Episode 161: Chinese Gargoyle

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Today we will talk about about Chinese gargoyle that have been sitting on the top of roofs for hundreds and thousands of years.

The name for those Chinese gargoyle is called roof charms 檐兽. It is interesting that in both European architecture and Chinese architecture, they are both an important part. Gargoyle or originally from the French gargouille is designed to convey water from a ruff to prevent rainwater from running down masonry walls and eroding the mortar between. Similarly, Chinese gargoyle, usually made of Chinese glazed roof tile, is to protect wooden pillars and metal nails from water. Due to the structure of the ancient Chinese architecture, there are different Chinese gargoyle on different parts of the roof. There are WenShou 吻兽, DunShou 蹲兽, ChuiShou 垂兽, QiangShou 戗兽 , TaoShou 套兽 and XianRenZouShou 仙人走兽.

Actually we have talked about WenShou or WangShou 望兽in Ep 89 in our podcast, the ninth son of the dragon is called ChiWen 鸱吻. If you are interested, please check that episode.

Today we will mainly talked about XianRenZouShou 仙人走兽 placed on the ridge line of official buildings of the Chinese empire. A row of figures made of glazed ceramic form an outward marching procession along the ridges. There are usually an odd number of them. The more figures there are the more important the building is. There is one exception though that the Hall of Supreme Harmony 太和殿 in the Forbidden City 紫禁城 in Beijing has 10 figures, which is an even number and also the largest number.The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the location where the emperors of the Ming 明朝 and Qing 清朝 dynasties hosted their enthronement and wedding ceremonies.

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What are those figures?

At the head of the procession is a man riding a phoenix or a chicken which was based on Kalaviṅka in Sanskrit and 迦陵頻迦 in Chinese, an immortal creature with a human head and a bird’s torso with long flowing tail in Buddhism. There are different versions of the stories of the man, we will talk about it in our future episode.

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The first mythical beast on in the procession is dragon, which represents royalty and the emperor. Some version say it is ChiWen, the ninth son of the dragon we just mentioned. ChiWen looks like a hybrid of a fish and a dragon.

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The second mythical beast is Chinese phoenix represents noble people or more accurately noble men in the ancient times. It is a symbol of high virtue and grace. We have talked about Chinese phoenix in our Ep. 100. Please check it out.

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The third mythical beast is the lion, the king of all beasts that represents bravery and protector in temples.

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The fourth mythical beast is the heavenly horse that chasing after wind and the sun which represents the pride and exploration of new horizon.

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The fifth mythical beast is the sea horse that represents loyalty, bravery and wisdom.

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The sixth is Suan Ni 狻猊 , the fifth son of the dragon that we have talked about in our Ep. 89, a mythical creature that is quite and likes to sit down and can be found on the bases or at the feet of a Buddhist idols or a Buddhist incense burner. SuanNi looks like a hybrid of a lion and a dragon. It represents good omen.

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The seventh is Xia Yu 狎鱼, a mythical creature in the sea that it can summon wind and storm. Since many buildings were made of wood, Xia Yu can prevent fire with water.

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The eighth is Xie Zhi 獬豸, Chinese unicorn. A super wise mythical animal that understands people, which represents the law and justice.

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The ninth is Dou Niu 斗牛,a mythical creature similar to dragon but without horns. Similar to Xia Yu, it can control water. Since the name Niu means null, the figure looks like a hybrid of dragon and ox.

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The last one is called Hang Shen 行什 , which pronounced like “ranked tenth” in Chinese. It looks like a monkey person with wings and holding a mental pole. Some people say he is the God of Thunder. We have talked about God of Thunder in Chinese mythology in our episode 109. There are different images of God of Thunder throughout the history and a monkey person is one of them, which a good blessing that protect the architecture from lightning.

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