Changes & Song Dynasty
During the Song Dynasty there was a major Confucian revitalization. Confucianism, though it had changed over the couple hundred of years since Confucius’s time, still played an important part in society, in family systems, as well as in political doings. One of the important Confucian philosophical texts is a scripture called I Ching, also known as The Book of Changes. The Book of Changes is a book of divination that predicts future occurrences and makes sense of human existence and natural events. The Book of Changes was used when early scholars of Confucianism were confused or in turmoil about ethical and/or political issues as a type of divination. This book was believed to hold all the solutions to the universe. The idea of ‘feng shui’ only became common in the Song Dynasty (Bruun 2008, p. 11) as a practice that played a part in determining where buildings would be constructed, where burial sites would be, and also how irrigation would be used — another form of divination. The entire purpose of feng shui was to maximize a site’s energy (which is much how we still think of it today). The external area of a site, its location and direction were foremost in feng shui; secondly in importance was the internal atmosphere. If there was a good combination of both, this was ideal for good health and prosperity. Feng shui, of course, was lauded by some and doubted by others and many noted that there was a quite a bit of superstition that went along with its tenets. The Book of Burial was the first important book regarding the formal practice of feng shui as it related to the deceased. The book advised how to locate the best sites for the burial of ancestors and went into detail how the ancestors of the deceased could benefit by this practice. Bruun (2008, p. 67) notes that the book stated “the potential of auspicious graves to produce emperors, kings, and ministers.” The Book of Changes, The Book of Burial and feng shui all have something to do with the importance of divination as well as other important themes in Chinese history. Feng shui’s evolution took a long time throughout Chinese history and it is only in the Song Dynasty that it became separated from general cosmology (2008, p. 11). Whether it is The Book of Changes, the Book of Burial or feng shui philosophy, in general, all of the philosophies belong to each other and should not be considered separate schools as both texts and feng shui as a practice all combine similar theories for understanding how form, direction, and energy all work together.
The ancient Chinese people thought that how the land was laid out could have a major effect on the fate of whole kingdoms. The landscape on which a city was constructed, for example, could have a major impact on the fate of the city. Were there mountains? Was there water? These natural elements were believed to play a part in a city’s prosperity. However, if a city was built on a terrain without water or on a terrain that was subject to drought or windstorms, there was a certain amount of bad energy that went along with those elements and the city could endure poverty or battles because of it. On this same note (which is covered in Book of Burial), if an emperor was to be buried in an area with very energetic positive energy, then his dynasty would do well and prosper because of it. The Song dynasty was one of the periods that embraced this way of thinking and the people of this time created a compass in order to help them find the most auspicious places to bury their dead so as to procure a better fate for all.
While finding perfect burial sites for the dead increased in importance during the Song dynasty, it was also during this period that finding the most auspicious places to place buildings also became important. The direction that a construction faced, the date of its construction, and land on which was built were important elements in this practice.
Ancient Chinese people studied feng shui in order to improve their own fate as reflected in the benefit and happiness of human beings (Lin 2000, p. 2). Human beings are responsible for their own behavior in their lives and it is the Chinese belief that “auspicious burial grounds or residential sites belong only to those who have done a lot of good deeds in their lives” (2000, p. 2). Lin (2000) notes a very telling anecdote: “To obtain an auspicious land site, one must first till the land of the heart” (p. 2). What this means is that a person has to do good things and become a good, moral person in life. We can understand this as meaning that one has to have their own balance inside in order to find it outside. (There will be further discussion on this ‘balance’ and how it is achieved through yin and yang later in the paper.)
In Chinese tradition, heaven, man and earth make up what is known as a “universal trinity” (Lin 2000, p. 2) and man’s welfare is up to his own decisions and what he does in his life, but also by heaven, which is above him, and the earth, which is below him (2000, p. 2). This is one of the fundamental concepts at the basis of feng shui and it is important because it doesn’t put any one thing in front of — or of more importance — than another. Man is on par with heaven and earth and it is up to him to find the balance of all three and much of this balance, as will be discussed, comes from an understanding of how the universe works. In China, understanding how, why and when heaven and earth could or would interfere in a person’s existence became incredibly important. Feng shui came out of this research — the research of understanding when heaven and earth needs to intervene. However, in the early beginnings of feng shui, people had only certain texts to look to for guidance — books like Book of Burial and Book of Changes.
Feng shui is a means of divination aimed at promoting human fate by first finding auspicious grounds for building a tomb, house, or a city, and then building and arranging the structure in ways that find harmony with the environment. In the beginning, there was little theoretical guidance to train geomancers in their practice. People acted largely on their instinct and experience with the aid of I-Ching, the oldest book of divination
(Lin 2000, p. 2).
Feng shui’s first major period can be linked to Book of Burial written by Guo Pu (A.D. 276-324) (Lin 2000, p. 3). It is in this book that Guo first talks about the power of feng shui. He says, “Hence (by means of feng shui), a gentleman can prevail over God’s work, change his own fate, and instantly create fortune or misfortune” (2000, p. 3). In his seminal work, Guo discusses the importance of selecting the right location of a grave and that it must be full of the energetic Qi energy. Then, one must measure and find out what the perfect exposure of the grave is and this has to do with both human and natural elements (for example, birthday of the dead person as well as mountains, streams, etc.) (2000, p. 4). It was here that Guo was trying to intertwine the importance of the natural world and the importance of the human world in finding balance and creating prosperity for descendents of the deceased. It is through balancing both worlds that Guo believed people could trump God’s work in the sense that they could make their lives better. If they understood how to be in balance, they could create a better life for themselves and their families.
The I-Ching or Book of Changes is the real first attempt by the Chinese to try and understand yin and yang, which is all about how opposites work. In Chinese, ‘feng’ means wind and ‘shui’ means water. Both wind and water, according to Chinese philosophy, means good health and fortune. This is the philosophy of Yijiing and its purpose is to show how change happens in the universe. According to Chinese theory, the Yijiing can predict what the present and future will bring a person if they make certain changes in their lives. Essentially, the Yijiing tells one what they have to do in order to get certain results. The I-Ching elaborated on the ideas of yin and yang, which is also at the foundation of feng shui. The Book of Changes upheld that at the basis of everything in the universe is simplicity. There are things that appear to be obscure or difficult to understand, but at the heart of everything is a simple nature. Everything, though simple, changes. This is the nature of the universe and the Book of Changes stresses the importance of understanding that there will be change so that one can be flexible and roll with the punches, essentially. Once one has the understanding that change is always going to occur, one can then cultivate the right attitude for dealing with the change. Another thing discussed in the Book of Changes is the notion that there is a persistent rule in the universe that will never change (though everything else is changing). The Book of Changes, therefore, was about inevitable change and a persistent rule.
Understanding yin and yang is fundamental for understanding feng shui as discussed in the Book of Changes. Though yin and yang are natural opposites, they still need each other in the natural world. That is to say that one can’t exist with the other existing. Once yin and yang is understood in the natural world, feng shui promotes that people can change their environment and their prospects by using this newfound knowledge. Everything in one’s environment needs to be in balance in order to create harmony, which is thus reflected in prosperity, good health and well-being. This goes back to Guo’s Book of Burial as well. Finding the perfect site in which to bury the dead was about balancing certain human elements with the natural world. During this time it was not uncommon for a person not yet dead to take part in picking the perfect location for his gravesite. This truly is incorporating the human world with the natural world.
Feng shui really came into its most prominent period during the Tang dynasty and it lasted until the end of the Song dynasty (A.D. 960-1179). There were two major geomantic schools that were formulated during this period — the Situation school and the Direction school (Lin 2000, p. 5). According to Lin, it isn’t surprising that feng shui really had its heyday during this period as it was a period marked by a very strong academic atmosphere and some of the most stunning achievements in art and literature were created during this period. The Situation school and the Direction school were really a split of theory and practice, though both of the schools are within the framework of Taoism (2000, p. 5). The Situation school focused more on the environmental elements that were around a site while the Direction school focuses more on a site’s alignment with the stars and such (2000, p. 5).
Bruun, O. (2008). An introduction to feng shui. Cambridge University Press; 1st edition.
Lin, H. (2000). The art & science of feng shui. Llewellyn Publications.
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