Readings on the Square and Compass

Readings on the Square and Compass
Joel Baker
There is great interest in origin stories of builders’ working tools and their allegorical meaning. It is difficult for me to look past the Square and Compass, as the idea of the Square and Compass in Ancient China was shown to me in passing during one of my first masonic education sections. When the presenter described the square and compass as ancient, sacred, and in use since time immemorial, the following picture was presented as proof. The picture stems from the Han Dynasty (~200 BC – ~220 AD), unearthed in an ancient tomb in Xinjiang, the far Northwest region of modern China.

Figure 1. Nuwa (L) and Fuxi (R)
The characters in the uncovered tapestry are Nuwa (Nugua) and Fuxi (or Fuhsi). Nuwa holds a compass in her right hand, with the points toward heaven. Fuxi holds a framer’s square in his left hand with a plumb bomb (or weight) suspended from it. The plumb bob is not always presented as Fuxi’s tool. The two entities possess lower bodies as snakes or dragons, and their tails are wrapped together in a helix. Decorated around them are stars or stones, depending on the drawing. More examples are shown a collage in Figure 2.


Figure 2. Various Representations of Nuwa and Fuxi

Nuwa is a divine being credited with creation of people in China. Early Chinese culture was described as matriarchal, with Nuwa representing a procreative role in childbirth. Women were thought to give birth on their own, without the help or assistance of a male partner. Nuwa was portrayed as a human female’s head on a snake’s body. Noe that in early Chinese writings snakes and dragons were separated only by size and often coming from water. Descriptions of snakes would be “small dragons,” for example.


Figure 3. Nuwa Iconograph in Shan Hai Jing
The origin story of Nuwa does change based on region. Explanations for animals and humanity created by Nuwa from clay, Nuwa giving humans the ability to reproduce, and a Chinese story reminiscent of the Biblical flood all are attributed to Nuwa’s tasks as creator and protector. In the deluge story, the Chinese water god Gong Gong smashed his head against Mount Buzhou, a pillar holding up the heavens from the earth. After this pillar was disrupted, demons fought each other. This caused the pillars of heaven to break, unleashing a flood on the people. Nuwa worked to repair the damage, melting five-colored stones to repair the damage and stand the pillar back up, separating the heavens from the earth. This is like the promise of the Rainbow that God made to Noah in Genesis. By the Han Dynasty, Nuwa was being drawn as in Figure 1, with her brother/husband Fuxi in a balanced embrace. Nuwa representing divinity in the heavens with the compass.
As a counter to Nuwa, Fuxi was born on the Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese civilization. He is one of the mythical early three sovereigns of China, teaching Chinese people fishing (nets), hunting & iron working, cooking, farming, animal domestication, and creating textiles (including silk). He learned to deal with the flooding Yellow River with dikes and canals. He formalized sacrifices and standardized marriage contracts. Fuxi was also credited with creating the eight trigrams, used in the Bagua. The Bagua (eight symbols) are used in Taoist cosmology to represent the fundamental principles of reality. The eight trigrams from Fuxi are referred as “Earlier Heaven” as opposed to later definitions of the Bagua. For these definitions, the Yin (female) and Yang (male) influences occur in varying quantities over the eight symbols.


Figure 4. Fuxi’s Bagua
Fuxi represented civilization and earthly values. His wife/sister Nuwa represented the divine. Nuwa was revered in ancient matriarchal society, while Fuxi took a more prominent role in later patriarchal China, when people better understood man’s role in procreation. By the early Han dynasty (200 BC – 220 AD), Fuxi and Nuwa were looked at as balanced equals, as Figures 1 and 2 shows. Fuxi is also is associated with the sun god (Yang) while Nuwa is associated with the moon god (Yin). Fuxi holds the square and (sometimes) a device that is described as a plumb bob.


Figure 5. Mythical Fuxi
The historian and Mormon apologist Hugh Nibley looked for masonic emblems as they were used in Mormon Temple garments (another discussion). While Nibley’s goal was to show the timelessness of “holy symbols” on Mormon sacred vestments, his comments review the artwork and elements in Figure 1. In Nibley’s book “Temple and Cosmos,” he reviews a burial tapestry of Nuwa and Fuxi in the Section “Sacred Vestments:”

“Most challenging are the veils from Taoist-Buddhist tombs at Astana, in Central Asia, originally Nestorian (Christian) country, discovered by Sir Aurel Stein in 1925. We see the king and queen embracing at their wedding, the king holding the square on high, the queen a compass. As it is explained, the instruments are taking the measurements of the universe, at the founding of a new world and a new age. Above the couple’s head is the sun surrounded by twelve disks, meaning the circle of the year or the navel of the universe. Among the stars depicted, Stein and his assistant identified the Big Dipper alone as clearly discernable. As noted above, the garment draped over the coffin and the veil hung on the wall had the same marks; they were placed on the garment as reminders of personal commitment, while on the veil they represent man’s place in the cosmos.”

From these readings and recorded Chinese mythology, a central theme of divinity and mortality hold true with the characters of Nuwa and Fuxi. Divinity is holding the compass, while the Square is held by a representation of virtuous man and civilization. This is similar to lodge lectures and discussions. In my own masonic journey, I have been told the square represents man, pointing towards earth. The compass represents the divine, pointing towards the heavens.
In addition to these lessons applicable to Freemasonry, it is important to note how the ancient Chinese viewed the earth. As Masons, we refer to the canopy of heaven as the roof under which we perform our labors in the EA degree. Ancient Chinese viewed the heavens as hemispherical. The ancient Chinse also viewed the earth as not only flat, but square. The Chinese did believe in the four corners of the earth, North, South, East and West. The idea of a circular heaven and a flat, square earth (with some bumps & bulges) was defined as Gai Tian cosmography. In pre-BC China, wealthy patrons were buried with circular Jade disks (bi) that were meticulously carved, too large to wear every day, and are assumed to aide in travel from earth to the heavens. The disks’ beauty, fragility, and circular shape were crafted to be ornamental, not functional. A large compass and stone cutting tools were needed to carve out the center hole and radius. Likewise, square earthenware and decorative stone pots with circular radius inside, (cong), are often buried around individuals. Cong may represent a path to heaven (circular) through the earth (square). These were also buried around wealthy individuals in China, although it is not known what was placed inside the pots.


Figure 6. Jade Bi (L, 3300-2250 BC), and Cong (R, 3300-1050 BC)
The compass in the hands of Nuwa may not only represent the creative deity, the GAOTU constantly measuring and adjusting her creation. In the mind of early Chinese, it is possible that the heavenly Nuwa used a Compass to physically create the heavens. A compass is needed to trace out the hemispherical heavens. Likewise, Fuxi’s Square would be needed to lay out the design of the terrestrial world. Without an angle of 90 Degrees, how can the four corners of the square earth be apportioned? The Square and Compass were the working tools of these mythical beings. The tools were needed for the work they performed, measuring and laying out the heavens and earth, in balance.
The term square in Chinese is “gui” or measuring tool. The compass in Chinese is “yuan gui,” or circle measuring tool. The term “gui ju” is Chinese for a set of rules, tools for society, or a code of morality for civilization. In Chinese, the code of conduct in civilization is also the same word for a set of measuring tools.
Although the plumb bob is sometimes given as one of tools for Fuxi, Yu the Great (another of the three sovereigns) is also viewed as the inventor of Chinse flood control. He was known for his engineering skills and his upright moral character, in addition to using building tools in his work. The plumb bob was used to check river depth when dikes, flood control and evacuation may be needed. Again, the plumb bob’s physical importance around the Yellow River was revered long before it took on more noble and glorious purposes.
The compass is continually used throughout history to show divine design and measurement. Figures 7 and 8 show two examples of the Compass that are well known outside of Freemasonry. Both show man’s creator constantly measuring his work. The compass is mentioned as an act (to compass around something) as well as a measuring tool. In our VSL, Proverbs lists the compass when God created the heaven over the waters on the second day of Creation. Notice that in Proverbs the Compass is used as a tool to separate the heavens from the earth, similar to Nuwa’s role in ancient Chinese civilization.
“While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep:”
Proverbs 8:26-28


Figure 7. Christ Measuring his Creation (13th Century)


Figure 8. Entrance @ Rockefeller Center, NYC

This discussion was put together to show some light on the square and compass in revered deities in ancient China. While they both now have a virtuous (Fuxi) or divine (Nuwa) status in Chinese folklore, the Square and Compass also shared use as tools to apportion the known world and heavens. The review of ancient beliefs may help the Mason understand how tools, lessons, and allegory remain, but the original beliefs behind them can disappear over the ages.

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