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The Evolution of Feng Shui

This ancient Chinese philosophy of creating harmonious environments is now becoming almost a household word, with famous people such as:

Donald Trump,  Bill Clinton, Tommy Hilfiger, Madonna, Boy George, David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Cher, Brooke Shields, Sharon Stone, Cybil Shepherd, Eric Clapton, Shirley MacLaine, Andie McDowell, Patricia Arquette, Fran Drescher, Rosanne, Susan Lucci, Sarah Jessica-Parker, Mariah Carey, Ricky Martin, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Kevin Spacey, Johnny Depp, George Clooney, Lily Tomlin, Oprah Winfrey, Julie Andrews, Ellen Degeneres & Anne Heche,

and companies such as:

The Body Shop, British Airways, CBS TV Studios, Motorola, Panasonic, Hyatt Hotels, Kellogg's and Chase Manhattan Bank

all using Feng Shui to enhance their business and/or personal lives.

Television, newspapers, magazines, radio, books and the internet are all discovering the latest and hottest new fad......Or is it?

Dr. Stephen L. Field, of Trinity University writes: 'In it's earliest form, Feng Shui was utilized to orient the homes of the dead rather than the homes of the living.

The earliest textual reference to the practice of site selection occurs in various similar passages on oracle bones dating from the middle of the Shang dynasty (1766-1046 BCE [Before Christian Era]).  Royal diviners (fortune-tellers) queried Shang Di (the High God) by interpreting cracks appearing in heated animal bones.

The earliest textual reference to the actual practice of geomancy comes from the Book of Odes (the oldest anthology of poetry in the Chinese tradition).  In a cycle of poems praising the exploits of the illustrious ancestors of the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE) the hero Gong Liu appears.  Chief Liu led an exodus of his people to the fertile lands of Bin in the year 1796 BCE, according to tradition.  The poem recounts the founding of his new domain, and this excerpt shows him conducting a geophysical survey.

....Great was Chief Liu....He surveyed the breadth and length of his lands; he measured the shadow and observed the hills, noting the sunshine and shade.  He located the streams and springs....

Liu was measuring the shadow of the gnomon (sundial) to determine the cardinal directions.  Sunshine and shade are the original meanings of the well-known terms YANG & YIN.  With this information, he could determine which side of the hills and vales received the most sunshine during the winter, as well as the proximity of these sunny dells to sources of water.

From this evidence we can already see the general outline of ancient Feng Shui:

  • the orientation of tombs was as important as the orientation of homes.
  • The minimum requirement for either was the determination of direction.
  • Both astronomical and geophysical factors were consulted.

It is this last point that demands our further attention.  In these two categories are the origins of the two major schools of Feng Shui:

the Lifa or "Cosmological School" (a.k.a. "Compass School) and

the Xingfa or "Form School"

Early History of Compass School Feng Shui

The earliest organized school of Feng Shui was known as KANYU.

The specific meaning of kan is 'canopy' and that of yu is 'chassis' (illustrated by a chariot) in which case, the term would mean 'heaven and earth' (cosmos).  The school of Kanyu, therefore, is 'cosmic Feng Shui'  Kanyu is the ancestor of the Compass School of medieval Chinese Geomancy (Feng Shui) and was one of the first to make use of the Lo Pan (geomantic compass).

Early History of Form School Feng Shui

The earliest textual reference to a concept underlying the theories of the Xingfa (Form School) of Feng Shui occurs in ch. 39 of the Guanzi, which dates to no earlier than the 5th century BCE.  In the Book of Burial, we see a fully developed theory of the disposition of chi [pron. "chee"] (life breath) in the geophysical plane.  The following passage discusses the relationship of xing (form, shape, features) and chi.

....Water is the blood and breath (chi) of the earth, flowing and communicating as if in sinews and veins....The Classic says: Chi flows where the earth changes shape.  The flora and fauna are thereby nourished.  It flows within the ground, follows the form of the terrain, and pools where the terrain runs it's course...

The Burial Book continues with this commentary:

....Veins originate in lowland contours; bones originate in alpine contours.  They wind sinuously from east to west and from north to south.  When thousands of feet distant they are contours; when hundreds of feet nigh they are features.  Contours advance and finish in features.  This is called total Chi....

The proper location of the 'lair' (burial site) is where the 'features finish', and a large portion of the book describes how to recognize these auspicious forms.

Here, for the first time in the textual tradition, the Four Celestial Palaces of the Cerulean (deep blue) Dragon, the Vermilion (brilliant red) Bird, the White Tiger and the Dark Turtle are brought down to earth.  On earth, these celestial forms delineate the terrestrial forms that occupy the directions of East, South, West and North, respectively, of the burial site.  The Book of Burial continues:

....The Dragon and Tiger are what protect the district of the lair.  On a hill amid folds of strata, if open to the left or vacant to the right, if empty in front or hollow at the rear, life breath (chi) will dissipate in the blowing wind.  The Classic says:  A lair with leakage will harbor a decaying coffin....

From this, we learned the chi rides the wind and is scattered, but is retained when encountering water, (which is the best known term in Feng shui.)  Here we see that the terrestrial features that block the wind are necessary to prevent the dissipation of the natural flow of chi in and along the ground.  Flowing water, like wind, also attracts chi like a magnet, and the auspicious lair is one that encourages water to linger in it's vicinity without stagnating.


The mention of wind and water brings the discussion full circle back to the definition of Feng Shui.  The science of Feng Shui in it's earliest recorded context, specifically refers to the school of Forms.  Terrestrial features serve to block the wind - which captures chi and scatters it, and channels the waters - which collect chi and store it.  Feng Shui may literally indicate 'wind and water', but this is merely shorthand for an environmental policy of 'hindering the wind and hoarding the waters.'


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Last modified: October 17, 2008[New!]