The many schools of feng shui can differ in methods and cures, but some symbols and tools are important in most, if not all sects of feng shui. The luopan (also luo pan or lo pan) is an intricate compass used in most forms of feng shui, and even those forms that don't use it still recognize its importance. The history of the luopan is, like so many older tools, a little vague. But what's clear is its role in geomancy and its precursor status to navigational magnetic compasses.
No Ordinary Compass
Compasses usually bring up images of fairly simple magnetic devices with a needle pointing north. However, the luopan is very different. It has several rings running around the center, filled with Chinese writing. The needle in the center actually points south. Some luopan compasses are very intricate and have to be read only by someone with deep knowledge of feng shui. Luopans come in different sizes, where the diameter refers to a particular phenomenon. For example, an 8-inch luopan refers to the eight-sided ba gua of feng shui.
Use in Geomancy
The main use of the luopan is to determine the true directions in a home, business or other space. Normally when you try to find north in a home, you estimate. You know the general direction. That's not good enough in feng shui. The geomancer needs to know exactly where in the home a direction might start and end. The cures, flying stars, celestial influences, and so on are dependent on which direction of the space you're in. For example, if you use a cure meant for the north in the northeast section, at best it just won't have the oomph needed to really improve things. And if you subscribe to the flying star school of feng shui, the wrong cure could make things worse.
The luopan eliminates that worry. The compass is so detailed that the geomancer will know where to deal with which stars and cures.
The luopan was in existence well before the typical navigation compass you use on camping trips. The luopan has been used for at least 1,000 years, and there are hints it may be as old as 2,000 years. Early forms of the luopan involved fish-shaped vessels that had a lodestone stuck in them. The vessels were placed in water, and the fish would invariably point south. Over time these wet compasses evolved, and they may have caused a rift between two sects of geomancy. One of these sects was concerned with I Ching trigrams and astrology. These geomancers thought the luopan was essential for reading topography, in contrast with the other group of geomancers, who wanted to stick with reading the directions of mountains and rivers.
The luopan continues to evolve. Geomancers can add information and customize their luopans, and some versions of the compass can have writing so tiny it's a wonder anyone can read the characters. This is also why luopans usually aren't made in English versions; according to the Feng Shui Institute, there's just not enough room on the surface of the compass to have legible English writing.
The luopan isn't used in all forms of feng shui; the Black Hat sect, which was popularized in the West a couple of decades ago, uses a fixed ba gua that relies on the position of the main door or entrance to a space, rather than the luopan. Another popular form of feng shui in the West, involving clutter clearing, also uses a fixed ba gua. However, these schools still acknowledge the presence of the luo pan and its importance in feng shui and geomancy in general.
Nowadays you'll find three main versions of the luopan. There's a basic form called the San He, a tougher version called the San Yuan and then a version that manages to combine the two, called the Zhong He. Luopans have several — often 20 — rings of information around the center, all used for different location purposes. For example, one ring might deal with the sun, while another might deal with constellations. Those are actually common to many compasses, but with the ability of a geomancer to customize, you could come across some that function differently.
You can buy luopans from feng shui stores, but you'll need extensive training in order to learn how to use one. You can't point it at the wall and expect to find a direction. You can also hire feng shui experts to evaluate a space for you, but be sure the school that the geomancer follows is one that you prefer to follow as well. While combining schools might work for a few people, it's best to choose one school and stick with it.
Feng shui is an amazing system, and the luopan's detail provides geomancers with a consistent and extensive reference.