Geomantic compass, First half of the 19th century
Royal Museums of Art and History
Inv. EO.383

Geomantic compass (luopan)

China, Xin’an district (Provincie Guangdong), ca.1900
Wood, ink, metal; inscription on the back “Xin’an Xiu yi, Wang Yangxi
Royal Museums of Art and History, inv. EO.383, provenance Louisiana Purchase Exposition (StLouis World's Fair) 1904

The compass consists of a small metal medallion (the ‘heaven dial’) containing the floating needle, protected by a glass cover. The medallion is set into in the centre of a round wooden plate (the ‘earth plate’), which in this case is divided into 22 concentric rings bearing diverse inscriptions. In the first ring from the centre, for example, we see the eight trigrams of the I Ching (Book of Changes), and in the fourth ring from the outer edge, the ideograms of the five elements: water, fire, metal, wood and earth. The other rings contain references to systems such as the houses of the moon, constellations, etc.
The Chinese term for geomantics is fengshui. This literally means: wind and water. The purpose of fengshui is to locate the ideal site for a grave, a building, or even an entire city. This is also determined based on topographical elements in the landscape: the position of waterways, mountains, etc.

The principle of magnetism was known in China already in the Han dynasty, and magnetic declination was understood in the 11th century, if not earlier. The invention of the magnetic compass, which indicated the South (and not the North), can be attributed to the Chinese. It was used in geomancy and only later for maritime navigation. In the Song dynasty, this would become crucially important for the Chinese economy and for the exploration of the Indian Ocean by Chinese seafarers. The magnetic compass was later introduced to Europe by the Arabs.

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