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Taoist Architecture: Tangible Example of Philosophy?

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Throughout the ages, religion of any region represents a broad based scripture of do-s and don’ts for its society, the content of which is made after lot of research on the experience of living. Thus the instructions in the texts of religion culminate into the practice, which in turn becomes the habit and habit gradually invents more scopes of practice. This state of affairs in a society creates hallmarks of a religion through many tangible reflections, like regular religious ceremonies, rituals related to birth, marriage or death, and the architecture of the region. Out of all these, architecture holds a special place, because it is more tangible and more close to the society, as architecture houses all – be it the humans, be it religion, or be it the social or cultural events. They serve as the chronicle of civilization through ages.

In the light of the above, Taoist Architecture holds an important place in the history of civilization on many accounts – each of which is brimming with history, proof of human intelligence and future possibilities, where they surpass the boundary of religion or region to offer the whole world a gamut of unique methodology of better living that proves to be a confluence of aesthetics, practicality and durability. Thus, with utmost respect for this wondrous set of creations of the humans from the rank of one of the oldest yet one of the vibrant philosophies of the world, this study probes the question of tangibility of Taoism through Taoist Architecture, by weighing its nuances with the help of literature review, analysis and discussion, before concluding on an approbatory note.

Brief Note on Taoism

Since Taoist Architecture is based on Taoism, it is necessary to discuss Taoism in brief to facilitate the scopes of associating them with the nuances of architecture and probing the reason of such association.

The word ‘Tao’ (pronounced as ‘Dow’) refers to ‘way’ or ‘path’, containing a plethora of connotation in it, which is impossible to bring under one single phrase. However, it packs the power to encompass everything living or non-living found in the nature or in the universe, thereby unifying all with one single idea. It is believed by many that the founder of Taoism is Lao-Tse (604-531 B.C), an era that reminds about Confucius, another revered thinker of that time. Some also associates him as the founder of Taoism.

At its early stage Taoism was a collection of ideas about psychology and philosophy, which later evolved as a religious faith for many, and even earned the status of state religion and continued that streak till the end of the Ch’ing Dynasty in 1911. But it hasn’t stopped running in the hearts of millions of its followers all across the globe (current estimate stands at 20 million). The briefest definition of the concept of Tao can go like below:

  1. i) Tao is a force that flows unhindered, and through everything;
  2. ii) Everyone’s goal should be to align all acts towards the flow of Tao to find one’s harmony with life, nature as well as universe;

iii) Flow of time is cyclical.

  1. iv) In way towards subscribing to harmony, everyone has to maintain strength and vitality;
  2. v) Five main organs (and seven openings) of the body corresponds with five elements like water, fire, wood, metal and earth;;
  3. vi) Chi’ (air, energy) should be nurtured as the prime element towards sustenance and development.

vii) The chief virtues like compassion, moderation and humility are to be constantly maintained and developed;

viii) The flow of nature should be unhindered

viii) Every action of human should be planned to accommodate the above ideas in it (Robinson, 1995).

The essence of the above set of principles points towards one word, and that is balance – and, Taoism has come with a symbol of balance too, which substantiates its main aim. It is called Yin-Yang symbol, where Yin and Yang are two equal and opposite forces – as it is said in physics, “two unlike parallel forces constitute a couple”, this Yin-Yang couple also represents Female and Male, or Night and Day, where each of them possessing the exact opposite qualities. The definitions can run towards any direction, but the concept behind Yin-Yang revolves around only one thing, and that is, balance.

Thus, Taoism, as it can be understood from the above, is a package of idea and instruction to develop a balanced living with all possible openness to create and enjoy freedom at every step of life. This beauty of Taoism thus naturally made its way into human action, of which architecture is one great proof of its influence.

Taoist Architecture

Taoist architecture covers the entire gamut of construction, including all disciplines of it – ranging from palaces to huts, while covering all other types of construction and design. This has been possible because of the vast scope of its application to architecture, and with its further development as an architectural tool. Thus, two segments can divide Taoist architecture: one , traditional architecture, belonging to the early era of its application, and Bagua architecture, based on the Bagua principles derived from Taoism.

Overall, the examples of Taoist architecture are spread over innumerable temples, palaces, altars, huts or in the landscape architecture, which has a resemblance with Buddhist architecture, but is different in functions. That similarity is a general outcome of the co-existence of two religions, as well as mutual cultural exchange among them.

Early Phase: Traditional

Certain factors dominated the field of architecture at the early phase of Taoism, and they should be kept in mind – one, the idea of Taoism itself was in developing stage, Two, the demand of the social situation. Thus in this phase the architects were driven by more of a collective dream and aspiration of realizing the benefits of Taoism.

Thus the early Taoist architecture started its journey by introducing its basic idea – balance, where it was interpreted into symmetry, like main halls would be flanked by equidistant structures, or the structures of religious importance would be placed on the northwest corner of a plot, which was considered as the ‘Lucky Land’ and the place to meet God.

The same rule would follow in the case of landscape architecture or in the temple architecture. However, the knowledge of topography was evident even in the early constructions of Taoist architecture – as Taoism has always been a strong advocate of preserving the nature and the free-flow of energy, i.e., air.

In the sphere of aesthetics too, the natural elements like fish, deer, and tortoise made their way into Taoist architecture right from the beginning. While these elements were there, the proper implementation of five elements and eight diagrams were yet to follow. Then it was limited in its applications too – only palaces, altars or temples were the fields of Taoist application.

Construction materials were also primitive – as wooden beams served as the principal item to do with. However, in this phase, the general need somewhat governed the outcome of the architecture.

Transitional Phase:

            Relentless research by the Taoists on the applicability of Taoism in daily life gave birth to Feng Shui, which, with time, has become phenomena of Chinese architecture and at present dominating the world with its positive qualities.

Quin niao tse, an officer in the Yellow Emperor’s regime is believed to be the originator or the propagator of Feng Shui, and accordingly once it was called as the ‘Art of Qin niao tse’, though any documentation of his work is considered to be lost (Too, 1996). However, Feng Shui today is known as the ‘art of placement’. The Feng Shui literature primarily describes the earth as a living being, having energy channels. They call them as the ‘veins of the dragon’ and earmark the convergence points of those channels as auspicious sites. It embedded Taoism on its journey, and as an effect, Chinese people accepted its explanation and concretized its foundation by practicing it in the various spheres of their living, of which architecture had been heavily influenced.

Incubating Period

Conforming with Taoism, it soon established two schools, viz., the ‘Direction School’ and the ‘Situation School’, with one complementing the other. They still exists, where The Direction School deals with the accurate alignment of the site and the building with the stars. It is based on the theory of five elements, eight characters of birth and eight triagrams of ‘I Ching’. The Situation School deals with the significance of shapes, height the mountains, speed and curves of the water bodies (Too, 1996).

The above stated twin aspects of Feng Shui became popular enough to be spread out not only in the whole of China, but also in its neighboring countries. This generated an extended interest on further study and development of the subject as a whole, and that resulted into the birth of another branch that started to work on the dimension of timing, based on the belief that every piece of land goes through a cycle of good and bad luck.

This idea influenced the monarchy to such an extent that they became choosy even about their burial sites; as that, according to the new branch, had some bearing on the longevity of the ruling dynasty. Ming Tombs of Beijing still stands as a proof of such belief beheld by the rulers of the Ming dynasty. (1368-1644).

Like every philosophy or idea, Feng Shui also had to face a great deal of upheaval. In its traced track of existence, it faced ban twice, once in the time of Yuan dynasty (Mongols invaders) and in 1949, when the communist government of China found it a superstitious practice (Traditional, 2006).

But, as the wise says, old habits die hard; Feng Shui has gradually bounced back and at present is doing a roaring business all around the globe where the Chinese themselves have become a minor entrepreneur. Taking clue from the growing market, other ethnic ideas of China, like astrology or acupressure, have also been embedded with Feng Shui to create a comprehensive living solution.

How Feng Shui Influences Architecture

Feasibility of certain requirements of living always determines the viability of any architectural project. At the first level it deals with easy accessibility to the site, height and shape of the land, easy availability of water, scope for proper sewerage, free flow of clean air etc. If the primary conditions prove conducive, then the architects emphasize on the second level, where they check and decide on the appropriateness of external and the internal structure of the proposed construction. After that come the factors related to aesthetics or special features, which could enhance the scope to exploit the surrounding environment.

All these levels of considerations are equally important for both the intended dwellers of the proposed constructions and its surroundings. Since Feng Shui claims to have better prescriptions for all those three levels of consideration along with its huge list of advices on actual living principles,  it has tremendous influence of architecture industry, as that is being proved even today.

The Basics of Feng Shui

Feng Shui claims to assess and identify the positive and negative aspects of a place through its system based on a theory of Yin(the feminine force) and Yang(the male force), the two opposite yet complementary forces which are believed to be the cause of life and death, where Yin is considered as earth and  Yin as heaven.

There is a symbolic representation of the duo as well, where a line of two dashes represents Yin and a continuous line denotes Yang, while each is being derived from a square and a circle, which represent the earth and heaven respectively.  Yin and Yang take a set of five elements like Earth, Fire, Metal, Wood and Water to assess and decide on the preconditions of living.

Though it is difficult to summarize the huge connotation behind this dualistic philosophy of Yin and Yang, yet it can be said that it propagates to use the right quotient among divergent forces like Heaven, Human being, and Earth to achieve balance and harmony in life.

Improvised Phase: Bagua Style

Yin and Yang theory is then joined by Bagua theory, which consists of eight triagrams, known by the names like Qian, Kun, Zhen, Xun, Li, Kan, Dui and Gen. Combination of these are used to draw a hypothesis about possible future events to take place in the house. In the end Tao, Yin-Yang theory and Bagua theory work together to enhance and maintain ‘Chi’, the vital life-force behind everything (Too, 1996).

Thus, encompassing the environmental, philosophical and spiritual factor, Feng Shui suggests about the best possible order and placement of the objects to attain peace or harmony or the other results as desired by the owner of a house. In the process it involves itself into further details like assessing the zodiacal placement of the prospective dwellers to present a tailor-made prescription for the design and lay-out for their house, covering both the interior and exterior of it.

How It Works

Feng Shui has a set of grammar to follow. It starts with prescribing the possible right directions of a site according to its surroundings (Fong). It identifies one direction as the attributors of certain elements and earmarks certain functions of the house-to-be to that direction. A quick glance on such a list would explain the subject further:

North East: The Area of Education: represented by Earth element;

North: The Area of Career Luck: represented by Water element;

Northwest: Area of Mentor Luck: represented by Metal element;

West: Area of the Descendants’ Luck: represented by Metal element;

Southwest: Area of Love Y Marriage Luck: represented by Earth element;

South: Area of Fame and Luck: represented by Fire element;

Southeast: Area of Wealth Luck: represented by Wood element;

East: Area of Health and Family Luck: represented by Wood element.

Various shapes and colors are also believed to be associated with the above directions along with numbers; they are calculated on the basis of the of the owner’s gender and zodiacal data. According to Feng Shui, the productive cycle of the elements work out in the following directions:

Earth > Fire > Wood > Water > Metal

Lucky Talisman

There are a few objects that are considered as the provider of luck and Chi according to the Feng Shui myths and legends (Tips, 2006). The most popular ones are: the artifacts like Three-legged toad with a coin in its mouth, bunch of Chinese coins tagged in a red ribbon, the wind-chimes, golden dragon fish, gem trees, crystal globe or other crystal artifacts, tortoises, fruit trees, ships, hens, Mandarin ducks, etc. They are advised to place in the strategic positions according to the need of the householders.

However, one thing should be remembered, that all those applications are always aligned with the central principles of Taoism, which promotes free life under free nature, and not driven by any earthly desire.


The reason behind the conversion of philosophical musings of Taoism into vast scientific principles of living is the inherent power of Taoism itself. It had all the nuances of development in it – much like the oak sleeping in an acorn. It is because of this power, Feng Shui has established itself as the finest possible tool to create the best possible living solutions for people. Starting from prescribing for a township, it can go down to the minutest details to determine even the placement of small items in a house. In all, Taoist architecture’s utility value is great in the sense that creates awareness about healthy and prosperous living, which even the modern architects embraced wholeheartedly and are now heavily engaged in utilizing it for the sustainable development of the societies across the globe.


“Feng Shui Tips”. (2006). Web Article. Retrieved Nov 29, 2007, from


Fong, H. “What You Absolutely Must Know Before You Buy A House.” pdf, retrieved            Nov 29, 2007, from http://www.henryfong.com

Robinson, B.A. (1995). “Taoism”. Web Article. Retrieved on December 1, 2007, from             http://www.religioustolerance.org/taoism.htm

“Taoist Architecture”. Web Article. Retrieved Nov 27, 2007, from             http://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/architecture/styles/taoist.htm

Too, L. (1996). “The Complete Illustrated Guide to Feng Shui: How to Apply the Secrets          of Chinese Wisdom for Health, Wealth and Happiness”. Element Books

Traditional Feng Shui: 2006, retrieved March 14, 2007, retrieved Nov 29, 2007 from             http://www.traditionalfengshui.com/content/feng_shui_consultation.php

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