Fengshui’s Conception of Space: The Material and Metaphysical Divide in Practice

A thought that has been brewing in my head since MO3354 (East Asian Intellectual History) was the nature of the Ontic/Epistemic divide in Eastern Philosophies. In my limited study of Buddhism, I believe that they can bridge this gap through the concept of Enlightenment (barring the Yogachara School). This divide is even more difficult to understand in the context of the Yi Ching and Fengshui. As Feuchtwang describes it, “Fengshui offers plausible hypothesis, but never proofs”. [1] It is possible that practitioners of Fengshui aren’t concerned with the epistemology of their craft, much less the ontic/epistemic divide. To look at Fengshui under this split draw away from the issues that scholars of the Yi Ching and Fengshui deem important. To consider the ontic/epistemic divide in Fengshui is not necessarily important, rather we should look at the material/metaphysical divide that is more evident in ancient and modern debates in different schools of Fengshui.

The most obvious split between more materialist and metaphysical perspectives on Fengshui is between the School of Forms and Orientations. The School of Forms emphasizes concrete topological features and draws an interpretation from material phenomena to decide whether a place has good Fengshui or not. The School of Directions is much more complicated and encompasses cosmological aspects including the Five Elements, Numerology based on the Bāgùa, and even planetary alignments. [2] What we can see here is a clear split between how Fengshui is conceptualized. The School of Forms sees Fengshui in a materialistic light, where the School of Orientations looks at it in a more metaphysical sense. This divide between emphasis on the material and metaphysical has interesting implications on the practical applications of Fengshui on spaces. There appear to be fewer examples of specific modern practices based on the School of Forms compared to Orientations. This is likely due to the intrinsic adaptability of each School’s basic principles.

In terms of application, the materialist leaning of the School of Forms has lent itself well to larger-scale planning and in areas where space is abundant. For instance, Ming Dynasty Beijing’s city planning seems to follow principles from the School of Forms. With their dragon-shaped city planning and the artificial hill behind the Forbidden City. The central line of the city forms a giant winding dragon from north to south, with two large gates as its eyes. [3] We also see the rules in the School of Forms being especially strictly adhered to in burial practices, particularly in places such as Taiwan; where space constraints are less severe and topological features abundant. Entire south-facing hillsides in areas north of Taipei are dotted with mausoleums and horseshoe-shaped graves. Based on these examples, it is evident that the School of Forms and subsequent schools that follow a materialist interpretation of Fengshui are more suited towards the planning of larger areas, incorporating and using topology on a larger scale.

On the other hand, the School of Orientations with its various modern interpretations such as the Bāgùa and Flying Star Schools has found itself being applied much more generously in places such as an office or household context. The Flying Star School, with its heavier focus on numerology, can be adapted towards floor planning. With favourable number combinations used for bedrooms and offices, and less favourable combinations for less important spaces. [4] There are also examples of small Bāgùa panels with a mirror in the centre being hung above main doors. In the Chinese diaspora of Singapore and Hong Kong, household Fengshui seems to be informed by general practices in the School of Orientation, especially in the placement and direction of furniture; especially beds. The emphasis on the metaphysical rather than the material meant that the School of Orientations’ practices were much better suited to modern adaptations and interpretations.

Thus, the divide in the School of Forms and Orientations has resulted in varied applications of Fengshui in spaces. With practices from the School of Orientations and its derivatives dominating modern approaches to Fengshui. It would be interesting to read further into Fengshui practices and the Yi Ching. Especially, to determine which Schools and their derivatives have been propagated more widely.

[1] Ole Brunn, An Introduction to Fengshui (2008), p. 90

[2] Ibid, p. 151

[3] Madeleine YueDong and Reginald E. Zelnik, Republican Beijing: The City and its Histories, (2003), p. 8

[4] Ole Brunn, An Introduction to Fengshui (2008), p. 52

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