History of the Feng Shui Compass
by Roger Green

Introduction to the Development of the Magnetic Compass in China

The magnetic compass is an instrument which is part of every day life.  Joseph Needham in his work ‘Science & Civilization in China’ (Cambridge University Press 1962) claims this instrument is of incalculable importance as it is the first instrument which played a large part in modern scientific observation.  Prior to the compass the wind vane and sundial were the main instruments to observe forces in nature.   The sundial was of course far older, but it was only a shadow which moved, and not a part of the instrument itself. Sunshine and shade are the original meanings of the well known terms Yin and Yang.

The origins in the development of the magnetic compass belonged to the world of imperial magicians and geomancers not scientists.  In fact it was some time before the compass was used for navigation of the seas. To understand the development of the magnetic compass one must look to the context its original use.  This lies in the ancient Chinese art of geomancy or Feng Shui (wind and water).  Wind and water not only referring to the actual elements themselves but also the invisible energy of the magnetic directions.

Of all forms of divination, geomancy was perhaps that which became most deeply rooted in Chinese culture throughout the traditional period.  A wealth of technical terms was applied to the configurations of terrain connecting together in many varying ways the Yang and Yin, the dragon and tiger, the earth, planets and stars.  The protection of a site from harmful influences was always a matter of great importance, and the achievement of a balance of Yang and Yin forces.  Thus the background history of geomancy is of some importance for that of the magnetic compass itself.

The evolution of the compass seems to have lead to the division of the geomancers into two schools.  The ‘gentlemen of Canchow’ stemmed from Jiangsi, they held mainly to the older principles, reasoning in their way on the shape of mountains and the courses of rivers.  The men of Fubien (South China) followed Wang Chi from a maritime region, regarding the compass as all-important for determining the indication of the topography.  Also prominent in their belief structure was the ‘Kua’ or trigrams of the Book of Changes (Yi Ching) and the astrological elements.  A book written by Chen Yuan-Ching describes early versions of compasses.

‘They cut a piece of wood into the shape of a fish, as big as one’s thumb and make a hole in its belly, into which they neatly fit a piece of lodestone, filling up the cavity with wax.  Into this wax a needle bent like a hook is fixed.  Then when the fish is put in the water it will of its’ nature point to the south, and if it is moved with the finger it will return again to its original position’

‘They also cut a piece of wood into the shape of a turtle, and arranged it in the same way as before, only that the needle is fixed at the tail end.  A bamboo pin about as thick as the end of a chopstick is set up on a small board, and sustains the turtle by the concave under-surface of its body, where there is a small hole. Then when the turtle is rotated, it will always point to the north, which must be due to the needle at the tail.'

Also certain maggots which arise from fish and meat, placed on the ground, move northward.  The compass is not only a tool for determining the indication of topography but also concentrated on the astrological elements ie, it was used to select the most auspicious sites for tombs and buildings.

One of the earliest texts that describe a north-south pointing devise is the text of Shen Kua written in 1088. This was approximately a century before any mention of a European compass.  This outlines how ‘magicians’ rubbed a needle with a lodestone (which gave the needles magnetic properties) and then balanced it on the rim of a cup or floated the needle in water whereby it pointed north-south. It contains the earliest clear description of the magnetic needle compass, and also a clear statement of the magnetic declination. ‘ Magicians rub the point of a needle with the lodestone; then it is able to point to the south. But it always inclines slightly to the east and does not point directly at the south’ Another example is an extract from Khou Tsung-Shih (1116 A.D) ‘it will also point to the south, but will always incline (to the east) towards the compass-point Ping. This is because Ping belongs to the principle of Fire, and the points Keng and Hsin (in the west), which belong to metal (the needle being of metal), are controlled by it. Thus its (declination) is quite in accord with the mutual influences of things.'

The usefulness of the compass is also found in an compendium of military technology called Wu Ching Tsung Yao written around 1044. Here it describes when troops encounter dark nights or bad weather and needed to find their bearings, a thin piece of leave iron in the shape of a fish was heated and then rapidly cooled. This magnetised the iron and was then floated in a bowl of water.

There is little other mention of the compass which is most likely due to the destruction of many ancient texts during the time of the Jesuits in the early 17th century and also by the first emperor Chhin Shih Huang Ti. This has lead to the conclusive shutting of some of the doors of knowledge on the origins of one of the greatest of all Chinese contributions to science.

The Chinese were also the first to develop a dry suspension type compass.This system used a carved wooden turtle with a metal needle protruding from it and fixed to it tail.

The turtle was suspended by a sharp bamboo pin. The metal needle had been rubbed with a lodestone giving magnetic properties. As a result the head of the turtle would point north. There is another example of the early form of the magnetic compass called the ‘floating fish’ - shaped iron leaf described in Wu ching Tsung Yao in 1044.

At some time between the 4th and the 10th centuries the south-pointing lodestone spoon was superseded by the south-pointing iron ‘fish’, ‘tadpole’, or needle which had been magnetised by being rubbed on the spoon, or by sudden cooling in the earth, and that by a natural association of ideas, the needle came to be called a ‘frog’ or ‘tadpole’, while the tadpole itself acquired the popular name of the ‘mysterious needle’. The first major detail of the magnetic compass is in Li Wu Chueh (Five Transmitted Teachings in Geomancy) written in 1786.

The first western text which details the magnetic compass was written in 1834 by J. Klaproth. Much of his findings still stand today. Another obvious way to track the development of the compass is to ascertain when it first appeared in European and Arabic texts. The exact date it may have appeared in these cultures is also not entirely certain, however there is some reference to compass like devises mentioned far back as 1236. There is some speculation that the compass was invented in Italy around 1300 in a town called Amalfi. One of its earliest names for the mariners compass in Italy was ‘Calamita’. While some have suggested that this was derived from the Greek work for ‘read’, it is generally accepted that the word meant a small frog or tadpole. It is also consider that some medieval churches in Europe used a compass, however there is not much written evidence according to Needham.

Needham speculates one of the reasons that the compass is not readily mentioned in early texts is because it was first used as a geomantic devise and not for navigation of the seas and land. If this were the case details of its use would most likely show up in the writings of the pilgrimages of Buddhist monks to India. In this connection it is also to be noted that no mention of the mariner’s compass has so far been found in the accounts of China written by Arab travellers. Sea captains would have followed closely the cosmological principles embodied in the magnetic compass, the shih or diviners board. There is also a narrative of a voyage by Fa-Hsien in 414 from India to China. It is the considered opinion of some experts in navigation and nautical technology that such a voyage of the Chinese to the Persian Gulf could not have been made without the aid of some form of magnetic compass. For all ages, Chinese ships carried Taoist priests, and the use of the floating needle may well have been regarded as a nominal secret which would not readily be revealed to foreign merchants.


The Shih or Diviners Board

Needham claims the first ‘pointer reading device’ prior to self registering ‘metres’ such as the needle and spoon pointer was the diviners board or shih. This device consisted of two boards, the lower one being square to represent the earth and upper one circular representing heaven. The circular piece rotated around 24 compass points. All the diviners boards had engraved in the centre the ‘Great Bear’ constellation. At a given time or season the tail of the bear successively pointed to twenty four different equatorial positions depicted on the board. The ground plate also bore the 28 hsiu constellations and the eight trigrams. It is believed that the arrangement of the shih was in accordance with cosmological theories outlined in the book Huai Nan Tzu. The twelve months are arranged on the Heaven plate, while the twelve Earthly branches representing the double hours of the day appear on the square earth plate.

Shih boards are commonly found in tombs dating to the former Han dynasty (206 BC - 25 AD). Among them were spoons, the shape of which permitted easy rotation when balanced on their bowls


The use of the Shih

This instrument allows the user to locate any constellation in the sky at any moment of the year. Along with knowledge of the solstice and equinoxes the user would be able to predict which constellations would appear and a astrological calendar was created. The configuration of the heavens would be determined at any time of day or month. The position of the Great Dipper’s ‘handle’ could be predicted, which pointed to the always present North Polar Star. Its location would designate the seasonal calendar and the four celestial quadrants of the sky known as the Tiger (west), Dragon (east), Vermilion sparrow (south) and the Dark Warrior to the north. Moving the disc to the right would represent the rotation of the Great Dipper around the North Pole. Correlations between time and space were use to choose a fortune time and location.

The Compass, as we know it today has been around for hundreds of years. Starting out from wooden fish and turtle shapes to floating needles casting shadows to magnetic compasses that guide and lead people to safety. Controversy rules over actual dates, but, it has to be one of the wisest and oldest forms of divination known to man.


The Application of the ‘Lo P’an’ - Feng Shui Compass

In the centuries after the Han dynasty, the shih board was slowly replaced by the feng shui compass.The Lo P’an incorporates the Chinese concept that Heaven and Earth should be in harmony if our fortunes are going to prosper. They believe we are a microcosm, or small reflection, of the greater whole, the macrocosm.

Lo P’an is used for determining the direction of a site or dwelling. It can be simple with only 3 rings of information or as complicated as having over forty rings. It is held in veneration, and comes with varying numbers of rings around a central magnetic compass.This branch of Feng Shui is relatively recent; it has developed over thousands of years as an accompaniment of the Form school. It is particularly useful when the landscape has few features which can be associated with Form School requirements, such as mountains and rivers.

The Lo P’an is a very helpful for any Feng Shui surveys. The practitioner needs to always take physical forms into consideration first, and the Lo P’an then lets you know unseen ch’  movements. The "trick" is to make use of both - to combine the Form school principles with the techniques of the Compass school and feng shui astrology. With very eminent topography, the Lo P’an is secondary-in flat, featureless areas the Lo P’an takes more importance. With the use of the lo pan compass, many decisions can be made on the use of various rooms, and alignments can be based on individual horoscopes from their ‘4 pillars’. The compass helps to produce the ‘flying star’ house chart, and gives a deeper insight into dealing with ‘sha’ or negative energy and also gives clues into energy readings and predictions. It also assists in locating the summer and winter sun pattern surrounding a dwelling. It gives important information regarding the facing direction (front orientation) and the mountain direction (the back orientation). This information helps to understand the energy flow in a particular dwelling. The facing direction is usually determined by the land form. If the house or building is facing lower ground this is usually the facing direction. If this is obvious this will over ride the location of the front entrance. If there is no obvious landforms to go on to the front door usually becomes the facing direction. The Lo P'an is used to assess favourable parts of a site, or building. The practitioner can assess a place using both the older Form school, which is observation of purely geographical features, as well as using the Lo P'an. With practice, it becomes a valuable tool for helping people realise their potential in the relationship between person and space.

The square base is traditionally red, to symbolise its auspiciousness. The Lo P’an Compass were traditionally made from tiger bone called ‘Huku’ and were all hand painted. Two red threads must intersect exactly in the centre, running the length and breadth from the middle of the plate's four sides. The aptly named Lo P'an means 'reticulated' (like a net) "plate". The inner dial is covered with circles and divisions, and sits on a square base. The middle contains a compass. Two treads held taut act as cursors. The final feature is a fine line under the compass which serves to align the dial with the compass needle.

The bases square shape allows the Lo P'an to be aligned against buildings or structures.The base is referred to as the Earth Plate. The circular dial is more complex and contains concentric rings which rotate independently of a central compass and is referred to as the Heaven Dial. This allows information to be read from any direction. The compass is considered the symbolic starting point of chi, the "Heaven Pool" where action and rest interact. Yin and yang rise and ebb giving rise to the elements and other forms and forces, reflected in the rings. The Heaven Pool is seen as the centre of the universe.

In Feng Shui, directions are represented by the five elements, the 8 trigrams, Heavenly stems and Earthly branches, and the locations of the Azure Dragon to the east, White Tiger to the west, Red Bird to the south and Black Turtle to the north. The Lo P’an correlates heaven’s wider order on earth also through the correspondences of: yin and yang; the Ho-t’u and the Lo-shu diagrams; earlier and later heaven sequence arrangement of trigrams; 24 ‘mountains’ which is a combination of trigrams, stems and branches; the loshu portents; flying star horoscope ring; the I Ching readings; the 28 lunar constellations; the elements of the lunar mansions. The seasons all have an associated element and strength of Yin or Yang. Similarly these fluctuate over the day. Each year is also part of this cycle, so a pattern of elements and yin and yang succeeding each other over shorter and longer time spans occurs.


Here is a brief overview of a traditional lo P’an compass rings

It must be noted that there arenearly as many variations to the lo p’an compass as there are to compasses themselves. However, each Lo p’an shares some basic rings with each other, namely the trigrams and 24 mountains. The variations are due, not only to different geographical locations in China, but also different schools of thought in regards to what was considered auspicious or favourable directions.

The Centre is called ‘Tian Jio’ meaning heaven pond, or also called the Great ‘Tai Ji’ the original nature of the Universe. The heaven pool is filled up with water and a magnetic fish shape was used as a needle until the invention of the dry needle. The magnetised fish had another very useful function - it was used to measure things underground - like dowsing, so in the past the needle had a three dimensional movement , which would indicate underground streams, holes, iron deposits etc. There is also mention of a ancient form of divination which consisted of readings the shadow of the sun onto the water using the old fish needle, a practice that some observers can still witness at festivals in the south of China.

The main compass function was to establish the direction and the North South axis, thereby acting as a reference for all the over directions

Ring one - the early heaven sequence. The 8 directions and trigrams are linked with the original early trigram sequence. It represents Heavenly fluctuations of yin and yang as follows:

  • Heaven (complete yang) Earth (complete yin)

  • Thunder (strong yang) Wind / Wood (strong yin)

  • Water (middle yang) Fire (middle yin)

  • Mountain (lesser yang) Lake / Rain (lesser yin)

The visible yin/yang influence must also be noted in a site. If it has any of these features, it is said to be Yang; windy, heavily built up areas, hot, hilly, having warm-coloured exteriors. Yin sites are near slow-moving water, in valleys or depressions, cool, cold, or painted in cooling colours, damp, and quiet. The overall result - visible, plus the readings of Rings One and Two - should be slightly more yang. The practitioner would compare the site to the yin / yang sequence above, and note it. You can advise the facade be painted warmly if the site is too yin, or in cool colours if yang was dominating too strongly. Yang "mountains" can be made with a rockery to the rear, of jagged rocks. Yin and yang plants can be introduced. Landscaping generally provides a yin element. The Ist ring is the ideal perfection as expressed in Heaven. The 8 trigrams also had energetic associations, meanings and significance, eg ‘chien’ trigram NW - sky, dragon, horse, heaven, husband, father : Earth trigram SW - cattle, wife etc

Ring 2 - later heaven sequence ‘the post heaven dragon’. The same procedure is taken, but the later heaven arrangement of the trigrams come into play. The first ring gave Heaven's unchanging sequence, while this represents Earth's sequence. This ring is often represented numerically by line drawings joining the number of ‘stars’ or number representing in each direction. Ring two reveals Earth’s unseen yin and yang and the first and second ring combined will ideally show a balance, with yang slightly more pronounced. Observation of the first two Rings allows for creating balance between the direction and immediate environment.

The 2nd ring is also called Jiu-Xin ‘the 9 stars’ as in the legend of yellow river turtle creating the lo shu diagram. The 9 stars are :

  • 1st star - hungry wolf - trigram thunder

  • 2nd star - tian yi - heavenly doctor - trigram mountain

  • 3rd star - - longevity- trigram heaven

  • 4th star 6 curses or 6 sha - trigram water

  • 5th star - disaster- trigram earth

  • 6th star- destroyers of armies, end of life - trigram lake

  • 7th Star - 5 ghosts - trigram fire

  • 8th star - fu wei - trigram wind

Left Tso Fu and Right Yu Pi both ruled by wood - they combine to become one star.

The 9 star is the basis for the ‘lo shu portens ‘ readings in the Bazhai 8 direction method of Compass school feng shui. Each dwelling is given a ‘Ming Kwa’ which means ‘fate of life’ number and is associated with a ‘East’ or ‘West’ direction the door or gateway faces. The ming kwa is calculated for the client and the technique involves trying to have at least one entrance in that favourable direction.

Ring three is referred to as the 24 ‘stars in the sky’, ‘mountains’, ‘directions’ or ‘shens’ and also known as the 24 directions of ‘Di Ji’. This ring is made up of:

Twelve Earthly Branches - influenced by the Former Heaven sequence, they represent the twelve spirits of the Branches.

Eight (of the ten) Heaven Stems, from the Lo-shu system and

Four Trigrams showing ‘corner’ positions from the Later Heaven sequence.

Feng Shui practitioners regard 24 as complete number for heaven and earth. The 24 mountains establish the orientation of the residence, how it sits and faces and where the mountain and the water stars are in terms of the flying star dwelling horoscope. There is controversy about which of the 24 segments are auspicious. Use of this ring is to find favourable locations for your client. You will need to take into account their year of birth.

This ring also reveals places where the earth ch’i is very strong. The four Trigrams represent spirit doorways, all inauspicious. Because the magnetic and ‘true’ directions are different, the inauspicious locations fall to the left of their magnetic directions. They are:- Ghost Doorway (Kuei-men); Earth Doorway (Ti-hu);Man Doorway(Jen-men) ; Heaven Doorway (Tien-men).Their importance lies in knowing where their inauspicious directions for water courses are, and in gate placement. Traditionally, auspicious readings are marked with red; inauspicious locations are marked with black. These colours are used on the Lo P’an to easily show their locations.

The 24 mountains were also used to locate the alter in a house. Tien Yi direction (the orientation of Jupiter) - was considered good for a alter. The year 1996 was the Tai Shiu sha direction or opposite direction of Tien Yi and is due south - so it was avoided placing the alter there. The 24 mountains are used to locate the direction opposite that of the ‘animal sign’ direction of the current year. This is considered a ‘sha’ or negative energy and occupies 1/24th of space. A popular form of feng shui is not to live in a dwelling or face the direction opposite your own animal sign, as indicated by this ring. Also avoided was disturbing the soil or travelling in that direction. These directions of the natal year branches make up the compass school called the ‘San He’ or ‘Triple Combination School’.

Ring four - ‘Tian Xing’. This is used to find a favourable direction if it couldn't be found from Ring Three, and to find the direction of the sites Dragon. Each number is representing a heavenly stem, full of ch’i. The eight Heaven Stems (numbers 5 and 6, belonging to Earth are regarded as lying in the centre) have four auspicious directions; 3, 4, 7, and 8, but some practitioner consider all 8 stem directions auspicious.

There are many complex water dragon formulates associated with ring 3 and 4, here is a small example: You should not have a site with water flowing inwards in: heng or ting (Stems 7 or4) for sites with K’un direction; hsin or jen (Stems 8 or 9) for Ch’ien direction; (SW) chia or kuei (Stems 1 or 10) for Ken direction; or yi or ping (Stems 2 or 3) for Sun direction; In other words, houses facing a stem shouldn’t have water coming from the corner directions, and those facing corner directions shouldn’t have water coming from a stem direction. Water flowing out in such a way is auspicious, coming in is inauspicious.

The Heaven Stems are ; 1.Wood Chia; 2.Wood Yi; 3. Fire Ping; 4.Fire Ting; 5. Earth Wu Mou 6. Earth Chi; 7.Metal Keng; 8. Metal Hsin; 9. Water Jen; 10. Water Kuei

The Inner plate usually has approximately 5 rings - and is called theearth plate or ‘centre needle’ . The Middle plate approximately rings 6-10 - is called the human plate or ‘ren needle’ The Outer plate approximately rings 10-15 - is called the heaven plate. Each usually has a repeat of the first 5 to 6 rings, but with a 7.5 degree declination. These 3 plates are associated with Heaven, Earth and Man and also the three major stages called the San Yuan - upper , middle, lower and each yuan is further divided into 3 ‘when’ of 20 years. The Lo Pan synthesises the relationship between heaven, earth and human beings, and depending on the situation, the relevant plate was chosen, eg for siteing a tomb, the heaven plate was used.

Ring five - 24 seasons of the agriculture calendar. The seasons were divided up into two stages 12x2=24 characters or every 1/2 month is a seasonal division.

Ring six - divided into 3 each 24 aspects to get 72 divisions called the 72 DRAGONS that penetrate from heaven. This ring was often used to plan the alter accurately and gives more detail for the basic 8 directions.

Ring seven - called ‘calibrate the metal’ - the 24 mountains are divided into 5 to get 120 divisions. Rings 5,6,7 are there to interpret and give more detail to the 3rd and 4th ring.

Ring eight - the 8th ring is the beginning of the human plate also known as the middle needle ‘where there is ‘earth’ there is ‘man’.

Ring nine is the human plate - this ring has the 24 mountains - but the centre line of this ring is deviated by a shift of 15 degrees called ‘ren jiang’. Ren is the chinese name for Human.

Ring ten - ‘60 dragons penetrate the ground’.

Ring eleven - gives the first line of a poem to remember the subdivisions.

Ring twelve - relates to the observation of heaven - 12 parts to heaven stars called ‘wood star’ or also called ‘age’ star - goes from west to east each year and it changes like the equinox - in 12 years reaches a full cycle correlated to Jupiter’s 11.6 cycle of earth - called Tai Shui. This is used to forecast the opposite direction to the ‘grand duke’ or the position of Jupiter in the Heavens - in this direction it is considered not to till the ground or build in Jupiter’s direction or attack in this direction.

Ring thirteen- called feng ye ‘calibrate the wilderness’- one of the first books to mention the dragon veins is Yu Guong 3000 years ago, it talked about subdividing the earth in to 12 sections.

Ring fourteen- outer plate called ‘feng zhen’ also called the stitch needle and has a 15 degree range. This works out the suns north - south axis or the sun’s angle deviations.

Ring fifteen and sixteen- relates to 14th heavenly plate and gives more graduations

Ring eighteen - 5 elements in relationship to the lunar mansions also called the 61 elements of the lunar year

Ring nineteen - the sky has 28 groupings or constellations of stars which ‘hold up the sky’. Also used in Indian astrology, they all add up to 360 degrees however each occupies different degrees of the zodiac. An ancient coffin discovered in the Hubai district had 28 constellations painted on it 2,800 years ago. The 28 constellations on the Lo p'an are also matched with fate of person and with favourable or unfavourable days of the year for important occasions such as weddings and funerals.

Ring twenty - the I Ching portent readings of the 64 hexagrams.

The Lo p'an experience -the Sky and the people communicated - the Feng Shui practitioner located the spot on earth where people could have their stars aligned to their fate. The practitioner must spend many years perfecting the following steps: Finding the place with the most abundant ‘sheng-ch’i’ flowing in the earth. Encouraging the influx of ch’i - the most important considerations are the mountain, dragon, watercourse, house and doorway directions, and time. We must consider the locations of the ‘sha ‘ or local eminencies, ‘hsueh’ - the place of most vital ch’i, or commonly called the the feng-shui spot, and ‘chu‘ - feng shui situation, and finally the ‘ming-t’ang’ - or the bright court.

Roger Green has helped develop the western language Lo P’an compasses and workbooks that are used in his training courses.