to Fengshui practice. Though this cannon was legendarily attributed to the semi-mythical Huangdi ‘Yellow Emperor’, it is more likely the work was authored by unknown persons in the 汉 Hàn dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.) or possibly even later by the book’s most famous commentator 王微 Wáng Wēi 415-444 C.E. Regardless, there is no doubt as to its authenticity as a Fengshui classic text. The quote today is from the upper scroll and concerns the 五虚五实Wǔxū Wǔshí ‘Five Deficiencies Five Prosperities’ or more simply ‘Five Empty Five Full’ -
Dwelling big and people few, 1st deficiency,
dwelling gate1 large and inside small, 2nd deficiency,
wall of compound2 not complete, 3rd deficiency,
well3 and kitchen not situated, 4th deficiency,
dwelling land excessive; house small; courtyard vast,
‘Dwelling small and people many, 1st prosperity,
dwelling big and gate1 small, 2nd prosperity,
wall of compound2 complete, 3rd prosperity,
dwelling water drains in S.E. flow, 4th prosperity,
dwelling small; 6 domestic animals many,
- Huangdi Zhaijing, Upper Scroll, verse 10, line 1 – 2
- Huangdi Zhaijing, Upper Scroll, verse 10, line 1 – 2
1. This could also be translated as ‘entrance’ or ‘door’ 2. This could be interpreted as ‘wall and yard’ or even ‘wall and courtyard’ 3. This indicates a pool of stationary water, not necessarily the water source of the home. 4. In the original text the 4th & 5th prosperous are reversed in order, they have been swapped here to more clearly show the equivalencies between the two lists. 5. The six domestic animals were the pig, ox, horse, goat, fowl and dog.
As the Chinese were ancestrally a Confucian/agrarian culture, any guide for completing a dwelling would reflect values of humility, family and fertility. When this lens is applied the meaning behind some of the more obscure points in the checklist becomes clearer.
The initial two conditions suggest avoiding pretention, humble buildings with many occupants and little excess space. Unfortunately Fengshui practitioners often don’t do modesty well, and neither do modern designs. We have developed a tendency for excess reflected in our marketing and ostentatious buildings. Stylish empty mansions with overly ornate entrances actively deplete what Fengshui is really about – developing a sense of homeliness and 有Qing ‘Sentiment’.
The third requirement is a completed fence. This is an embracing form, it helps to contain the environment, allowing qi to assemble, affection to gather and fortune accumulate. A boundary fence will not block qi (or wealth) from entering a site as some less educated authors or teachers may have you believe. Qi doesn’t arrive by road and walk in the front yard! The classics tell us, Shengqi ‘Generating Qi’ travels through the soil, wheras the Qi of Heaven comes from the sun, stars and moon – flimsy timber or crumbling bricks won’t stop these.
The fourth ‘deficiency’ and ‘prosperity’ are more ambiguous. This could simply mean ‘not situated on the site’, missing a kitchen and well could certainly be considered incomplete. More likely it implies ‘not situating correctly on the site’, as the key representative of yang-fire (stove/kitchen) and yin-water (well/pool), on the site, their auspicious positioning is essential. Various methods could be used to determine this. From a forms perspective it is important to remember that a kitchen is a communal area and should traditionally be located within the more public and active areas of the home. As is commonly said, water at the facing can become the 朱雀Zhuque ‘Vermillion Bird’ and determine the fortune of the entire property, but it should also drain to the south east? It must be understood that the geography of China is such that to the north and west are the arid high plateaus and to the south and east, the lush plains and lowlands. Mountain ranges in China (and indeed most of the world) run north to south and west to east, its rivers therefore all flow toward the southeast. The drainage of water from a home in this direction is merely to match the landform and would likely differ (and clearly does) in other places around the world. [It is interesting to note that while the diagram of the southeast 4 Xun ‘Wind’ provides little illumination on the subject, in the earlier heaven sequence (applied to exteriors in the antique school) this is the position of 7 Dui ‘Marsh’.]
The fifth and final criteria relate to the immediate surroundings of the structure. Similar to the first two conditions they advocate occupation over emptiness, but in this instance from the perspective of fertility – a paddock filled with farm animals (or indeed a garden ripe with food or medicinal plants and flowers) is far better ‘usage’ of environmental resources. The key here is not wasting space, but instead fulfilling capacity, regardless of size.
It takes little further explanation to apply these principles in practice, and in fact some already are, (Unoccupied spaces are known to accumulate clutter so generally avoided, Mingtang’s are created to collect qi and stove directions are considered extremely important to some schools) those that aren’t could easily be managed. It takes only a small amount of understanding and some big creativity.
Just remember –
Bennet, S. J. (1978) ‘Patterns of the Sky and Earth – A Chinese Science of Applied Cosmology’ Chinese Science vol 1-26 Paton, M. J. [translator] (2013) ‘Five Classics of Feng Shui – Chinese Spiritual Geography in Historical and Environmental Perspective’ Brill Publishing Wang Wei [translation: Ong Hean Tatt] (2012) ‘Annotated translation of HUANG DI TSIH KING - Huang Di’s Canon of Dwellings or Canon of Buildings’ Gui Management Centre