Pungsu, the Art of Korean Geomancy

How does a society explain good and evil? How does it find balance and harmony with its surroundings? Is your society in harmony with nature?
This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.

Geomancy is an ancient spiritual technique for understanding the flow and balance of energy through and over the earth.  The shape of the land – the mountains, the hills, the rivers, the plains – can have a profound impact on the fortunes of villages, homes, and even graves, determining future events such as the strength of a dynasty or particular family.   The Korean word for geomancy is pungsu, which means wind and water.  The propitious site is characterized by a harmonious balance of natural counterparts such as heaven and earth, fire and water, north and south, east and west.  A balanced, ideal site is called a myongdang. 

A Buddhist monk or otherwise experienced person locates the myongdang in accordance with the principles of pungsu.  He will read the land around him, studying the positions of the river relative to the mountains, and so on.  For example, the location of Korea’s capital Seoul was selected in this way by King T’aejo, founder of the Joseon dynasty.  The city lies in a valley between four mountains – Mt. Pugaksan to the north, Mt. Naksan to the east, Mt. Inwangsan to the west, and Mt. Namsan to the south.  Across this plain flow the Han-gang river and the Ch’hong gyech’.on stream.  Believers in pungsu would note that the Joseon Dynasty prospered for more than 500 years and that Seoul – with a population of 10 million – is still a thriving capital metropolis some 600 years later.


An Example of Pungsu in Rural Korea

 Yangdong Village.
(Yangdong Village, South Korea, 2015.)
The topography of Yangdong Village is believed to thrive and produce many prominent figures.  Water flows at the most auspicious site.  The Hyeongsangang River originates in Gyeongju and flows towards the village, and the gentleness of the water flow makes the people feel relaxed and generous in spirit.
Ridges stretching down from Mt. Seolchangsan, the main mountain of the village, project an image of the Chinese character 勿 (wu) with four green vales sweeping downward.  The geomantic meaning of 勿 is cleanliness.  The head family houses are situated on the second highest location of the ridges, beneath shrines and temples.  Seongjubong Peak overlooking the village is shaped like a brush, a garlic close, of traditional bamboo hat, which makes people gentle-minded.  This prevented crime in the village and allowed the village to produce many eminent literati-scholars. (Translated from a plaque in Yangdong)


 Ancestral Tombs


Extensive burial site constructed according to the principles of pungsu.
Extensive burial site constructed according to the principles of pungsu.

“Traditional Koreans probably believed in geomancy as strongly as westerners believe in their sciences,” notes Hong-Key Yoon, an anthropologist who has written extensively about pungsu. “The pre-modern Koreans firmly believed that if they buried their ancestors in auspicious places, they would get good fortune from the grave. This benefit, however, was often available not directly to the son of the buried man, but, after lying dormant for several generations, to distant descendants.”  

“According to a geomantic saying, the characteristics of each local pungsu (feng-shui in Chinese) is solely responsible for the kind of good fortune received,” Yoon continues.  “Some locales are of mild benefit; others produce spectacular results. Some will cause their good fortune to manifest itself immediately after the funeral, while others will not do so for several generations.” ( Hong-Key Yoon ‘An Analysis of Korean Geomancy Tales’Asian Folklore Studies 34, p. 25) When an individual or lineage falls upon hard times, the problem may be poor pungsu for the individual’s home or an ancestor’s tomb.  A well placed home or tomb can bestow good fortune upon descendants, including such blessings as many filial sons or successful government appointments for family members born in the future. 

Royal Tombs at Gyeongju.
Royal Tombs at Gyeongju, laid out along cardinal directions and properly arranged relative to the mountains in the distance. (Gyeongju, South Korea, 2015.)

For the Good of the Clan

Yoon points out that good pungsu is not done necessarily for the benefit of the individual.  “When people chose a grave site, they were little concerned with whether the place was good for the dead or not, but mainly with how good the site would be for the descendants of the family. Usually, people did not expect to benefit from the grave in the generation in which the dead was buried, but rather several generations later.” (p.29) 

(Gyeongju, South Korea, 2015.)


“…Thus, we can probably say that the Koreans lived for the preparation of tomorrow rather than for today. These wishes for family prosperity center around either wealth or the appointment of high governmental officials. This may reflect the average Korean’s poverty-stricken life as well as the bureaucratically-oriented Korean society.


The South Korean Flag


Flag of South Korea.
Flag of South Korea.

The national flag of South Korea is also called the Taegukki, which means “Great Extremes.”  It has three parts designed in accordance with pungsu: a white background, a red and blue Taeguk in the center, and four sets of black lines known as trigrams.  One might look at the the Taeguk and note it’s resemblance to the more familiar symbol for yin and yang.  This is no coincidence, as Korean pungsu is inspired in large part by Chinese feng-shui.  The Taeguk is an icon representing the harmonious balance, the connected interdependence at the heart of pungsu – and at the very heart of traditional Korean society. 

 The white background symbolizes cleanliness and purity – the inherent goodness of people assumed by Confucian teachings.  The trigrams each represent the elements balanced in pungsu – fire (justice) in the lower left balanced diagonally by water (intelligence), heaven (humanity) in the upper left balanced diagonally by water (courtesy). 

Korean trigrams, representing the relationships that govern pungsu.
Korean trigrams, representing the relationships that govern pungsu.


The Bottom Line

1. Identify and discuss some of the core values of Korean society revealed by pungsu.  How are these values similar or different from the core values of your own society?


2. Anthropologist Hong-Key Yoon calls geomancy “a quasi-religious and pseudo-scientific system which regulates human ecology…” (p.22) suggesting that pungsu helps Koreans live harmoniously and sustainably with the environment around them.  Research and compare beliefs of other religious systems such as Judasim, Christianity, or Islam regarding humanity’s relationship the environment.


3. In what ways is your own lifestyle in harmony or disharmony with the environment?


4. Research and report on another traditional Korean practice, creating an informative multimedia resource like this one to share with your peers.  Possible topics could include:
  • Korean shamanism
  • Kimchi, bibimbap, bulgoki, and Korean dining traditions
  • Korean games


(Gyeongju, South Korea, 2015.)

You can actually visit parts of the world featured in this lesson:

A Guided Tour of South Korea is a curated photo essay for use in middle and high school social studies classrooms.  The essay offers a brief, completely non-comprehensive overview of South Korean historical and cultural sites circa 2015 and is meant to present these and related topics in an unconventional way – that is, as if the student were travelling through, wandering, and exploring South Korea on their own.  From the glistening towers of Seoul to the DMZ, from the bustle of downtown to the sanctuary of its Buddhist monasteries – supplementary photos to enhance a sense of place.