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Chinese Thought and Philosophy - Fengshui 風水 "Geomancy"

Fengshui 風水, literally "wind and water", is a traditional Chinese science of detecting an ideal place to built a house, a grave or even a city. In traditional literature it is also known under the names of the "art of (Master) Qingwu" 青烏之術, buzhai 卜宅 "divination for a house", budi 卜地 "divination for a place", xiangdi 相地, xiangtu 相土, xiangzhai 相宅, xiangmu 相墓 "divination for a grave", tuzhai 圖宅 "planning for a house", dili 地理 "patterns of the earth" (a term that is today used for the discipline of "geography"), dixue 地學 "science of the earth", shanshui zhi shu 山水之術 "the art of mountains and waters", or qingnang shu 青囊術 "art of the green bag". The most common English translation for fengshui is "geomancy - divination on geographical spots", a term that actually denotes a divination method from the Near East that operated with the help of randomly generated geometric patterns. Steven Field (Feng Shui Gate) prefers the term qimancy "divination by cosmic energy". Other Western specialists reduce Fengshui to the term "astrology".
The term fengshui is first mentioned in Guo Pu's 郭璞 book Zangshu 葬書 "Book of burial", where it is said that (generally "positive") energy (qi 气) comes with the wind and stays with the water. The task of the art of Fengshui is to force energy to stay in a house or a tomb by means of using an existing or creating an artificial landscape that allows winds and waters to profit a location. During the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) two different theories had developed, namely the schools of the "golden coffer of the chariot and its mount" (kanyu jingui 堪輿金匱) and "[constructing] palaces and houses according to the shape of the earth" (gongzhai dixing 宮宅地形). In later ages they transformed into the School of Form (xingfa 形法) and the School of Principle (lifa 理法). The school of (topological) forms makes use of the shape of mountains and the course of rivers and is concerned with the shape and type of buildings and the design of its immediate surroundings, with trees or ponds. It makes use of the five formulas of the topological pattern (dili wujue 地理五訣) that are hidden in the landscape, namely "dragons" (long 龍, hidden in hills and mountains), "holes" (xue 穴, i.e. congregations of energy), "sand" (sha 砂, smaller hills), water (shui 水), and direction (xiang 向, the facing of a house or grave). The School of Principle is concerned with the shape of mountains and rivers, too, but combines these findings with an analysis of the influence of the processes in the universe on the site. These are made visible with the help of trigrams and hexagrams (see Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes"), the Celestial Stems and Terrestrial Branches (see calendar), the stars and planets, and the Five Processes (wuxing 五行). The most important instrument of this school is the luopan compass or "cosmograph" 羅盤 (in earlier times called shipan 式盤).
The science of Fengshui sees man as one single part of the universe, to whose processes and laws he must obey to become one with Heaven (tian ren he yi 天人合一).
Landscape analysis is also known under the term kanyu 堪輿, which is often used in exchange with the word Fengshui, although the latter includes a wider range of factors. In the West, Fengshui (Feng Shui) is mostly known as a method of furnishing one's house or flat with various implements (crystals, goldfishes, mirrors, ships) believed to have positive effects on the general conditions of one's life or career. This type of micro-approach is not an original factor in the science of Fengshui.
The oldest written traces of Fengshui can be found in sources of the Han period. The science found its formation during the Tang 唐 (618-907) and Song 宋 (960-1279) periods. The ancient term for fengshui was dili "patterns of the earth". Generally seen the rules for all types of sites are similar, but writers nevertheless often discern between "positive" or "active" buildings (yangzhai 陽宅) , i.e. houses of the living, and "negative" or "inactive" buildings (yinzhai 陰宅), i.e. tombs. There are many different types of Fengshui, depending on the purpose, the object of analysis, or the methods, for instance, landscape fengshui (jingguan fengshui 景觀風水), architectural fengshui (jianzhu fengshui 建筑風水), topology fengshui (dili fengshui 地理風水), scholarly fengshui (xueshu fengshui 學術風水) or fengshui by diviniation with hexagrams (Yijing fengshui 易經風水).
Western scholars were always interested in the art of fengshui and made this science (or pseudo-science) known in Europe, America and Japan, like the German Ernst Johann Eitel (Feng-shui: or, The rudiments of natural science in China, 1878), Joseph Needham (Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 2, 1956), Makio Ryōkai 牧尾良海, Akata Mitsuo 赤田光男, Watanabe Yoshio 渡边欣雄, the US-Korean Yoon Hong-Key 尹弘基, and the Chinese Liu Peilin 劉沛林. While Eitel called fengshui a "rudiment of of natural science" in traditional China (with the concepts of shu 數 "calculation", qi 氣 "energy" and xing 形 "shape" corresponding to the law of nature, numerical proportions in nature, and the forms and outlines of nature), Needam dubbed it a mere "pseudo-science". According to Eitel the ancient Chinese were aware that sun, moon, the 28 lunar mansions (xiu 宿), the "energies" Yin and Yang 陰陽 and the "Five Processes" (wuxing 五行) metal, wood, water, fire and earth were obeying a strict set of rules that also influenced the seasonal phenomena on earth, as well as natural disasters. The Neo-Confucians had been of the opinion that all things were penetrated by a natural "pattern" (li 理). All objects in the universe therefored followed strict paths and measures that were exactly balanced against each other. The natural "pattern" and fix numerical relations resulted in a pre-defined shape (xing) of things and processes that required certain amounts of "energy" (qi). On the other hand, Eitel also uncovered some aspects of superstition in the art of fengshui that discredited its characters as a science.


Sources: Huang Yiran 黄一然 (1999). „Fengshui 风水“ in: Huaqiao huaren baike quanshu 华侨华人百科全书, Shequ minsu 社区民俗, ed. by Huaqiao huaren baike quanshu 华侨华人百科全书, Shequ minsu 社区民俗卷编辑委员会, p. 107页. Beijing: Zhongguo huaqiao chubanshe.
He Xiaoxin 何晓昕 (1995). „Fengshui“ in : Li Guohao 李国豪 et a. (ed.), Zhongguo tumu jianzhu baike cidian 中国土木建筑百科辞典, Jianzhu 建筑, p. 98页. Beijing: ZHongguo jianzhu gongye chubanshe.


June 12, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail