Fuxi (or Fu Hsi, Paoxi) and Nüwa make a nice, Chinese couple of which images often appear on fora, Facebook pages, etc. The image on the right is one of the better known depictions of the two creator Gods and as you can see, Nüwa is holding a pair of compasses and Fuxi a square. Ancient Eastern Freemasonry right? Especially because from Hermetic and alchemic literature we know another Siamese androgynous character known as “Rebis” who are also holding compasses and a square, the Chinese image supposedly shows ancient (Free)masonry.
The image to the right is from the Tang dynasty, so 618 to 907. That not only massively predates modern Freemasonry (1717) and Western alchemy and Hermetica. But are these instruments really compasses and squares, or is this wishful thinking?
As I said, Fuxi and Nüwa are creator Gods. The named instruments would be fitting for their joint role of Grand Architect. With a little fantasy, the instrument on the left could indeed be compasses, but what is that strange attachment to the square?
Chris Earnshaw wrote a series of three books about the (pre)history of Freemasonry. In one of his books he actually writes about influences of a travelling Chinese man on the founders of modern Freemasonry. Yet in passing, he mentions about Fuxi and Nüwa in Freemasonry: Spiritual Alchemy:
As can be seen, the etching of Rebis is nearly identical to the image of the ancient Chinese gods, FuXi and NuWa (right), the mythological founders of China. Both images, Rebis and FuXi, show a man and a woman conjoined. The “square and compasses” in the FuXi image are in fact a spool of thread and a pair of scissors, which is the same as in the story of Atropos, the Greek Fate, who cut the thread of life. Oriental scissors are made from a single piece of metal that is bent over and acts as a spring, similar to classical sheep shears. Europeans may not have been familiar with a pair of Chinese scissors and thought it was a pair of compasses. (p. 218)
So that solves it, right? A Freemason who has lived in Japan for 30 years and who has a BA in Chinese says that seeing 6th century Chinese Freemasonry is wishful thinking. That solves it. Of course things are not that easy.
In his books Earnshaw shows that in ancient China mystical or moral explanations were given to working tools, quite like his this is done in Freemasonry. These tools also include the square and compasses and the explanations are sometimes strikingly similar to those which are found in modern Freemasonry.
Square and compasses? I am not convinced! Could Earnshaw be on to something?
The image above may be the best known image of Fuxi and Nüwa, but by and far is not the only one. Here are some images that I gathered on the internet (starting with one image of the “Rebis” that I mentioned earlier).
As you can see, the instruments on the first images can never be squares and compasses (or can they?). In the last three images they just might be.
So what is what? Once you know what to look for, there is a lot of information about Fuxi and Nüwa available online. I will list a few sources below.
In Chinese mythology, Fu Xi (Fuxi) or Fu Hsi (Fu-hsi) (Chinese: 伏羲; pinyin: Fúxī; Wade–Giles: Fu2-hsi1), also known as Paoxi or Pao-hsi (simplified Chinese: 庖牺; traditional Chinese: 庖犧; pinyin: Páoxī; Wade–Giles: Pao2-hsi1), reigned during the mid-29th century BCE. He was the first of the Three Sovereigns (三皇 Sānhuáng) of ancient China and is a culture hero reputed to be the inventor of writing, fishing, and trapping. However, Cangjie is also said to have invented writing. (1)
A (semi) historical character. The text further explains that Fuxi and Nüwa created mankind, but does not mention any instruments.
From a less historical and more mythological story (2) I quote the following:
Fuxi and Nuwa are commonly portrayed together and they are traditionally regarded to be siblings. This is presented as a dilemma in the myth where the two of them are the first human beings, as well as in the one where they are the sole survivors of a great flood. In both myths, the pair find themselves on the mythical Kunlun Mountains , and sought the advice of heaven as to whether they should get married and (re)populate the earth with human beings.
Therefore, they resorted to divination. According to one version of the tale, Fuxi and Nuwa each climbed to the peak of two different mountains and lit a fire. They agreed that if the smoke went straight up, it would mean that their union was not approved.
On the contrary, if the smoke intertwined, it would mean that heaven approved of their marriage. The smoke from the two fires intertwined and the couple got married. In one myth, the couple had a child in the form of a myth, whom they cut up and scattered across the world, thus resulting in the human race.
The different forms of myths about Fuxi and Nüwa creating humans, does not explain why they hold some sort of instruments in their hands. They also taught humanity arts such as that of fishing and making musical instruments, which could be referred to in some of the images above. Then the same article says:
In addition, they are often shown holding a compass and a ruler, which are the instruments of an architect. These may be considered to symbolize their role as architects of human society. In other instances, Fuxi and Nuwa are depicted as completely human in form.
Not the strongest explanation, and there are no compasses here, but this is probably the direction in which we have to find the explanation for the instruments. The different roles of the couple probably also explains why the instruments are not always the same (or at least, appear to be different).
So where are we at? Looking for information about the instruments I do not find much ‘definite’. The square and compasses are often repeated. The spool and scissors of Earnshaw I have not found in another source. The instrument that you can see on the right of the second and third images in the gallery above is called “a Chinese set-square” in Third International Handbook of Mathematics Education. Referring to a similar image as the third of the gallery, the left instrument is called gu, the other one a fu, or Chinese set-square. Another book says: “Fuxi holds the sun, with a golden bird in it , and usually a carpenter’s square ; Nüwa holds the moon with a toad in it, and often a pair of scissors or compasses “. So scissors or compasses.
The spool I have not come across, but indeed, the square in the very first image is different from the “Chinese set-square” and has a spool-like attachment.
I think we can conclude that Fuxi and Nüwa are no ‘proto Freemasons’ and perhaps Earnshaw is right in saying that the very suggestive image of the Rebis in an interpretation of the famous images of Fuxi and Nüwa. And since the couple built the world, instruments of architecture would be fitting. They also invented other crafts, so they were not just architects.
Still, it is suggestive that as early as 300 BCE, square and compasses were used as symbols by the philosopher whom we know as Mencius (372–289) saying (among other references):
The compass and square produce perfect circles and squares. By the sages, the human relations are perfectly exhibited. (3)
Earnshaw describes in his books how a Chinese Jesuit convert named Shen FuZong (1658 – 1691) travelled Europe and met some of the people of early modern Freemasonry and may well have had some influence with his information. The ‘Rebis route’ is interesting as well, as it appears obvious that whoever first drew the Rebis (under whatever name) may have known images of Fuxi and Nüwa (and maybe even more than just images). Alchemy and Hermetism had their influence on Freemasonry as well, so we have two possible routes how Chinese thinking and symbolism may have influenced early modern Freemasonry.
So in the end it may not even matter much of Fuxi and Nüwa are indeed (always) holding a square and compasses or not. Even if they are scissors and a spool, they may still be vaguely remembered in Masonic symbolism.