Barcelona Field Studies Centre

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.

Shanghai Fengshui

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.

Shanghai districts

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.

Table 1: The Nimbus

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 them.

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 best Nimbus.

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Table 2: Tai Chi

Tai Chi Chart

Tai Chi Chart

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.

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