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 is concerned with living in harmony with nature. It comprises several concepts including: yin and yang, qi and the five elements. Feng Shui consultants are still used in China and around the world to advise on correct positioning and alignment of new buildings as well as layout of houses and gardens. Traditionally it has its highest importance for determining the most auspicious site for burials; this was because the spirits of the dead are considered particularly sensitive to placement. If the ancestors prosper in a ‘good’ site then their descendents would prosper too. In determining directions the intricate and complex luó pǎn compass is used. The landscape was considered to be full of hidden good and bad flows of 'qi' and the compass together with the geomancer's skill would be able to determine the most auspicious locations.

As Feng Shui is literally translated as ‘wind fēng and water shuǐ’ its elemental origins are evident. A steady breeze has always been seen as favorable and capable of keeping evil away. The principle is sound enough; position everything for maximum harmony. A house should be oriented to catch the sun and avoid cold winds. However, in its more ludicrous pronouncements, it advocates such things as the importance of keeping a toilet seat down so fortune is not flushed away. It is the mixture of common sense and the absurd that has made Feng Shui a source of ridicule at times.

Five Chinese Elements

The wish to categorize things 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) wǔ xíng, should not be thought of in the same way as chemical elements, they are more like the set of elementary phases of matter, so anything liquid is showing its inherent 'water' property and anything gaseous 'fire'. From these phases the destruction cycle naturally arises: water can destroy fire; earth dams and adsorbs water; wood is nourished by 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 elemental essence also has a fairly sensible color associated with it (for example 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 element, so you can see how a whole system can be built up around the basic properties of matter. Any substance can be considered a mixture of these elemental properties.

The five elements were so important that they entered local traditions. Each element had a 'ruler' as a deity and on occasions a large procession with effigies of the 'five rulers' would parade around towns and cities.

feng shui, compass
Division of a traditional Feng Shui compass

Numerical order

The number 1 to 10 have long been studied for their mathematical relationship with the five elements, yin-yang and feng shui. We have a separate section looking at the Luo shu magic square and the He tu diagram that investigates these important properties.

The influence of Feng Shui

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. The sequence of elements associated with dynasties followed the destruction cycle so that the Zhou dynasty (fire) was naturally succeeded by the Qin dynasty (water). 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. In the Forbidden City all the roofs are yellow except for the library which has a black roof because black is the color for water and so should help to protect the books. 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. Another example concerns the association of autumn with death, and so executions only took place in autumn.

The shape of the forms of the landscape are important in Feng Shui. If the form of a dragon is identified in the shape of hills it is very bad practice to construct anything that appears to cut off a limb of the dragon.

In the late Qing dynasty when Europeans began to settle and build factories, churches and railways the rules of Feng Shui proved an obstacle to development. The construction of anything linear such as railway lines is considered dangerous Feng Shui as the Qi follows the line with too destructive a force. Coal mines were also seen as damaging in Feng Shui terms as well as disturbing the Earth dragons, in 1882 coal mining was suspended in Hebei after widespread local protests. Imperial pronouncements were insufficient to dislodge age-old faith in the correct siting for new buildings; route of buildings and laying of telegraph cables. Even today objections to building developments are often couched in terms of disturbance to Feng Shui resulting in suitable monetary compensation.

Somerset Maugham in his book ‘On a Chinese Screen’ gives a good description of the traditional use of Feng Shui in the 1930s.:
“You will find the same delight in the ornate in the poorest villages where the severity of a door is mitigated by a charming piece of carving, and where the trellis of the windows forms a complicated and graceful pattern. You can seldom cross a bridge, in however unfrequented a district, without seeing in it the hand of an artist. The stones are so laid as to make an intricate decoration, and it seems as though these singular people judged with a careful eye whether a flat bridge or an arched one would fit in best with the surrounding scene. The balustrade is ornamented with lions or with dragons. I remember a bridge that must have been placed just where it was for the pure delight of its beauty rather than for any useful purpose, since, though broad enough for a carriage and pair to pass over it, it served only to connect a narrow path that led from one ragged village to another. The nearest town was thirty miles away. The broad river, narrowing at this point, flowed between two green hills, and nut trees grew on the bank. The bridge had no balustrade. It was constructed of immense slabs of granite and rested on five piers; the middle pier consisted of a huge and fantastic dragon with a long and scaly tail. On the sides of the outer slabs, running the whole length of the bridge, was cut in very low relief a pattern of an unimaginable lightness, delicacy and grace. ”

Taiwan is where Feng Shui still has a strong influence, it was even a big issue in the 2004 Presidential election . A consultant advises on all sorts of things such as why an excess of road traffic accidents take place. It also has remained strong in Hong Kong where the advice of a practitioner will be sought on all construction projects. In Mainland China the effect of suppression of all superstitions during the period 1949 to 1990 is still felt, there is far less importance given to Feng Shui concerns. In recent years it has seen a revival and anyone rich enough may seek a practitioner's advice for house and grave placement.

wood element


note E (mi)
Lesser Yang
8 (5+3)
Xia dynasty
created by Water
consumed by Fire
ally Metal
enemy Water
fire element

Fire huǒ

Early Summer
note G (so)
Sheep or Goat
7 (5+2)

Zhou dynasty
created by Wood
consumed by Earth
ally Earth
enemy Metal
earth element


Yellow and Brown
Late Summer
note C (do)
Cow or Ox
Han dynasty
created by Fire
destroyed by Metal
ally Water
enemy Wood
metal element

Metal jīn

White and Gold
note D (re)
Lesser Yin
9 (5+4)
Shang dynasty
produced by Earth
consumed by Water
ally Wood
enemy Fire
water element

Water shuǐ

Black and Dark Blue
note A (la)
6 (5+1)
spleen and kidneys
Qin dynasty
collected by Metal
consumed by Wood
ally Fire
enemy Earth

Using Feng Shui

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. The Forbidden City is the supreme example of this. The location chosen lacked a 'hill' to the north, so this was built artificially and stands as Jingshan 'Coal' hill to this day. The 'Golden River Stream' was channeled to run in a loop south of the main complex of buildings. The ideal sunny location for a house coincides with most people's idea of a nice place to live it is not surprising that Feng Shui has many followers including Donald Trump and more 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. To make more appealing for a western audience the ancient system lost the spiritual side (demons and graves) and concentrated on the more materialistic claims (good fortune and health).

There are two main schools of Feng Shui: the ‘Forms Shool’ that puts the position in landscape as the key factor and the ‘Orientation School’ that use an accurate compass on its own to determine properties of places. Modern schools also include the Bagua school that uses the eight Yi Jing trigrams as the main inspiration; the Flying Star school that takes the stars surrounding the Great Bear constellation as their starting point and the Black Hat sect founded by Lin Yun in the US.

Feng Shui practitioners are particularly concerned to produce a smooth and curved motion of Qi; any sharp, straight tower or path or road can generate a poisonous arrow of too vigorous a flow of Qi. Obstacles that block the flow of Qi should also be avoided. Practitioners can then advise on how to mitigate the effects, often by diverting the direct flow ; plants; wind chimes and mirrors can be used to calm the flow.

Feng Shui compass

Here is an example of a simple Luo Pan ( Luó pán) compass with only a few concentric dials.

bagua compass,feng shui compass,compass

The rings from the center outwards are:
  1. The eight trigrams. The top of the trigram is towards the center and read outwards.
  2. The characters for the eight trigrams: ; Kūn; Duì; Qián; Kǎn; Gèn; Zhèn; Xùn
  3. The eight compass directions in Chinese characters: south; west-south; west; west-north; north; east-north; east and south-east
  4. Direction pairs of characters
  5. The 24 directions in English divisions S1-3; SW1-3 etc.
  6. The 24 directions in Chinese characters
  7. The 24 directions in western degree divisions of 15°. A blue-gray background indicates yin, while white background indicates yang
  8. The eight compass directions in English

Twenty four Mountain Directions ( èr shí sì shān)

Feng shui places great importance on compass direction, and to achieve greater accuracy 24 rather than 4 compass points are used. There are eight main divisions (bagua) with each trigram divided into three mountain zones. They are the 12 earthly branches; 8 of the 10 heavenly stems and 4 of the 8 trigrams (representing their positions on the taiji figure). The twenty four directions form the most important ring of symbols on a luó pǎn (or lopan) compass which divides the circle into equal 15° segments.

CharacterTypeYin or yangDirection
bǐngstemyangDirection SSE
branchyinDirection S
dīngstemyinDirection SSW
wèibranchyinDirection SSW
kūn trigramyangDirection SW
shēnbranchyangDirection WSW
gēngstemyangDirection WSW
yǒubranchyinDirection W
xīnstemyinDirection WNW
branchyinDirection WNW
qián trigramyangDirection NW
hàibranchyangDirection NNW
CharacterMountainYin or yangDirection
rénstemyangDirection NNW
branchyinDirection N
guǐstemyinDirection NNE
chǒubranchyinDirection NNE
gèn trigramyangDirection NE
yínbranchyangDirection ENE
jiǎstemyangDirection ENE
mǎobranchyinDirection E
stemyinDirection ESE
chénbranchyinDirection ESE
xùn trigramyangDirection SE
branchyangDirection SSE

Many compasses, particularly those for sea navigation divide each of the 24 mansions of 15° into three giving a total of 72 named directions giving a much finer compass resolution. These are all named after the two mansions they fall between. So bǐng and wǔ for example are given the two intermediaries: wǔ bǐng 170° and bǐng wǔ 175°.

See also