China: Fengshui and Settlement Location
Niu Yi Qiao, Barcelona, November 20th 2005
Note from the author:
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 Yi Qiao
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 including:
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 emerged.
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 work.
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 below.
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 development site.
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 there.
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 climate.