This article presents a
very simplified explanation of Fengshui. I have been advised by Fengshui experts
in China that the topic is too vast to be treated in this way. Fengshui is
extremely complex and involves a myriad of issues touching on philosophy,
religion, science and even government policy. However simplistic my attempted
explanations may be, I hope they may encourage students of geography to study
the topic further. Niu
Fengshui has affected the lives of
countless people throughout Chinese history, its impacts ranging from the
position of furniture in a room to the location of settlements. The word
Fengshui means 'Wind and Water'. In its simplest form, it is the study of the
connection between men and nature, a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism, geography,
geology and the supernatural. It represents a part of Chinese culture that has
survived for more than 7000 years.
Archeological studies demonstrate that as early as 6000 years
ago, the Chinese had learned to take into account the positive characteristics
of a site and situation when choosing settlement locations. Remains of the
Yangshao Culture (dating back 7000 years) show clearly that the choices of
settlements were deliberate, taking into consideration a number of features
Easy accessibility to a water source
A delta found at the mouth of a river
Floodplains - fertile land
South-facing aspect for maximum insolation
Soft, dark soils for cultivation
Natural route ways
The relationship between Fengshui and the prosperity of a
location was first established in the book 'Scripture of Burial',
published between 327 BC and 276 BC, where Fengshui was explained as a trapping
of the 'Qi', or Nimbus (see Table 1 below
for detail). A settlement with 'good' Fengshui would probably be one located on
a gentle, south-facing slope facing the sea (like Barcelona today), because such
sites radiate and generate good Nimbus.
Explanations like these may seem absurd today, but 7000 years
ago people lacked our knowledge. The ancient Chinese were able to summarize
patterns in the sites of successful towns. They knew that land next to a river
was good for farming, but did not know that it was because of the deposition of
fertile silt from the river. As a result, people turned to religion and
philosophy, and mythical explanations like the Nimbus
Today, with the advancement in science and technology, Fengshui
has gradually lost most of its mythical connotations. However, in cities
with a rich historic background, one can still see some traditional Fengshui at
Case Study: Shanghai
The city of Shanghai is commonly accepted by Fengshui-believers
today as a positive example of a settlement site. The name 'Shanghai' means
'into the sea', and its affinity with water is apparent.
Shanghai has several traditional Fengshui features, shown in
Map 1 below.
Map 1: Shanghai Fengshui
The most noticeable of all is of course the Yangtze River.
Throughout history, the Yangtze has been metaphorically described, along with
the Yellow River, as the 'Veins' of the land, since they are the source of the
Chinese civilization. According to traditional Fengshui theories, the city
benefited because the river acted as a natural trap for the good Nimbus generated by the Chinese Sea.
Recently, Fengshui scholars have also observed that Shanghai's
Ancient City (Huangpu and Luwan) and the PuDong New Zone together form a Tai Chi chart. These districts are shown in Map 2, below. The
significance of the Tai Chi chart is explained in Table 2
Map 2: Shanghai districts
Coincidence or not, Huangpu and Luwan have been the most
prosperous areas in Shanghai while PuDong is currently the city’s largest
However, modern geographers prefer to analyse these
characteristics with a different approach, explaining that these areas had once
been the lowest bridging point along the river which is why the city grew from
Shanghai also has other Fengshui features which are hard to
trace and have little solid evidence. These features have been long banished by
New Fengshuists, who have very different explanations for the city’s success.
Being located on the banks of the River Huangpu and on the coast, they argue,
benefits the city in several ways. Rich silt deposited by the river has enabled
the development of agriculture that formed the basis of the city’s
development. The entire city is built on the Yangtze River Delta, which also
provides rich agricultural farmland. The Yangtze River is China ’s main
artery. It was the only source of transportation across several provinces during
ancient times and this made Shanghai a highly accessible area, enabling trade to
develop. Its close location to the China Sea also made it a major port in the
country. The original settlement, including the districts of Jinan, Huangpu and
Luwan, was located in the meander bends of the Huangpu River, a natural
defensive location. The original city centre was located at the lowest bridging
point of the Huangpu River, which allowed easy transportation as well as the
development of a route centre. In addition, the prevailing wind from the
south-east carries warm, wet air from the Pacific which gives Shanghai a mild
Nimbus is a rough translation of the Chinese world 'Qi'.
It is a very abstract idea, but it is something many people firmly believe in.
The Nimbus is not superstition; rather, it is a more general version of the soul
that can be found in anything that has had contact with life.
People who have experienced specific training, like the
Buddhist Monks, are able to see the Nimbus visually. Others, however, can only
feel it, as exemplified in expressions like 'this place gives me the creeps'.
The Nimbus Theory assumes that every person and every place gives out a
particular feeling. For example, in a house where a violent death took place,
one may feel instinctively uneasy. Similarly, there are people who make you feel
uncomfortable the moment you meet them. These are negative Nimbuses, which are
easily detected. In contrast, in a bright, sunlit garden, one feels cheerful,
because of the effect of a more positive Nimbus.
The Nimbus is individual to each person, depending on his or
her personality. There are some people who can calm people by their mere
presence, while there are others who generate negativity and stress. The Nimbus
also changes according to one’s mood: the more positive the mood, the more
positive the Nimbus given out and vice versa. Some people’s Nimbus is
naturally stronger than others, in which case they can influence or dominate
In Fengshui, the Nimbus refers to the spiritual aspect of a
settlement. For example, a dry, south facing hill has a more positive Nimbus and
is therefore more pleasant to live in. A damp, shaded area has a more negative
Nimbus, and will have a damaging effect on the inhabitants’ health, both in
body and in mind. In Fengshui, it is believed that water and wind can trap the
The Tai Chi Chart is a crucial concept in the YiJing, a
philosophy dominant throughout Chinese history.
The Ancient Chinese had an obsession with the origin of the
universe; they believed that the Tai Chi Chart could summarize all things in
life. The Tai Chi chart has two meanings, on the one hand is signifies 'extreme
or limit', and on the other it represents balance and harmony, the fundamental
rules of the universe.
The chart above is the commonly accepted, simplified version.
It is based on a circle, which has neither beginning nor end, reflecting the
idea that the Universe is infinite. The circle is divided into two parts by a
S-shaped line. The two parts are usually referred to as the 'black-eyed white
fish', and the 'white-eyed black fish', or Yin and Yang. The 'fish' have deep
philosophical implications. Every thing has its polar opposite, as in white fish
compared to black fish, good to evil, beauty to ugliness, men to women, life to
death, love to hate, left to right, positive to negative, and ironically, a
philosophy as intangible as the YiJing actually supports modern science: the
assumption of matter and anti-matter.
The S shaped dividing line serves to illustrate the idea that
'nothing is eternal but change.' Things are constantly in motion, and there is
no clear cut dividing line between things. Were the Tai Chi Chart to be
reversed, it would look identical except for the colours. The concept here is
one of unity, that Yin and Yang are intimately related, just like good and evil,
happiness and melancholy. They only exist relative to the other.
The 'black eye' and the 'white eye' serve to further establish
this philosophy. There is Yin in Yang, Yang in Yin; there is good in evil, and
evil in good. Accordingly therefore, there is no such thing as perfection.
In summary, the Tai Chi chart is a paradox; it is the
embodiment of harmony and coexistence between two contrasting matters. As much
as Yin and Yang oppose each other, one cannot exist without the other. There is
no such concept of good without evil, nor life without death, and such is the
YiJing way of life.