Distributed Cognition of Luopan, a Feng Shui Compass (Jieshu & Roxy)

Luopan, also called as a Feng Shui compass, is a traditional Chinese compass used for finding the best facing direction in architecture design, for people both living and dead. Feng and Shui, in Chinese, mean wind and water respectively. Feng Shui is “a Chinese philosophical system of harmonizing people with the surrounding environment”, also a symbol system that transforms meanings of direction. The Feng Shui practice involves architecture design, fortune-telling, and even weather forecast in metaphoric terms of “Qi”, the invisible forces that bind the universe, earth, and humanity together. If you have watched Kung Fu Panda 3, you may hear of this term. In the practice of determining the best places and directions of architectures and tombs, Luopan is the inevitable tool because, in Chinese traditional culture, different directions have different meanings. If the tombstone of your ancestor faces a good direction, it is believed that you will have a lucky life.

Luopan looks like a compass, but with many other marks on the concentric circles, besides the four basic directions. It is used to determine the precise direction by a Feng Shui practitioner.



Three levels of distributed cognition of Luopan

Here, the representational practice we’d like to talk about is using Luopan to determine the best direction of architectures. In this case, the cognitive processes were distributed in three ways.

First of all, the cognitive process is distributed across the members of a social group.

  • An individual mind can implement in a group of individuals. At the beginning, some philosopher proposed an idea that Qi is the only thing left after people’s death. The best status of Qi is in a dynamically recycle motion. Wind may disperse the Qi, and water may stop the Qi. The arrangement of the wind and water is the key of sustaining the best status of Qi. This idea was popular in an era when people were unable to tell the mystery of life and nature. So the most respected people, like ancient emperors, preferred that they can still bless their people and descendants after their death. They, then, turn to count on the positions of tombs when they were still alive. This idea became popular in ancient China, forming a special culture, although it’s not scientific.
  • This group cognitive task also influences every individual in this community. All Chinese people know about Feng Shui. Moreover, nowadays, although only a few people claim they believe in Feng Shui, but many of us are familiar with this technique and may check the direction of doors and beds before we move into a new house.

Second, cognitive processes may involve coordination between internal and external structure. In this case, the minds of Feng Shui practitioners are not “passive representational engines” that replicate the external world. On the contrary, they would use the information gathered from the environment to perform some complicated cognitive task. For example, in designing tombs, they could use the direction indicated by Luopan, the landform of the potential tomb sites, the birthday of the dead, and some complicated rules and equations to calculate the best tomb site and the best facing direction of the tombstone. With Luopan, they could find the best way to coordinate the behaviors of Qi, keeping it in the best status. The interaction with Luopan coordinates the relationship between environment and people’s inner status. It is like the blind’s walking stick, the biologist’s microscope, and astronomer’s telescope.

Third, the cognitive processes of Luopan are also distributed through time. Over time, the practice of Feng Shui and the usage of Luopan become a part of Chinese culture. According to Hutchins, on the one hand, culture emerges from the activities in the history. Luopan has a very long history, originated from the earliest magnetic compass thousands of years ago.The culture of Luopan is formed and strengthened in the countless activities of using Luopan to determine lucky directions from ancient to present. On the other hand, the culture of Luopan also serves as a historical context for the future practice of Luopan. Chinese people see the culture of Luopan as a “reservoir of resources” for problem-solving and reasoning that in return shapes the cognitive processes whose practice “transcends the boundaries of individuals”.

For example, I (Jieshu) have a friend who was eager to find a boyfriend. She asked a Feng Shui practitioner to use a Luopan to calculate where her future husband was, and she was told that the lucky direction was the southeast. She literally saw Luopan as a way to solve her problem, and deliberately began to date boys from the southeast. Last week, she told me she established a relationship with a man from Taiwan. This practice of Luopan finally transcends the boundary of her individual self.

During the history of Feng Shui, transformation is constantly happening, as the development of people’s knowledge about nature. More and more people recognize that nature and people’s destiny are not governed by some mysterious energy called Qi. However, nowadays, some people claim that Feng Shui can be explained by modern science. For example, according to Feng Shui, the door of a house should not be opened to the north direction, otherwise, your family will easily get sick. According to proponents of Feng Shui, this principle could be explained by the fact that in winter, cold wind from Siberia blows across the most area of China. If your door is to the north, you will easily get cold. This is an example of the transformation of the culture of Luopan over time, as well as a demonstration of distributed cognition across time.

We also have Luopan app, right now, which can work on your smartphone. But the compass in a smartphone does not depend on the magnetic needle. Instead, there are thin films. Thanks to the Quantum Hall Effect and Magnetoresistance Effect, these thin films can sense the direction of the geomagnetic field and then can translate this sense into the electrical signal which can be read by your smartphone. This information can be showed in numbers and words. But they still use the graph of Luopan and the pointer just as the one in a real Luopan. Why? The reason is as same as the airspeed indicator on plane mentioned in the Distributed Cognition. When people get used to the overt version of indicator, another different form of display may disturb the practitioners’ cognition embodied in the history of Luopan.

Luopan has intersubjectively accessible meanings

As an individual in this community, I (Roxy) share the same value of Feng Shui with other people under this influence. There are two levels.

  • From the royal level, at the beginning, the first emperor decided that he needed Feng Shui practitioners to determine the best place for him to be buried. The emperors after him wanted to get better and fancier places for them to be buried. This idea transformed from a personal idea to an intersubjective common ground.
  • From the folk level. For example, when Xiao Ming, an average person believes in Feng Shui, he will find a Feng Shui practitioner to help him determine the position and direction of the tomb of his deceased father. His idea is transmitted to and interpreted by the Feng Shui practitioner. The Feng Shui practitioner determines the position and tells Xiao Ming the result. This idea is then shared by these two people. After Xiao Ming put this idea into practice, more and more people know it and start to believe in it. Gradually, the usage of Luopan becomes commonly accepted in his community.

In this way, the symbol system of Feng Shui is distributed, and the cognitive task is offload onto Luopan.


[1] Luopan. (2016, October 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 18:27, October 14, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Luopan&oldid=744359217

[2] Feng shui. (2016, October 16). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 02:44, October 16, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Feng_shui&oldid=744568443

[3] James Hollan, Edwin Hutchins, and David Kirsh. “Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-computer Interaction Research.” ACM Transactions, Computer-Human Interaction 7, no. 2 (June 2000): 174-196.

[4] Jiajie Zhang and Vimla L. Patel. “Distributed Cognition, Representation, and Affordance.” Pragmatics & Cognition 14, no. 2 (July 2006): 333-341.