Authors : Sugiri Kustedja[1], Antariksa[2], and Purnama Salura[3].


Some concepts as a form of folk-cult philosophy are still persistently believed by traditional Chinese ethnics in Indonesia, influencing their perception of the  built environment. This is an effort to synchronize universe with human beings during the construction of built environment. Aiming on harmonizing building with the nature and the universe, the macro-cosmos is projected into the micro-cosmos of building space. What are the backgrounds for such a worldview ? The methods used in this research are: hermeneutic,semiotic, and structuralism; Through the extensive literature research and combined witharchitectural analyses. This paper will describe in brief; from the cultural anthropological point of view, those specific ideas which are still influencing the community’s opinion. Based on ancient traditional cosmology concepts, transformed along with the Chinese civilization history; the ideas are adopted and believed  as a worldview in public daily lives. As a pragmatic society, those complicated concepts are condensed and crystallized into practical and compact patterns; simplified for application by those who believe them.

Keywords:  Chinese architecture philosophy, cosmology, culture, space, feng-shui.

Some traditional Chinese ethnics in Indonesia still persistently believed in feng-shui concept for reviewing any dwelling sites or buildings, even though not whole of the community adhere to it. Some are more or less skeptics. But this belief is also adopted now by other Indonesian ethnics, it has become an important subject to be considered in design by architects, developers and customers. Some stakeholders, advertisers, marketers, as well as customers are able to very fluently use some terms of feng-shui during their communications and decision makings.

As today’s current trend, most users only focus on talks about feng-shui for people’s living spaces, either houses, offices, buildings, or business locations. While in fact, previously in historical Chinese culture, initially feng-shui was a concept for positioning a correct and suitable tomb, a burial place for the dead.

The believers of traditional Chinese culture believe that when a person dies, the soul will continue on living as before like during his/her lifetime. Traditional cult says that after death, the body and 7 components of soul (=po魄) will go back to the earth (there are total 10 components of soul). While the other 3 components of soul (=hun 魂), one will go to heaven to be together with his/her ancestors, one will settle at the tomb, and the last one will stay at the place the person die; or at the name board (=sin-ci, shen-zhu-pai 神主牌) which was placed on the ancestor altar table at home.

Therefore his/her children will do best to get a perfect site for the tomb, to enable their parent’s soul feel comfortable and happy. When this is attained, in return the ancestor souls will bless and help their descendants’ lives.

Thus with this intention in mind, began the art to analyze a suitable tomb site which is called as yin-caykan-yu. The concept is to get a harmonized ancestor tomb site which match perfectly with the descendant’s living components. Later on this concept is extended for the living people, with the same intention; people try to create an art to analyze suitable places for living which can bring happiness and luck to the person who lives there; this concept is known as yang-cay. There are several different rules between the two, for instance with a dwelling the building should face south; while for the tomb it should face north.

This folk-cult also believes that this capacity of ancestor souls effectively helping their descendants (=qi气) is valid only when the corpse body is still intact and in good condition. This is one of the reasons in traditional culture; the coffin is made with very strong wooden material and is airtight. The tomb should be located on the higher part of the landscape, to get a deeper underground water level; preventing the water to penetrate the coffin.  In an emperor tomb we can find the corpse of the king completely covered by jade stone, believed to prevent decay.

Short History of feng-shui. 

Tracing back through early Chinese cultural history; people have already known kan-yu堪舆, di-li 地理, di-xue 地学, yin-zhai 阴宅 , yang-zhai 阳宅 etc., their meanings are similar with later days feng-shui. In the “Burial book Zang shu葬书” wrote by Guo-pu 郭璞(276-324 CE); appeared for the first time in writing the feng –shui 风水terminology. This specific book became the earliest manual for every feng-shui practitioners in later periods.

During the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE); Yang Yun-Song wrote about symbols of dragon and tiger, and the influence of flowing water to feng-shui. Yang worked as adviser to the emperor Ji Zong (874-888CE), and his writings were treated as basic theories for later palace feng-shui advisers. He introduced the symbolism of dragon and tiger representing the landscape topography. His concepts connecting mountains, water flows, and landscape is called as “Form-school” or “Jiang-xi school”; following the area name where Yang worked. His concepts suited the South and South-west China as these are mountainous area, though it is rather difficult to find ideal sites which always face south.

Figure 1. Simbolics zoomorphic translated from the site topographic.  (Skinner, S.2006:59)

During the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) when Buddhism started getting strong influence in the Chinese society by the support of the palace, emerged a group of scholars called Neo-Confucians lead by Zhu-Xi (1130- 1200 CE). They are distinctively different from the early Confucians who focus on daily life ethics, education, ritual, filial piety, and logic. Neo-Confucians adopted the metaphysics, after life beliefs, divination, and promise of future life, subjects that are more attractive to the common people. Those terms match with the folk cult symbols as common beliefs and common memories.

Zhu-Xi promotes qi 气 breath, dao 道 way, which are the reason and source for every change in the universe. The concept related with existing ancient traditional cosmology theories, utilizing the same symbols and interpretation. Further in history this Neo-Confucians school was adopted as the kingdom philosophy, and its scholars became mandarins in the emperor organization. The ideas became major subjects during the state examination, as a prerequisite to enter the hierarchy. The characteristics of a common believe in feng-shui are very flexible, it can be interpreted freely by any parties without strict dogmas.

Combining with the invented compass, the Zhu-Xi concept consolidated and called “Orientation school” fang-wei 方位,or  “Fu-jian school”. These ideas are more suitable to be applied in the center and north China areas; where the land are topographically plain and flat, without any significant landmarks.

During centuries of practice, nowadays the difference between these two schools does not clearly show anymore. There were some periods in the history that the state tried to control, censor and monopolize the feng-shui concept, they established an institute teaching the formal and legal feng-shui concept. Unfortunately the feng-shui concept was already popular with the common people, it was impossible to eradicate it.

The intrinsic open system in feng-shui concept enables anybody to interpret the theories whenever someone feels confident to do it, resulting many feng-shui schools established during the history. As examples: Ba-gua feng-shui 八卦风水,  Fei-xing feng-shui 飞星风水(flying star), Black hat feng-shui. This last school started in Taiwan during 1970 – 1980s, with Buddhist Tantra background. It gained popularity in the West and USA, by teaching through the set up of feng-shui schools. Black hat claimed as modern feng-shui and matched with the contemporary western culture.

Traditional Chinese cosmology.

The basic traditional concepts are that human being is the center of universe, and that man’s destiny is influenced by totality of nature’s powers. These emphasized the cosmology ideas as theoretical bases for feng-shui. Traditional Chinese cosmology is a very speculative philosophy, it is believed to be true and correct by people. Groupings of those basic concepts will be as follow:

  • Cosmogony (origin of universe):

mythology of Pan-ku and Nu-wa

tai-ji 太极the Great absolute concept

gai-tian 蓋天 sky shell

                        hun-tian 渾天 hen egg model

                        xuan-ye 宣夜 dark empty space

  • Numeric, visual, classification (visualization of universe concept) :

luo-shu 洛書    manuscript of Lo river (9 nonary)

                        he-tu 河图     diagram from Yellow river (10 numerals)

                        wu-xing 五行 (5 quinary )

  • Harmony, dynamics (source of ever changing universe):

yin – yang陰陽,阴阳, tai – ji – tu 太极图 (2 binary )

                       wu-xing 五行 ( 5 quinary)

                               ba – gua 八卦 (8 trigrams )

  • Time dimensions related to astronomy (synchronization of the 3 dimensions world with  the universe cycle, to get a harmonized time dimension) :

gan-ying感應 (cosmic resonances)

calender: lunar & solar,  lunisolar

10   sky stems tian-gan 天干

12 earth branches di-zhi 地支

universe cycle of 60 years  liushi jiazi六十甲子

                               4 Si-xiang 四象 4 mythology sky animals

28 Ershi-ba-xiu 二十八宿  lunar mansion

  • Correlation, relativity, application to daily life.

Geometrical cosmology, geometrical cosmography

                        Ming-tang明堂 (lights hall)

                        Correlative thinking

                        Correlative cosmology

                        Correlative geometry

feng-shui, ba-zi, tcm, culinary, ritual, cult, ethics

A detailed explanation of each theory unfortunately will need many pages, thus beyond the scope and limitation of this short paper.

Cosmology is a human effort to explain his/her position in the universe, a figure of the nature as perfectly regulated and very systematic. Correlation and relativity are major characteristics for application to the daily life of the above complicated cosmography. Cosmology always appears within every aspect of traditional life. For buildings it appears as feng-shui concept, in medicine it emerges as acupuncture, herbal medical, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), in divination it is known as ba-zhi (horoscope). Every concept has its fundamental theory which always refers to the traditional cosmology. They are extremely very flexible, borderless, boundless, and have indefinite relativity.

For building construction these cosmology concept needs tools as interfaces for any thought of ideas to be transformed into tangible dimensions. Further they need also to transfer the concept into numeral figures of length, width and height. This end result is applicable to building dimensions, constructions of built environment or dwelling places.


To be practical in traditional Chinese culture, the complicated result of total analyzes of universe characteristic ideas were then transformed into a portable tool, instrument; called luo-pan 罗盘. The instrument consisted of two pieces of flat planks. The top plank is a circle, drawn with concentric circles, it can be moved rotating around a center axis fixed on a square plank as the bottom. Current luo-pan will show a compass needle at the center, circled by many concentric cycles around it. Each cycle specifically represented single philosophical concept. There are several versions of luo-pan with different numbers of cycles. Each version belongs to a different feng-shui school.

This tool shows a complete system symbolizing the relationship between  human being, earth/world, universe, astrology, cosmology and philosophy. Creating a perfect picture of totality, a complete universe. With this tool, the qi 气situation of the building site could be discovered. To interpret the result of a luo-pan analysis; we need help from a feng-shui xian-sheng 风水先生, who is capable to explain with his feng-shui vocabulary and local cultural symbols to the customer. The position of a luo-pan while analyzing; is taken as the axis-mundi of that specific building site. Luo-pan can also be used to give advice about the perfect time to install critical components of a building; such as installing the ridge purlin, starting the foundation works etc.

Luo-pan is known since the Warring states period (475-221 BCE) in the early simpler version. Throughout the history, luo-pan slowly became more complicated. During the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 CE) and Song dynasty (960 – 1279 CE) a compass needle was inserted at the center.  Later with Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE) and Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911 CE) luo-pan arrangement is more complicated and more details were added due to combination with divination theories. Some versions of luo-pan will have more than 30 concentric circles with variety of philosophies.

 Figure 2. A feng-shui xien-shen in practice, with a luo-pan on the portable rack. A classical picture copied from Sun Jia-nai. Shu-jing. Shujing tu shuo.1905. (Knapp, R.G. 1992:37)


Figure 3. Luo-pan sample. It has 29 concentric cosmology circles. (Lu A. H. M. 1997:168)




  1. Heaven Pool
  2. Former Eight Trigrams (Treatment; Generation and Formation)
  3. Loshu (Numerolgy of Jiugong, Nine Palaces; The Origin of Transformation)
  4. The Evil-spirit of Brightness (Yao Sha)
  5. The Evil-spirit of the Netherworld (The directions of the Eight Roads and Four Roads)
  6. The Evil-spirit of misfortune (Jie Sha)
  7. The Replacing Star (the starting star in the occult school, xuan kong xue)
  8. Twenty Four Directions of Correct Needle and Pure Yin and Pure Yang (the Earth Plate for orienting the Site)
  9. Nine Stars (transformed from the Earthly Mother Eight Trigrams)
  10. Twenty-four Heaven Stars (with the Nine Stars for distinguishing the Dragons, orienting the Site, judging the local eminences, Sha)
  11. The seventy two Mountain-penetrating Tigers
  12. One hundred and twenty divisions, fenjin
  13. Earth-penetrating sixty dragons (with three and Seven and the method of Deviation and Absence)
  14. Numbers of Loshu (the numbers of sixty-four Former trigrams)
  15. Sixty-four Hexagrams
  16. Twenty-four directions of the Middle Plate (the Man Plate) (For distinguishing the Dragons and surrounding mountains)
  17. Twenty-four seasonal qi
  18. Numbers of Loshu (Numbers of Later sixty-four Trigrams)
  19. Sexagenary Jiazi
  20. Sixty-four Trigrams (Images)
  21. Sixty-four Trigrams (Names)
  22. The Fortunatness of Trigrams
  23. Three hundreds eighty-four Lines
  24. Seam Needle (the Heaven Plate) (for orienting the Site, the watercourse, the door, and the road)
  25. Sixty Hexagrams to Link Mountains (set the water mouth)
  26. The Five Phases (examining the local eminences and watercourse)
  27. The Twenty-eight Asterisms
  28. Degrees of Latitude
  29. Degrees of Longitude

Table 1. List of 29 circles of a luo-pan as shown in previous picture. (Lu A. H. M. 1997:167)



Feng-shui square and ruler.

To transfer the result of analyzing into construction figures, the builders will use a special ruler and square. Called as Lu-Ban ruler, Lu-Ban square; they were named after Lu-Ban, a known expert in the carpenter works. The ruler will have red and black areas with each specific category name, matching to the feng-shui terms. There are several versions of ruler; each from a different feng-shui school. It is very critical to measure dimensions of any opening on the wall, door frames, windows, and the distance of windows from floor surface. The dimensions must always fall inside the good area. The ruler is also used for measurement during the furniture making.

Figure 4. Lu-ban carpenter square ( Ruitenbeek, K. 1996:77)

Figure 5. Lu-ban ruler (top), part of Lu-ban square (bottom). ( Ruitenbeek, K. 1996:77).

Figure 6. Lu-ban ruler. ( Ruitenbeek, K. 1996:77)

Figure 7.  Lu-ban ruler. It shows :  wealth cai 财, sickness bing  病, separate li 離,  wisdom yi 义, position guan 官,  rob jie 劫, danger  hai 害,  root ben . (Lu, A. H.Min. 1997:101


Figure 8.  Different feng-shui rulers from several schools. Favorable areas are hatched with stripes. ( Ruitenbeek, K. 1996:91)


The freedom to interpret the feng-shui concept without restriction for any parties; proofed to be the strength and spirit which enabled the persistency of its existence up to nowadays, in fact it is getting popular again currently.

Luo-pan, Lu-Ban’s ruler and Lu-Ban’s carpenter square; are the portable tools specifically designed to serve the complicated traditional Chinese cosmology concept to be transformed through the feng-shui theories. They work as an interface for application in the construction and building activity, transforming concepts into livable space dimensions.

Feng-shui has the capability to translate the landscape topography into traditional cultural zoomorphic and anthropomorphic symbols which are already understood by common people, integrated with their folk-cult or folk-believe. Feng-shui xian-sheng 风水先生 background can be very flexible, the xian-sheng can be either from very basic or very sophisticated educated and cultural background. They can explain in detail the outcomes of feng-shui interpretations within their vocabulary and symbols.

Feng-shui can be an expression of self personification in a building owned. The traditional Chinese architecture elements already have fixed common form and symbols, enforcing almost similar appearance in any Chinese vernacular building. The suitable site or building according to feng-shui then can be an ego-centered universe.

The traditional Chinese cosmology of macro cosmos, through the feng-shui concept is transformable into a micro cosmos of site or dwelling building. It is thus transformed from indefinite concept into a definite tangible dimension. Feng-shui is a systematic metaphor which became a myth for those who believe in it. (Feuchtwang, S.D.R. 1974: 236-264).


Bruun, Ole. 2008.  An introduction to Feng-shui. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cheng Jian-jun 程建军. 2005. Zhong-guo feng-shui luo-pan中国风水罗盘 (Chinese compass feng-shui). Nanchang 南昌: Jiangxi Kexue Jishu Chubanshe江西科学技术出版社.

Fan Wei. 1992. Village feng-shui principles. In Ronald G. Knapp. Chinese Landscape. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.

Feuchtwang, Stephan D.R. 1974. An Anthropological analysis of Chinese geomancy. Vientiane, Laos: Vithagana.

Knapp, Ronald G. (editor). 1992. Chinese landscape. The village as place. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.

Moran, Elizabeth, Ypseph Yu, Val Biktashev. 2002. The complete idiot’s guide to Feng Shui 2/e. Indianapolis: Alpha.

Ruitenbeek, Klaas. 1996. Carpentry & Building in Late Imperial China.Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Skinner, Stephen. 2006. Feng Shui. The Living earth manual. Hong Kong: Periplus, Tuttle Publishing.


Eliade, Mircea. 1987. The Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.


Lu, April Huei-Min.  1997. The Compass and the Ruler. USA: University of  Pennsylvania


[1] Post graduate student, doctorate candidate. Engineering -faculty, architectural dept. Post graduate program, Parahyangan Catholic University. Bandung. Email :

[2] Lecturer Dept of Architecture, Engineering Faculty, Brawijaya University. Malang.

[3] Lecturer Dept of Architecture, Engineering Faculty, Parahyangan Catholic University, Bandung.