Human Modification of Korean Landforms for Geomantic Purposes

By Yoon, Hong-Key | The Geographical Review, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Human Modification of Korean Landforms for Geomantic Purposes


Yoon, Hong-Key, The Geographical Review


The geomantic idea of chosan pibo is concerned with human attempts to modify landforms to remedy imperfect landforms, make sites more auspicious, and thereby bless their occupants. The concept has been a significant motivation for modifying the environment in Korea. The zeal held by geomancy practitioners in Korea for improving the local landscape is worth of comparing with the notion, held by medieval monastic monks in Europe, that humanity partners with God to improve creation the earth's environment. (1) This comparison highlights the existence of distinct Eastern and Western cultural geographies in modifying the environment.

Some scholars consider feng shui, or Chinese geomancy, a superstition (Needham 1962, 239), the rudiments of natural science (Eitel 1873, title p.), or a quasi-religious and pseudo-scientific system (de Groot 1897, 935). A more recent Western scholar declared that Chinese geomancy still remains as an enigma by stating that "if there is a subject which should have captivated Western sinologists, it is Chinese geomancy" (Lemoine 1974, 1). This Chinese art is becoming popular among Chinese immigrants in the West and is attracting considerable attention as a curious and mysterious means of spatial divination.

Feng shui is "the unique and highly systemized ancient Chinese art of selecting auspicious sites and arranging harmonious structures such as graves, houses, and cities on them by evaluating the surrounding landscape and cosmological directions" (Yoon 2006, 4). This idea has made a tremendous impact on East Asian culture. For instance, Chinese geomancy has influenced the layout of major East Asian cities, including Beijing and Nanjing in China, Seoul and Kaesong in Korea, and Kyoto and Nara in Japan (pp. 217-273). However, this ancient East Asian system of divining locations cannot be easily classified or labeled using a Western term. Simply put, it is not a clear-cut superstition, religion, or science but an art that comprises all three (Yoon 2006, 311; 2007, 104).

My aim in this article is to examine an important form of the Korean geomantic idea of pibo--that is, chosan pibo, or the idea of remedying inadequacies of an auspicious place by constructing hills--in order to introduce and expand academic understanding of the concept, which Western scholars have neglected. The article also contributes to and enriches the existing literature on "human modification of nature" and "symbolic landscape" by adding a new, East Asian geomantic dimension with a relatively unknown Korean idea.

Human impact on the environment was a key and popular research topic among geographers, especially Berkeley School geographers, of the early modern period (approximately from the 1920s through the 1970s). Clarence Glacken's 1967 Traces on the Rhodian Shore includes the most significant intellectual inquiry into Western ideas relating to the human impact on the natural environment from ancient times to the end of the eighteenth century. A conference on "Man's Role in Changing the Face of the Earth," organized by Carl O. Sauer and his collaborators and held on 16-22 June 1955, was a monumental event in this research tradition (Thomas 1956). Many historical-cultural geographers including, James Parsons, Robert West, Hugh Prince, and William Denevan, left their marks on this academic tradition (West 1949; Parsons 1949; Prince 1964; Denevan 1978). In the 1980s more biogeographically inclined geographers carried on the tradition; their achievements are reflected in works by Andrew Goudie and Ian Gordon Simmons (Goudie 1990; Simmons 1996). The study of the human modification of nature has continued into the twenty-first century, although by more physical geographers than historical-cultural geographers. However, none of the key literature surrounding the human modification of nature discusses feng shui or the geomantic idea of pibo--a gap that my research on chosan pibo endeavors to help fill. …

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