Below are some of the images that I will be using in class. Believe it or not, these concepts are all critical to the purpose and design of traditional Chinese cities. They are accompanied here with a bit of description and sometimes questions or puzzles to encourage you to do a little pondering. After all this is ancient China, so we have to have a little mystery.      Last updated 04/04/2017.


This diagram of nine squares-within-a-square, and three simple concepts, form the basis for the traditional Chinese cosmos. It is used to represent a variety of systems including astrology, solar and lunar phases, and architectural, political, and religions geography and architecture. The Center is the subject of the system, the Inside space of eight squares represents the means through which the subject acts, and the Outside, consisting of the twelve outer edges of the eight inner squares, are amplifications of their qualities.

In geographic and architectural situations, North is outside the top of square 9, but for astrology and some other applications, it appears outside the bottom of square 1. What is the cosmological reasoning for this?

Why are the squares numbered in this esoteric manner? Why is 5 in the center?


This is the character for "well," the sort from which water is drawn. It is also the symbol for the field-well system of land tenure that predominated in China in the Zhou and earlier dynasties. It was promoted by Confucius as the basis for the proper division of labor and power in Chinese society, although it had been abandoned well before his time. This system represents nine parcels of agricultural land that are controlled by a nobel. The eight parcels on the margin are separately farmed by eight families for their personal support. The center parcel is farmed by the eight families jointly and the produce given to the nobel for his support.

The symbol for well was already in use in the late Neolithic period, though for what, we do not know. By the Shang Dynasty, it was being used in it's modern senses.


We're going to skip over cities and their elements for a moment, and jump to the level of the nation. The oldest extant texts tell us that the first Emperor of China ruled over Nine Provinces or regions having the names listed in this figure.

Although the names are referred to the correct geographic positions, they are not numbered correctly, that is in accordance with Chinese cosmology. How would you renumber them applying the principles inherent in the diagram at the top of this page?


This is a map that shows the location of the Shang and their neighbors. The Zhou were allies of the Shang, but later defeated them in a war, taking the Mandate of Heaven from them to become the rulers of China. More on this elsewhere. For now, simply compare this map with the one above to see the territory that both the Shang and the Zhou aspired to rule.


This is a Middle Neolithic pottery vessel created more than a thousand years before the earliest of the Chinese states arose. Notice that our square of nine squares is truncated and bounded by a series of circles. Similar designs from more recent times and accompanied by written records, tell us that these circles represent the heavens, so in this context we may deduce that our square of nine represents the world - quite literally the earth.

What then means the swastika in the Center square? Have you ever wondered why the swastika is a symbol found in the art of the vast majority of cultures in the northern hemisphere?


This is the position of the Big Dipper constellation as it circles around Polaris, the Pole Star, during the course of a yearly cycle. Or as the Chinese would say, Dou Xiu, the Dipper Mansion of the Black Tortoise. Now, we may be confused about the location of Heaven, but in China everyone knows exactly where it is. It is the Pole Star, Polaris, where the Jade Emperor resides and from which he rules the heavens and the earth.      Go to the Dipper Seasonal Clock.

Qi, the Heavenly Breath, streams down from Polaris, animating the Earth with vitality and purpose. Given this, how would you interpret the swastika in the design on the pot above?


Han dipper capitol.


Shang-di (aka, the Jade Emperor) dipper chariot.

The Han capitol at Chang'an showing tombs placed to align with features in the capitol at a distance of about seven miles.


From a middle Neolithic Yangshao vessel. Notice the oval in the central square and that the entire square of nine is surrounded by two ovals. Later, in dynastic times, temples for the worship of heaven and the ancestors were set on circular platforms and had a circular roof to acknowledge the relationship between heaven (encircling, overarching) and earth (encircled, contained). Pots of this kind were often buried with the dead (why they survive as whole vessels); this decoration is appropriate for sacrifices accompanying interment.
   The portion of the vessel decorated with this design is in a tight, convex bulge. If you peal the design from the curved surface and lay it flat, it approximates a circle. Could the potter have been mapping a circular design onto this curved surface? If so, why?


The design on the vessel above is also reminiscent of this jade bi. Bi may be perforated discs, such as this one, which is unusually large, with a diameter of 17 inches, or they be circular tubes decorated on the exterior. According to the oldest surviving records, these were used to send prayers and supplications to the court of the Jade Emperor in Heaven.
   During the Neolithic, disc-shaped bi range from 4 to 18 inches in diameter, but even larger ones are known from the Tibetan plateau, where they may exceed 30 inches in diameter.
   Bi are frequently found in tombs and in cashes of ritual objects.
   As shown below, by the Zhou Dynasty, Bi had become standardized, using the magic square to enforce a complex 1 in 3 ratio.

The magic square superimposed on a Zhou Bi. From The Magic Square: Cities in Ancient China, by Alfred Schinz. Published by Axel Menges, 1996.


Bi pictured on one end of the coffin of Xin Zhui, the Marquise of Di and wife of Li Cang, who was Chancellor of the Kingdom of Changsha. Sed died in the early second century BC and was buried at Mawangdui in Changsha. Note the way it is hung and the two dragons who thread its center hole.

Click here to enlarge image.

Click here to learn about Mawnagdui.


Package of bi found in the grave of Xin Zhui.


Drawing of large and small bi from the grave of Xin Zhui.


A pair of screens from the grave of Xin Zhui, one of a bi, the other of a dragon.


Early and middle Neolithic ts'ung come in the form of tubes that are segmented as though you were stacking disc-shaped bi on top of one another. Hence, they may be circular, but are decorated on the sides with a representation of the "Taotai."
   Ts/ung are usually square in cross section, 1 to 3 inches wide and 1 to 12 inches long, depending on the thickness and number of segments. In the example shown here, you can see circular eyes on the sides of the tube, the long nose descending in front between the eye sockets, and an oblong mouth just beneath the nose. The face is repeated on the opposite side of the tube, so faces opposite one another share the same eyes. The faces look like those of horses, but they are more likely to be an early and very simple version of the "Taotai" "monster" face that decorates Shang and later bronzes, as well as ts'ung


Now here we have a Neolithic ts'ung, in this case a thin, rectangular disc with a circular hole in the center. This form of ts'ung is quite uncommon. The ancient texts speak of bi and ts'ung in the same breath. While bi are used to address Heaven, ts'ung address gods that reside in the Earth, and especially the god that intercedes with one's ancestors. So perhaps the design on the burial pot above invokes a gateway to one's ancestors.


More typical of Neolithic ts'ung, in this one-tier ts'ung, which is a short tube surrounded by a rectangle whose corners have been turned into carved faces. These faces may represent the face of the god who intercedes on one's behalf with the dead, or the the "Tao Tie" "monster" face common on bronzes; these might even refer to the same being.


More complex Neolithic tombs often contained multi-teared ts'ung, in this example a 17 tier masterpiece. These are reminiscent of the generational chain of being that underlies ancestor worship throughout the orient. Do the tiers evoke generations of the dead; if so, how many?
   During the dynastic period that follows the Neolithic, multi-tiered ts'ung found in the tombs of kings and nobles are often ornately carved in high relief. Their use persists into modern times.
   Notice in this example, and in the one-tier ts'ung above, that each face of each tier is divided into three segments, thus matching the twelve edges that contain the eight squares that surround the center of the nine-in-one conceptual square that tops this page.
   In the center of the ts'ung resides heaven's proxy; each tier of eight surrounding cubes represents the ancestors from a single generation; each tier represents a successive generation. This, of course, is merely an hypothesis, since there are no surviving early texts that describe the symbolism of Neolithic or early dynastic specimens.


Here is a two-level ts'ung with the faces carved both on the corners and on the faces of squares 1, 3, 9 and 7, which are usually left blank. At the corners, each level is divided into two sub-levels. The bottom sub-level has the main part of the face replicated there in an abbreviated form, the large round eyes and the bar-shaped mouth wrapped around the cornor. The upper sub-level is decorated with a stylized version of the upper face in the headdress, an bar-shaped mouth surmounted by two wide bars. These are what you typically see wrapped around the corners of ts'ung.


This is a close-up of the face depicted on the ts'ung pictured above.


Corner detail showing the wrap-around of the face.


Corner detail from the side.


Does this building look familiar? It should. It is a museum that is a copy of the Ts'ung and the central exhibit, in position 5, as it were, is the very Ts'ung in which it is modeled. In recent years, China has built large numbers of very fine museums. One could argue that it is a collective form of ancestor veneration, of which the Ts'ung, itself, is one obvious symbol.

Learn about Chiangnan Watery Region Culture Museum of China

  Visit Chiangnan Watery Region Culture Museum of China


Here is a diagram of the ts'ung seen in cross section with the nine-in-one square superimposed. The face, or other decoration, is applied to the outer faces of squares 2, 4, 6 and 8. As we will see elsewhere, these squares define the position of rooms in a residence, while the squares 1, 3, 7 and 9 define the position of shrines and meditative halls.


This is the plan of a Shang royal tomb from Anyang. Notice how the nine-in-one space is well represented in the central portion of the tomb.