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Feng Shui 101

Get Water – Seek Shelter

Voices from the past

Many of the fundamentals that govern the practise of classical Chinese feng shui are laid out in the oldest book known to have put the two words, feng (wind), and shui (water), together in reference to traditional Chinese earth sciences. That book is The Book of Burial, written by Guo Pu; a highly renowned Chinese feng shui scholar (276 – 324); who lived during the last years of the Song Dynasty. This book, probably above all others, is considered to be the book that lays out the very foundations of what classical Chinese feng shui theory is really all about. Here, I’m going to take what is probably the most frequently quoted of all its lines, and explore its meaning as it pertains to the application of feng shui today. However, before we can begin to do that, we need to understand something of the importance that The Book of Burial has played throughout the almost two millennia since Guo Pu wrote it. We will also need to understand the importance the burial of the dead was deemed to play traditionally, in Chinese society, and therefore, the raison d’etre for the book in the first place.

The opening stanza of the book says:
“(The purpose of) burial is to gain accord with the generative qi.” In many respects, almost everything that follows in the Book of Burial is about the correct and proper selection of auspicious locations in which to propitiously bury the dead, and conversely, of course, those sites one ought to avoid. The primary concept behind the book therefore, is the existence of qi, and that it can be utilised in burial for the benefit of not only the dead, but for their living descendants.

In Stanza 1:43 it says, “This is whereby the superior man accomplishes remarkable feats and heavenly advantages, thus the mandate of heaven is changed.”
This addresses the innate desire of the common man to improve his lot. The well worn refrain of – ‘first comes destiny, then luck; and last, is feng shui’, reflects the Chinese cosmic matrix of ‘Heaven above, Earth beneath, Man in between. Since Heaven’s mandate is by far the greatest of these influences, and luck is that fortune we create for ourselves by dint of education, good works and our own efforts; feng shui therefore, offers a way forward, a springboard as it were, to better things than might otherwise be expected if life were simply left to its own patterns. In other words, by applying feng shui principles, whether in the burial of one’s ancestors or in the design, positioning and construction of man’s built environment, he is able advance his own fortunes in ways he would not otherwise be able.

As Juwen Zhang says in his introduction to his translation, “The ambitious but unofficial idea of being able to change one’s fate is a key, positive concept in the Book of Burial, and gives “hope” to the common man.

So to return to the first known joining of these two words, feng and shui: in Stanza1-10 Guo Pu quotes, “The Book says, when qi rides with the wind, it disperses; when it reaches water, it ends.” Other translators extend the quote to: “The qi of the Dragon is dispersed by wind and stops at the boundary of water.” So what are we to make of this mysterious phrase the qi of the dragon? Chinese feng shui masters explain that in the context of form or landscape feng shui, dragons are long lines of qi which course through the earth’s surface between the heights of mountain ridges and any river that runs between them. When one goes too high up the mountains, one is exposed to their windy heights. Come down and find shelter, and the qi is no longer dispersed in such a way. The dragon’s qi then cannot cross such paths of water but instead moves with the lines of the mountains, coming to a stop only where there is nowhere further for it to go between the mountains and the water. These sites along coastal regions are frequently but not always, peninsulas.

Feng shui masters when teaching this maxim, draw attention to the three great mountain chains of China when explaining the significance of this quote and point first to the mysterious and elusive range of mountains in China’s far northwest known as the Kun Lun Mountains. A range identified now so remotely with the past their exact identification seems lost. The Kun Lun’s of antiquity it seems, are not to be confused with the ranges of the same name a little to the southwest. Neither are the mythical Kun Lun Mountains the Himalayas, as some have postulated. These are too far south, and are considered to be young dragons, whereas the Kun Lun’s of feng shui fame, are deemed to be much older mountains. The second range of mountains run between the Yellow River and the Yangtze or Chang Jiang. The third are those between the Yangtze and the Pearl River, with its great delta in the far south of China, spreading out into the South China Sea at Guangzhou and Macao; a little south of Hong Kong. And it is there in Hong Kong, where China’s third dragon line terminates in the legendary Nine Dragons formation. Celebrated, not only because there are nine of them, (nine being the most auspicious number simply because it is the highest primary number; once reserved solely for the Emperor), but also, because the youngest, the baby of these mountains, turns its head (The Peak of Mount Victoria, Hong Kong Island’s highest point), to look back respectfully at where it has come from. This deferential turning back of the last dragon’s head to pay respect to its eight ancestors, is considered most auspicious, and is the supreme configuration in land form feng shui. The image of the youngest of a family of dragon’s paying filial respect to its ancestors requires no further explanation, when taken in light of such rhetorical symbolism so deeply imbedded in Chinese culture.

Somewhere therefore, between the tops of these great mountain chains and the water of the rivers, run China’s three great dragons; lines of earth qi that course through the surface of the land stopping only at the boundary of water. Simply put this indicates that the dragon (earth qi) cannot cross water but comes instead to rest, to coalesce, at these boundaries beside the water’s edge. It is these locations, that also must meet any number of additional complex requisite factors, that the feng shui master will declare to be positive and worthy of the description of being the ‘boundary of water’.

The first part of the Stanza, “When qi rides the wind, it disperses.” therefore, indicates not only the height of mountain slopes but also open exposed plains as locations where qi, instead of being protected, sheltered, nurtured, is instead dispersed; carried away by the winds and no longer able to assist us in the art of burying the dead in locations conducive to the “gaining of accord with the generative qi.” From this we learn that the first principle of feng shui then is the getting of water, and the second is the gaining of shelter from wind. Achieving protection from the wind alone is of no use. Without the benefit of water the site is useless. What is needed is a place where the generative qi stops and condenses; once condensed it can be tapped into for our benefit. The following stanza 1:11 explains further: “The ancients were able to condense the qi and to keep it from dispersion, to move it and to make it cease. Therefore, they called it fengshui (wind-water).”

When looking at the role water plays in the making of an auspicious site we come to the concepts of cessation and condensation. One early commentator on the Book of Burial, Zhang quotes another early scholar, Wu Cheng (1249-1331), who says, “The ancients had these two important principles in diagnosing the ground: condensation, and cessation. They are what feng shui is all about”. It is what happens to qi at the boundary of water, which aids our understanding of wind water theory here. The associated theories in the book are very profound and require too much of an in-depth understanding of qi, yin yang five element theory and land form for a complete explanation here in this short article, and so I will try to give the gist of it by example instead.

Coastal and riparian regions, areas along waterways which provide access to deep navigable water, and that also have wide open space along their shorelines and river banks, develop societies all based on trade and the accumulation of wealth. China’s own Dalian and Hong Kong are two good examples, as are Singapore, New York, the Port of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sydney and our very own Auckland, and Mt Maunganui. A careful examination of all these coastal sites will show they are not only major ports but they are also all sheltered from the open oceans and with wide open land near by. It is within these sheltered sites that their trade occurs. Likewise river cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing, London, Paris, Amsterdam and Rotterdam are all good examples of major trading centres past and/or present but which, very particularly, have water as a major feature of their surroundings. A good local example here in New Zealand of one of our more important commercial hubs, is Hamilton; along the banks of the Waikato River; once a major trading centre in the early history of this country. In the case of river cities, as technology has developed and changed with bigger and bigger ships now plying the world’s oceans, their river systems have not deepened or widened to accommodate this technological shift. This has increased the need for more and larger coastal ports but not dinted the wealth creation ability of these water side communities. Mt Maunganui here in New Zealand, now having overtaken Auckland’s Port, is notable for the protection it is afforded by the mass of the Kaimai and Mamaku ranges to its West and the direction from which the prevailing winds come. Italy’s Venice is a good example too of a once prosperous trading city/state that did not keep up with the need for ever enlarging shipping. Although there were other factors involved in its decline than just shipping, it yet remains wealthy with its fortunes today coming instead from tourism; tourism based on its watery beauty. (Such cities should be contrasted with many of the world’s capital cities, like Beijing, Washington DC, Moscow and Canberra, all of which by contrast, are focussed on politics and not trade per se.) For a fuller understanding of these dynamics, see my book ‘Strange but true Tales of Feng Shui’ copies of which are available at:

From this it’s easy to see why water is taken as a reference to money and the accumulation of material wealth in general. Water is of course, the beginning of life; without it, there is no life as we know it. Thus we have this first precept of ‘get water’. My blog pieces on Britomart and the soon to be revamped Wynyard Quarter, here in Auckland, also cover the importance of water in classical Chinese feng shui. Historical references which look at the building of China’s ancient Imperial cities has some interesting perspectives to help us understand further the importance of ‘get water, seek shelter’ on which we might end this piece.

Traditionally, there were eleven set factors that had to be met before a Chinese city could be deemed Imperial.* Two of these are directly related to our discussion here.
The first was accessibility of water. All Chinese Imperial cities were planned with a good supply of water in mind and those in Beijing for example provided by the three great lakes have survived into this day from the 12th century.
The second was the building of a four-sided rectangular enclosure: Every Chinese Imperial city had four outer walls that met at right angles and that might well have enclosed at least one or more further rectangular inner enclosures. Inside the smaller inner quadrants the Imperial Palaces, administrative and residential sectors were elevated and distinguished by their own quadrilateral walls.

What is significant about this second requirement is that these outer walls, were uniquely built before any other construction work was commenced. From a planning perspective this is noteworthy indeed because it allowed for no level of error in the sizing and detail of all that was to be constructed subsequently within the confines of these great walls. A third common factor, another of the eleven requisites, was the grand scale of these cities and their inner Imperial precincts. This vast scale was indicated nowhere as much as in the main buildings. Get the scale of any one these majestic, central edifices wrong and the equilibrium of the whole would be compromised beyond remedy. However, it was with the decree to seek shelter in mind that these outer walls were the first step in the construction of China’s Imperial cities.

Sadly, what the vast majority of western fans of feng shui do not know, even many who act as consultants, is that these two rules of ‘Get water, seek shelter’, are in fact the very basis of almost everything that follows in classical Chinese feng shui. Without their first being met, no site can be considered good feng shui. The skill of being able to determine just how well sheltered and how auspicious the waters are however, is the test of a true adept. Feng Shui 101 indeed!

*Chinese Imperial City Planning by Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt

Ming Dynasty Forbidden City

Beijing’s Ming Dynasty Forbidden City
The enclosing walls provide the desired shelter from winds

Floor Plan

Floor plan of Beijing’s Ming Dynasty Forbidden City
Man-made river across front provides water in configuration known as a Jade Belt

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