In Search of Dragons:

Fengshui and Early Geophysical Notions of Qi

by Stephen L. Field, Ph.D.

© May 9, 2003




While much has been written on the physiological characteristics of qi, on the one hand, and the philosophical and cosmological ramifications of qi on the other, very little study has been conducted on the concept of qi as understood by practitioners of fengshui. One of the earliest texts that discusses what we may call the geophysical nature of qi is the Zangshu, or Book of Burial, attributed to Guo Pu (276-324) of the early 3rd century.[1]  The Zangshu, for example, is the locus classicus for the term "fengshui," and many of the cardinal principles of what eventually became the Form School of fengshui are outlined in this text. My paper will isolate some of these principles and scrutinize them. In particular, I will analyze the means by which fengshui masters locate qi in the mountainous landscape, and then close with a general picture of the ideal location of the tomb site, according to the authors of the Book of Burial.  Before proceeding to the Zangshu, I will begin by tracing the origin of geophysical notions of qi.

            One of the earliest statements of the theory underlying Form School fengshui[2] occurs in the Guanzi (ca. 300 BCE): "The earth is the origin of all things, the root and garden of all life. . . . Water is the blood and breath [xue qi] of the earth, flowing and communicating as if in sinews and veins."  The use of the term xueqi to metaphorically describe the function of terrestrial water presupposes its use at the time in human physiology. Sure enough, in the Zuozhuan the term is used at least once to indicate the "blood and breath" of the human body, and once for the "pulse."[3]  It also occurs in the Analects to mean the blood-qi of a man in his full vigor.[4]  So the image in the Guanzi is of living water pulsing underground, emerging as springs, and coursing in rivers. But qi also has other manifestations in the Zuozhuan.[5]  Perhaps the most primitive concept of qi refers to the six qi of heaven--cold, heat, wind, rain, dark and light--which "descend and produce the five tastes," but "produce the six diseases when they are in excess."[6]  Clearly we see in this passage the merging of a six-term meteorological system with what was probably a later attempt to categorize the world in terms of five. Yin and yang, at this stage in the evolution of Chinese cosmology, are merely two types of qi (cold and heat), and have yet to subsume all binary paradigms. Thus far, qi is discussed only in its differentiated aspects, and has yet to become a "universal fluid."[7]

            By the time the Guoyu was completed in the mid-Warring States period,[8]yin and yang had been elevated to the status of the primary manifestations of qi. The following passage from the Zhouyu records the words of Bo Yangfu, the Grand Historian of the state of Zhou:

The qi of heaven and earth do not lose their proper order. If they go beyond their proper order, havoc will be wrought upon the people. If the yang remains submerged and cannot emerge, and the yin remains oppressive and unyielding, there will be earthquakes.

If the Zhouyu was compiled in 431 BCE, this passage probably records the earliest known cosmological theory of qi.[9]  In another passage from the Zhouyu,[10]we see a characterization of qi that is closer to the geophysical notions that we seek to trace. Here Prince Jin is trying to dissuade his father, King Ling of Zhou, from damming the rivers to protect the palace from floods. The prince first approaches the problem from a cosmological point of view:

I have heard that those who ruled the people in ancient times did not tear down the mountains, nor did they raise the marshes, nor did they obstruct the rivers, nor did they drain the swamps. For mountains are accumulations of earth, and marshes are gathering places for creatures. Rivers are channels for qi, and swamps are concentrations of water. When heaven and earth were complete, (earth) had accumulated into high (lands), and creatures had gathered in low (lands). The rivers and valleys were cut through to channel the qi, and the stagnant and low-lying water was dammed and diked to concentrate its fertility. For this reason the accumulations do not crumble, and creatures have a place to gather. Qi is not sunken and congealed, nor is it scattered and dissipated. Through this the people, when living, have wealth and useful things, and when dead have places to be buried.

Here we see that the concept of the accumulation and dispersal of earth and water was the accepted explanation for the appearance of the phenomenal world. The rivers that cut through the accumulated earth channel the qi and prevented it from congealing. When swamps are allowed to concentrate the waters, the qi is prevented from scattering and dissipating. As we will see below, this view is similar to the principles of accumulation and dispersal that govern Form School fengshui. In addition, when Prince Jin says that the dead will "have places to be buried," he probably refers to a belief in something like yinzhai or burial site fengshui,[11] the subject of the Zangshu. His recognition of this fact follows right after his statement that qi is not congealed or scattered, which is a requirement for proper burial. Prince Jin continues his persuasion using an historical perspective. He tries to convince his father of the folly of his plan by praising the exploits of Yu, the Great, who dredged the rivers, rather than damming them like Gun:

[He] raised the high, lowered the low, dredged the rivers to channel the congealed, and concentrated the waters to make abundant the living things. . . . Therefore heaven had no hidden yin, and earth had no scattered yang. There were no waters in which the qi was sunken. . . .

In this passage, it is clear that qi is separate from water, a departure from the view of the Guanzi author. Qi must be "channeled" or guided, presumably to prevent it from congealing, and water follows these courses and thereby avoids stagnation.

The Zhouyu passage just quoted is one of the earliest codifications of the theory of ju conglomeration and san dispersal. The concept was widespread by the early Han dynasty when it had expanded to govern the physiological qi.  In chapter 22 of the Zhuangzi Outer Chapters is this passage: "Man's life is the assembling of qi. The assembling is deemed birth, the dispersal is deemed death."[12]  So by this time the concept of agglomeration and dispersal of qi had both macrocosmic and microcosmic applications. Such a view is the premise underlying the theories of fengshui as understood by the author of the Zangshu. From its opening chapters comes the following passage: "Truly, life is accumulated qi. It solidifies into bone, which alone remains after death. Burial returns qi to the bones, which is the way the living are endowed."[13]  Here the physiological qi of Zhuangzi and the geophysical qi of Guanzi and Prince Jin merge, as the corpse is interred underground to receive the influence of the "blood and qi" of the body of the earth. Indeed, the metaphor of the body also appears in the Zangshu: "Earth is the body [ti] of qi--where there is earth there is qi. Qi is the mother of water--where there is qi there is water."  So the Book of Burial also maintains the correspondence between water and qi that appears in the Warring States texts, except that the relationship is clarified in a very important way--qi gives birth to water. The relationship is an important one. As mother and offspring, qi and water exhibit a natural attraction. Obtaining one is the means of acquiring the other. This is the sine qua non for the practice of fengshui, and is explained in this passage from the Zangshu, which is the first appearance in extant texts of the term, fengshui:

The Classic says, Qi rides the wind and scatters, but is retained when encountering water. The ancients collected it to prevent its dissipation, and guided it to assure its retention. Thus it was called fengshui. According to the laws of fengshui, the site that attracts water is optimum, followed by the site that catches wind.

However, the means by which wind can be collected and water can be guided depends entirely on the topography of the land.

            The following passage from the Zangshu describes the relationship between topography, qi, and water:

The Classic says, Where the ground holds auspicious qi, the earth conforms and rises. When zhi ridges hold accumulated qi, water conforms and accompanies them.

Thus, the elevation of features above the level ground is the result of the presence underground of "auspicious qi." These topographical features are called zhi, a term also borrowed from human physiology, which means arterial branches. Such arteries are the conduits of qi, and when they are full of accumulated qi, water appears and follows their outward manifestations, the arterial ridges. Since qi is the mother of water, presumably the presence of qi will generate water. The question that remains is this, just how does qi accumulate in these arteries? Another passage clarifies:

The Classic says, Where the earth takes shape, qi flows accordingly; thereby things are born. For qi courses within the ground, its flow follows the contour of the ground, and its accumulation results from the halt of terrain. For burial, seek the source and ride it to its terminus.

The words "contour" and "terrain" translate the same Chinese term, shi, a word that in most contexts means "power" or "force."  However, at least since the late Warring States period, in combination with the character xing or "form," it has referred to the inherent strengths of topographical features.[14]  Where these features run their course and come to an end is where the qi naturally accumulates. According to the Zangshu, "Qi collects where forms [xing] terminate; it transforms and gives birth to the myriad things. This is exalted ground."  Burial should take place in this exalted ground.

            It would not be an exaggeration to say that in the Zangshu, xing and shi are the most important technical terms.[15]  The author goes to great lengths to explain their meaning, because the search for accumulated qi depends entirely on the ability of the fengshui master to perceive the subtleties of the topography.  In the following passage, xing and shi are described in some detail:

Arteries spring from (low) land terrain; bones spring from mountain terrain. They wind sinuously from east to west and from south to north. Thousands of feet (high) is (called) forces [shi]; hundreds of feet (high) is (called) features [xing]. Forces advance and finish in features. This is called integrated qi. On land of integrated qi, burial occurs in the terminus.

The passage begins with another borrowing from human physiology. What previously were called zhi branches, are here specified even more clearly as "arteries" [mo].[16]   We saw previously that the presence of underground qi caused the earth to protrude, and here those protrusions are clearly the bulging arteries of the skin of the earth. Bones, on the other hand, rise like ribs high above the earth as mountain ranges. Specifically, terrain thousands of feet high is called "forces," and terrain only hundreds of feet high is called "features."  From a fengshui point of view, terrain originates in the forces of alpine heights, slowly winds around as it decreases in altitude, and finally runs its course and finishes in the hills and knolls of the lowlands. When such a terrain can be traced from its highland origin to its lowland terminus, this is the optimum topography. Again, according to the Zangshu, "When the forces are fluid and the features are dynamic, unwinding from terminus to source, according to the art of fengshui, if interment occurs here, good fortune is eternal and misfortune nil."

            At this early stage in the development of a methodology to analyze the topography, a technical vocabulary for distinguishing auspicious and inauspicious terrain is still somewhat primitive. Instead, the author of the Zangshu resorts to metaphorical language from the human and mythical realms to represent topographical features. The following passage describes the optimum topography:

The mountains of exalted ground descend from Heaven in succession as if doing obeisance. Like billowing waves, like galloping horses, they come in a rush and cease as if laid to rest. As if embracing 10,000 treasures, yet they rest peacefully. As if preparing 10,000 feasts, yet they fast in purity. They are like bulging bags, like brimming plates, like dragons and phoenixes soaring and circling. Birds hover and beast crouch, as if paying homage to (a noble of) 10,000 chariots.

The appearance in this passage of the image of dragons and phoenixes is important. Another passage concentrates the view from a panorama of shi forces to a focus on xing features, and depicts the terrain as a recumbent dragon:

The Classic says: Where forces cease and features soar high, with a stream in front and a hill behind, here hides the head of the dragon. The snout and forehead are auspicious; the horns and eyes bring doom. The ears obtain princes and kings; the lips lead to death or injury from weapons. Where terrain winds about and collects at the center, this is called the belly of the dragon. Where the navel is deep and winding, descendants will have good fortune. If the chest and ribs are injured, burial in the morning will bring sobbing that night.

Here we see a picture of the terminus of shi forces, as if the winding terrain were a coiled dragon. At the point where the mountain range runs its course, terminating in soaring foothills, if the image of a dragon's head can be visualized, this is the ideal locale for burial. This is called the xue, or dragon's lair.

The Zangshu provides further instruction regarding the specific shape of the topographical forces that lead to the lair and features that surround it. The following passage describes auspicious forces:

Burial among forces resembling 10,000 horses descending from heaven will engender kings. Forces resembling colossal waves, corrugations of cliffs and furrows of ranges, will produce princes and dukes of a thousand chariots. Forces resembling a descending dragon, encircled by water, attended by clouds, generate the rank and emolument of the Three Grand Ministers. Forces resembling a palatial mansion with luxuriant vegetation and towering trees will engender the founder of a state or prefecture.

The following passage describes auspicious features:

If features resemble a swallow's nest, according to the laws of fengshui, burial should occur in the recess, and (descendants will be) invested with a fief. If features resemble an overturned wine vessel, with hills in the rear advancing from a distance, and in front corresponding terrain winding and circling, (descendants will attain the rank of) the nine nobles and the three ministers. If features resemble an inverted cauldron, at the peak riches are obtainable. If features resemble the crown of a tree, there will be everlasting prosperity and joy.

The following describes inauspicious forces:

Forces resembling a frightened serpent, twisting and winding in a gradual slope, topple the state and extinguish the clan. Amid forces as sharp-pointed as the dagger-ax and spear, here soldiers die, are punished or imprisoned. Forces like rapid-flowing water make living men see ghosts.

The following describes inauspicious features:

If features resemble the casting of lots, the hundred affairs will be confused and disordered. If the features resemble disheveled clothing, women will be jealous and wives will be wanton. If features resemble a rubbish bag, homes and granaries will burn down. If features resemble a capsized boat, women will be ill and men will be imprisoned. If features resemble a long table, sons and grandsons will die. If features resemble a recumbent sword, there will be execution and usurpation. If features resemble a drawn dagger, yield to misfortune and flee from disaster.

We can see a kind of sympathetic magic at work in these passages. Images of horses, dragons, mansions, bird's nests, wine vessels, bronze cauldrons, and towering trees are inherently positive, while images of snakes, rapids, gambling, rubbish, capsized boats, and weapons are negative.[17]

            If the topography of a particular locale conforms to the descriptions outlined above, then qi will be generated along the flow of terrain, and the appearance of water at the terminus will be proof of the coalescence of that qi. Thus, in the passage quoted above, a stream flows in front of the dragon's head. This water is the means by which the qi generated by the dragon can be harnessed to revive the spirit of the interred bones. According to the Zangshu:

External qi is that by which internal qi is collected. Water flowing cross-wise is the means for retaining advancing dragons. Lofty forces wind around and come to a rest. If the external has no means to accumulate the internal, qi dissipates within the ground. The Classic says: The lair that does not hoard will only harbor rotting bones.

The water that fronts the burial site must flow transversely across the axis of the advancing mountains. The Zangshu is quite specific in regard to the disposition of this water:

Where water is the Vermilion Bird, decline and prosperity rely on the features of the terrain. Swift currents are taboo and are said to bring grief and lamentation. From a source in the Vermilion Bird vital qi will spring. (Waters that) diverge will not bring prosperity; pooling (waters) will accumulate great abundance; stagnant (water) brings decline. . . . The Classic says: Where mountains advance and waters encircle, there is nobility, longevity and wealth. Where mountains imprison and waters flow (straight), the king is enslaved and the prince is destroyed.

Several important points are made here. (1) Swift currents do not allow the accumulation of qi, (2) streams that diverge into tributaries will dissipate collected qi; (3) waters that pool naturally in the vicinity of the lair will accumulate qi; and (4) from stagnant water comes decline. Thus, springs are auspicious, and the stream thus formed should meander and encircle the lair, pooling its accumulated qi. Swift-flowing streams and diverging waters dissipate qi, and swamps trap qi, thus hindering its natural flow.  The Vermilion Bird is one of the sishi, or Four Forces, the other three being the Cerulean Dragon, the White Tiger and the Dark Warrior. These originally referred to the four celestial palaces, the four great macro-constellations of the 28 houses of the Chinese zodiac. Here they mark the cardinal directions--the Cerulean Dragon of the east, the Vermilion Bird of the south, the White Tiger of the west, and the Dark Warrior of the north. The ideal lair faces south, the direction of the Vermilion Bird.

            Ideally, topographical features should surround the lair. This is to insure that the vital qi thus accumulated does not dissipate in the wind:

Blowing qi has the ability to dissipate vital qi. The dragon and tiger are what protect the district of the lair. On a hill among folds of strata, if open to the left or vacant to the right, in empty in the front or hollow at the rear, vital qi will dissipate in the blowing wind. The Classic says: A lair with leakage will only harbor a decaying coffin.

In practice, however, the features that front the lair to the south should be minimal, so that the encircling waters will have means of egress. Those to the east in the direction of the dragon should be the most imposing. The features towards the rear of the lair form a backdrop, and the image from the text is of a tomb "backing up to an ornamental screen."

            Let us now review the main principles that have been discussed so far and generate a picture of the ideal location of the yinzhai, or tomb.  First of all, for burial to return qi to the bones of the deceased, the ground must lie in the vicinity of accumulated qi. To locate accumulated qi, one must look for a landscape of integrated qi. Such terrain should be continuous from its highest reaches to its terminus, without any breaks in its progression. The vista should be undulating (like the rise and fall of a dragon), and each successive level should decrease in height from its successor (like descending ranks of subjects bowing to the emperor). The sequence of features should describe circular contours (like a coiling dragon), rather than angular. Where such terrain runs its course is where qi naturally accumulates.

            Once accumulated qi is located, the lair can be selected. The most auspicious ground will be surrounded on all sides by rising terrain (like the crook of an arm). On the east the terrain towers highest and should resemble a recumbent dragon. Opposite this principal feature, toward the west is another high feature, which should resemble a crouching tiger. Behind the lair toward the north is a topographical form which backs up to the burial site like an ornamental screen.  The terrain toward the south is lowest in elevation. In this direction there should be flowing water, since qi is the mother of water. The water should meander, embrace the site, and form pools in front of the lair.

            Therefore, landscape of integrated qi will insure that the natural flow of the topographical shi forces will funnel the qi and concentrate it in a single location. The presence of appropriate xing features will insure that the wind does not encounter the concentrated qi and cause it to dissipate. Since qi is the mother of water, the appearance of water in the vicinity of the lair with the proper flow and configuration is proof that qi has accumulated beneath the site. If qi is present, then the bones of the deceased--the solidified remains of life--will be immersed within that qi. The Zhuangzi explained how the dispersal of qi brings death to the human body. But by the time of Wang Chong, the Later Han dynasty skeptic, the concept had evolved somewhat: "As water turns into ice, so the qi crystallize to form the human body."  Furthermore, "That by which man is born are the two qi of the Yin and the Yang. The Yin qi produces his bones and flesh; the Yang qi his jingshen vital spirit."[18]  From Wang Chong's elaboration we can deduce that the qi of bones is yin qi. So if interred bones are to be charged like a dead battery by the influence of the accumulated qi of the burial lair, it must be yang qi that has coalesced.  The Book of Burial identifies accumulated qi in several places as sheng qi, "vital" or "living" qi. The earliest reference to sheng qi is in the Lüshi chunqiu in a passage describing the cycle of the seasons. In the last month of spring, we are told, "sheng qi flourishes, and yang qi flows forth; shoots emerge, and buds unfold."  Sheng qi is therefore the precursor of yang qi, and it is yang qi that can energize the bones of the dead.  The process whereby the bones are energized is ganying mutual resonance. According to the Huainanzi, "All things are the same as their qi; all things respond to their own class" (4.VIII.27), and "Things within the same class mutually move each other; root and twig mutually respond to each other" (3.II.27-28).[19]  Since the qi of the interred corpse and the qi of the living descendants are identical, therefore when the vital, life-giving qi of the burial site surrounds the bones, they are energized, and the lives of the descendants are thereby endowed.


[1] He based his work on an earlier text, probably the Zangjing, or Classic of Burial, purportedly written by a certain Qingwuzi, whose origin is unknown.

[2] According to Joseph Needham, v. 2, p. 42.

[3] Zuozhuan, Duke Xiang 21st year (Legge, p. 488, l. 2), Duke Zhao, 10th year (Legge, p. 627, l. 13).

[4] Benjamin Schwartz, The World of Thought in Ancient China, p. 184. Analects, bk. 11, ch. 7.

[5] In the Zuozhuan qi is also used in its modern sense as states of emotion, such as yongqi, a "spirit of bravery," and keqi, "courtesy." Thus, at the time when the Zuozhuan was written, among other things, qi was something like the medieval Western concept of humors, the bodily fluids that determined a person's temperament.

[6] Zuozhuan, Duke Zhao, 1st year (540 BCE), Legge, p. 580-81.

[7] A. C. Graham describes qi as the "universal fluid, active as Yang and passive as Yin, out of which all things condense and into which they dissolve." Disputers of the Tao, p. 101.

[8] The Guoyu was probably compiled beginning in the late 5th and continuing to the late 4th century BCE. The earliest book of the compilation is the Zhouyu, which dates to 431 BCE. See Michael Loewe, ed., Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide (Berkeley: The Society of the Study of Early China, 1993), 264.

[9]This is according to Zhang Dainian. See W. A. Wycoff's translation of Zhang's article, "On Heaven, Dao, Qi, Li, and Ze," in Chinese Studies in Philosophy 19.1 (fall 1987): 3-45.

[10] The translation is by James A. Hart, "The Speech of Prince Chin: A Study of Early Chinese Cosmology," in Henry Rosemont, Jr., ed., Explorations in Early Chinese Cosmology (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1984).

[11] Yinzhai fengshui dictates the choice of burial sites, while yangzhai fengshui governs dwelling sites.

[12] Graham, p. 328.

[13] Or more specifically, according to the Zangshu, "If the ancestors' bones acquire qi, the descendants' bodies are endowed."

[14] In Bk. 16 of the Xunzi, the Marquis of Ying questioned Xun Qing about the resources of the state of Qin. Xunzi replied, "Its topographical features [xingshi] are inherently advantageous. Its mountains, forests, streams, and valleys are magnificent. The benefits of its natural resources are manifold. Such are the inherent strengths of its topography [shi]." See John Knoblock, tr., Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works (Stanford: Stanford U.P., 1990), p. 246. The terms also appear as the title of a chapter of the Guanzi. While here they are interpreted to mean something like "condition and circumstance," it is interesting to note that several passages in this chapter could be construed as implying a fengshui context. For example, the opening passage of the chapter begins, "If a mountain rises high and never crumbles, sacrificial sheep will be presented to it. If a pool is deep and never dries up, sacrificial jade will be offered to it." See W. Allyn Rickett, tr. Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophical Essays from Early China (Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1985), pp. 61-61.

[15] Shi occurs 31 times, and xing occurs 21 times.

[16] This view of the flow of qi is an old one. In the Qin dynasty, Meng Tian (d. 210 BCE), the builder of the Great Wall, made the following confession: "I could not make the Great Wall without cutting through the veins of the earth" [Shiji, ch. 88, p. 5b]. See Needham, v. IV:1, p. 240.

[17] The development of fengshui theories in the ensuing centuries will refine the definition of appropriate forms, but the sympathetic magic will still remain. Thus mountain features will be labeled with the categories of the wuxing, or five phases. Fire mountains, for example, are pointed like flames, and such terrain (or buildings with spires) are not appropriate for the vicinity of a dwelling.

[18] Lun Heng, chapter 62. See Alfred Forke, tr., Lun-Heng, Part I Miscellaneous Essays of Wang Ch'ung (New York: Paragon Book Gallery, 1962), 92.

[19] See John S. Major, Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 65, 167.