Classic China: A Civilization in Sync with the Cosmos

Jan Krikke
12 min readJul 18, 2023

The following is an extract from my new book Creating a Planetary Culture: European Science, Chinese Art, and Indian Transcendence.

The Chinese way of looking at life was not primarily through religion, philosophy, or science, but through art.

George Rowley, Principle of Chinese Painting

When the Chinese emperors ascended the “Dragon Throne,” they typically built entirely new capitals. These new cities were built with remarkable speed. The ancient city of Daxing, a metropolis of 84 square kilometers constructed in the 6th century, was “… ready for occupancy in one year.”

The blueprint for China’s capitals was the Luo Shu, an ancient (mythical) diagram divided into nine equal squares. In Chinese cosmology, Heaven (yang) is round, and Earth (yin) is square. China occupies the center square, hence the Middle Kingdom. The square symbolizes the “order” imposed on Earth by humans.

The Luo Shu was part of China’s “grand system of correlations,” a fully integrated system based on the I Ching (Book of Changes). Virtually all aspects of Chinese civilization, from statecraft to warfare and social structure to art, were based on principles drawn from the I Ching. But architecture, the mother of all arts, was the embodiment of Chinese civilization.

The Luo Shu and the city of Chang’an

Classic Chinese architecture was unique in the world for several reasons. It relied on wood rather than stone and subsequently developed unique aesthetic principles. In the rest of the world, including Egypt, Greece, and India, architecture relied on stone and was rooted in sculptural techniques. Masons carved building components like pillars and architraves from stone and erected their structures using the load-and-support principle.

The Chinese, using wood, developed a structural rather than a sculptural approach to architecture. Wood can be cut to exact measurements. The Chinese builders developed a technique known as the tenon-and-mortise system. This joinery technique evolved into the intricate bracketing system that connects the roof to the supporting pillars.

The structural approach to building explains why the Chinese builders did not need load-bearing walls. Chinese building manuals were focused on the skeleton frame of the building. Doors, windows, screens, and other “movable” components were treated in appendices to building manuals. The buildings could be fully disassembled and reassembled at another location.

The structural skeleton was the essence of the building

Apart from developing the world’s first structural architecture, the Chinese also pioneered the principles of modularization and standardization. The Yingzao lashi, the official building standard of the Song Dynasty published in 1103 A.D., used a standard module known as the cai, a key component of the bracketing that attached the roof to the pillars. The cai did double duty as a standard unit for timber.

The cai had eight different grades corresponding with the Eight Trigrams, the symbols that make up the 64 hexagrams used in the I Ching. The largest cai grade was for palaces, and the smallest was for pavilions and other minor buildings.

The eight modules of Chinese architecture corresponding to the Eight Trigrams

The size of all building components was derived from the cai used in the building. The size of the pillars, beams, rafters, plinths, and other building components were given as multiples of the cai. Once the builder-carpenter knew the cai to be used, he could calculate the size of all other building components.

This modular system made it possible to manipulate the scale of a building at will. After all, altering the size of the cai would automatically affect the size of all other components. If the cai for a pagoda was 10 cm x 8 cm and the carpenter changed the module to 11 cm x 8.8 cm, the pagoda would be ten percent larger.

The development of standard building components led to prefabrication, another “modern” characteristic of Chinese architecture. Standard sizes and prefabrication are among the hallmarks of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution, but they were commonplace in the construction industry in classic China. Standardization made it possible to deliver timber for an entirely new city to the building site, ready for assembly.

The construction of new capitals, some of which were over 100 square kilometers in size, required massive amounts of timber. The logistics involved even impressed the Chinese themselves. The 12th-century poet Lu You saw a huge raft of logs moving down the Yangzi River in the province of Sichuan. Lu You marveled at the scale of the raft. He wrote:

“We came across a timber raft, over 30 meters wide and 150 meters long. On it were thirty or forty houses. Women and children, chickens and dogs, mortars and pestles — everything was present. Even a small temple was not lacking. I had never seen anything like this before.”

“But the people on the boat said this was only a small one. On large rafts, earth is spread and a vegetable garden is laid out. Sometimes there is also a wine house. These rafts cannot enter the narrow rivers. They can only sail down the great Yangzi River.”

Cosmic Machine

The Lu Shu was not only used for China’s capital cities but also for the Ming Tang, a ritual complex that symbolized the Middle Kingdom on a small scale. Among the rituals they performed in the Ming Tang were sacrifices to the Founders of the Imperial House, oblations to the ancestors, the spring and autumn audiences, the announcement of the new moon, the plowing of the sacred plot, and the issuing of orders of government.

The Ming Tang was staffed by astronomers, calendar-makers, and Feng Shui masters. They informed the Emperor of seasonal and cosmological changes — the summer and winter solstice, spring and autumn equinoxes, eclipses, and cosmological irregularities. The Emperor performed rites appropriate for the seasons to keep the nations in sync with the cosmos.

The Ming Tang contained Nine Halls corresponding to the Luo Shu and the Eight Trigrams

Every seasonal change had its own exacting ceremonial regulations. When the astronomers informed the Emperor that the spring equinox was approaching, he conducted the appropriate rites and issued governmental orders. The farmers prepared for the planting season and celebrated the coming of spring with festivals.

The Chinese year began in spring when the snow started to melt, and the water levels of the rivers and their tributaries began to rise. The Emperor ceremoniously “desanctified” the farm fields, a signal for the farmers to prepare for the growing season.

The summer was followed by the harvest season, and the grain was stored. The autumn equinox signaled the coming of winter; the yang influence of summer gave way to the yin influence of winter. The Emperor ceremoniously closed the season with the “interdiction” of the fields.

The arrival of the new seasons required specific rites in one of the Nine Halls of the Ming Tang, a symbolic model of the Middle Kingdom based on the Luo Shu. Each of the Halls in the Ming Tang had exacting rules appropriate for the season. Sinologist Marcel Granet wrote:

“For the year to turn along with the symbolic cross [the Luo Shu], it was necessary and sufficient that the king, by his clothes, food, and so on, dazzlingly manifest his being in conformity with the system of the universe.”

Floorplan of the Ming Tang, based on the Luo Shu

“Winter was brought about when, dressed in black, with black stones at his belt, using black horses, a dark carriage, a black standard, the king took up position at the north-west corner of the Ming Tang and ate millet and pork. Did he eat mutton and wheat?”

“Did he wear green with green stones? Was his flag green? Did he give pride of place to sour taste, rank smell, the spleen of victims, the number 8, the [musical] note jia? Did he put himself in the northeast corner of the Ming Tang? Spring was coming.”

Geomancy

China’s grand correlation system relied on an ancient astronomical method known as Kan Yu (Tao of Heaven and Earth). It later came to be called Feng Shui, a practice used to harmonize life with the cosmic polarities of yin and yang.

The Eight Trigrams with their attributes

Feng Shui means Wind and Water. They are attributes of two of the Eight Trigrams. In the I Ching, wind and water determine the topographical environment: the shape of hills, the course of rivers and streams, the distribution of vegetation, and other features that are shaped by the interplay of yin and yang. In the I Ching’s Appendix Xici we read:

“Thus the virile [yang, heavenly principle] and the docile [yin, earthly principle] interplay, and the Eight Trigrams act and react on each other. Things are roused by thunder and lightning; they are fertilized by wind and rain. Sun and moon revolve in their courses with a cold season and then a warm season. The Tao of Heaven constitutes the male; the Tao of the Earth constitutes the female. Heaven knows the great beginning; Earth gives things their completion.”

Feng-Shui is a Chinese form of geomancy, an ancient art that was also prevalent in the Occidental world. Many disciplines, including architecture, geography, cosmology, art, astrology, surveying, and religion, have their roots in geomancy.

Geomancy was concerned with the proper alignment of human-made structures with the terrestrial environment and astronomical orientations. Like the Chinese Ming Tang, the Cheops pyramid complex in Egypt was built on geomantic principles. The four corners of Cheops are aligned with the four cardinal directions, and its axis is aligned with the north-south latitude. When it was built, Cheops probably mirrored the constellation of Orion.

Most Christian churches were built on geomantic principles. The first Roman churches all faced the East toward Jerusalem. The Latin word oriri means “to rise” (a reference to the sun). The verb orientare, the root of the modern word orient, carries the meaning of “making something face toward the east.”

Geomantic principles were also applied to the first Gothic structures. Salisbury Cathedral, built in the 13th century, is aligned with the equinoctial sunrise and sunset. The building is on the same meridional line as Stonehenge, the archetypal geomantic monument from the pre-Christian era.

Compass

Feng-Shui produced one of China’s greatest inventions, the magnetic compass. “The magnetic compass,” Joseph Needham wrote in Science and Civilisation in China, “is the oldest representative of all those dials and pointer-readings which play so great a part in modern science. The sun dial was of course far older, but there only a shadow moved, not part of the instrument itself.”

The first Feng-Shui compass was known as the “south pointer.” It consisted of a magnetic needle floating in a basin. The edge of the basin had two markings — South and North. (The Feng-Shui compass pointed south, the yang direction.)

Feng-Shui masters gradually developed more elaborate versions of the south pointer. The basin with the magnetic needle (known as Heaven’s Pool), was surrounded by movable rings divided into sectors for terrestrial and cosmological orientation. The innermost ring was typically occupied by the Eight Trigrams, the outermost ring with the 64 hexagrams.

Feng Shui masters used the compass to identify the natural environment’s favorable cosmic energy (qi) and calculate astronomic factors that cause cyclical variations in qi. As experts in seasonal and cosmic cycles, Feng Shui masters were often referred to as Shishi, or Masters of Time.

The Luo Shu (space) and the magnetic compass (time): the distillation of China’s grand system of correlations.

The Luo Shu and the magnetic compass form the distillation of China’s grand system of correlation. The rectangular Luo Shu symbolized the order imposed by humans on Earth, and the magnetic compass assured that life on Earth stayed in tune with the cycles of the universe.

Today, it may seem archaic to consider astronomical and terrestrial conditions when planning for the harvest or building new cities. But the “grand system of correlation” was multilayered. It had both a practical and an aesthetic dimension.

Feng Shui principles were applied to nearly all human activity. Almanacs provided information on cyclical factors, not only the day and hour of the beginning of spring, the positions of stars, and expected deviations from regular weather patterns, but also the ideal day and hour for performing specific tasks.

Loggers harvesting wood for the building trade were given a list of favorable days to fell trees: “After the Beginning of Winter (the nineteenth solar term), days with favorable stars or with the characters Ding, Cheng, and Kai are necessary. Forbidden are days with the characters Jian, Po, Shou, and Ping… (The terms are associated factors and orientations marked on the Feng Shui compass.)

Likewise, “bamboo must be cut on a clear day, after the tenth solar term, because bamboo cut before it is dry will be infested by insects. Pine trees should be cut in the snow. This assures that the resin is congealed and the heartwood is hard and durable.”

Qi

The main purpose of Feng Shui is to capture qi by harmonizing yin and yang. Qi is an essential concept in Chinese culture. The word has been translated as vital force, ether, spirit, and cosmic breath, among others. Sinologist Joseph Needham, taking a cue from quantum physics, translated qi as matter-energy.

Wherever there are yin-yang polarities, there is qi. The sages said: “Qi resides in tension.” At the most basic level, qi is the medium of magnetism. When we float a magnetic needle in the small basin of the magnetic compass, the needle briefly oscillates and then settles in an orientation where the qi is most acute.

China’s written language indicates that the Chinese associated qi with (electro) magnetism. The pictogram for qi is used in the modern compound character for electricity. The same pictogram is used in the compound characters for Tai Chi and Qigong. In Japan, where they speak of ki, the character is used in words like denki (electricity) and the martial art aikido.

Qi played a role in the development of nearly all aspects of Chinese life, including martial arts, food, and medicine. It was also a guiding principle in Chinese art. The aim of China’s classic artists was to capture qi by juxtaposing yin-yang opposites. One of its greatest masters was Muqi, a Chan (Zen) artist from the 13th century.

In his famous painting of the bird picking its feathers, Muqi used a concave-shaped truck (yin) and a convex-shaped branch (yang) to set up tension in the composition. When we cover the branch at the top of the painting with our hands, the balance of the composition collapses. The qi disappears.

Muqi infused his image with qi

Reconciling yin and yang, the leitmotiv in Chinese culture, is an aesthetic discipline. It has no ideological or religious basis. The first scholar to make the point that aesthetics can help us to understand the Chinese world was George Rowley, an American art historian and author of the book Principles of Chinese Painting (1949). Rowley wrote:

“How do the Chinese [traditionally] look at life? Here we meet a unique and surprising answer. The Chinese way of looking at life was not primarily through religion, philosophy, or science, but through art. All their other activities seem to have been colored by their artistic sensitivity.

“Instead of religion, the Chinese preferred the art of living in the world; instead of rationalization, they indulged in poetic and imaginative thinking; and instead of science, they pursued the fantasies of astrology, alchemy, geomancy, and fortune-telling.”

Feng Shui may explain why China didn’t develop a natural science. As an aesthetic discipline, the notion of proof or mathematical validation did not occur. The Chinese opted for observation rather than experimentation, and instead of a natural science, China developed a “natural aesthetics.” The East and West would meet after all. In the 19th century. China started to assimilate Europe’s natural science, while Europe started to assimilate China’s natural aesthetics. For the latter, Japan was the intermediary.

The book is available at most onlinebook retailers, including Amazon.

https://www.amazon.com/Creating-Planetary-Culture-European-Transcendence/dp/B0CB2FV1K7

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Jan Krikke

Author of Creating a Planetary Culture: European Science, Chinese art, and Indian Transcendence