Wind and Rain

The planning of the imperial capital Peking melded traditional philosophy, yin and yang cosmic forces, religious thought, ancient mythology, and cosmology expounded in ancient texts. The Jade emperor's celestial abode was populated by stars and constellations.

There were originally four palaces corresponding to four cardinal directions: east, south, west and north. The Han dynasty historian and eunuch Sima Qian attempted to shuffle the celestial order of palaces by adding another called the Purple Palace (Zigong), its domicile being the North Star.

These five palaces adopted symbolic correlations of the five elements with cardinal directions and colors:

Wood (east, green)

Fire (south, red)

Earth (central, yellow)

Metal (west ,white)

Water (north, black)

There were symbolic correlations with the number five such as musical pitches, stages of human growth and human virtues. Some of the symbolism had a significant impact on the architectural and spatial dimensions in city planning and the construction of palaces like those in the Forbidden City.

You can see yang odd numbers everywhere. Five and nine are especially potent numbers: the five-claw dragon, the five bridges. You'll see buildings divided into nine bays. The large gates with protruding bosses on them run nine across and nine down, nine being the most auspicious yang number and metonymy for the emperor. Dragons are virtually synonymous with the son of heaven, but in the Chinese cosmic scheme of things, there are actually nine. Nine also looms large in the music of the court. Numerous state sacrificial songs in late imperial China were composed with nine or less pitches and within the range of a ninth.

Dragons were also thought to control the wind and rain which is what fengshui means (literally 'wind and water'). Fengshui did not just refer to wind or rain but to cosmic or primordial energy which moved through the veins and vessels of terrains and winding watercourses.

Those gothic-like roof creatures that grace the eaves of the buildings in the Forbidden City--some of the figures appearing more than once and the number of creatures indicating the buildings' importance.The Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest and tallest building in the Forbidden City and the first of the three ceremonial halls, has ten, not nine. 

I have always wanted to get hold of a book that would give me eyes to look at buildings. When I first visited the Palace Museum many years ago, I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe the buildings in which a surfeit of servants and their masters lived and worked. I am not an architect, but it has always been a hobby of mine to be able to read a building or a conglomeration of buildings like those in the Forbidden City. The stones in the Palace grounds can tell us much about the construction history, damage and reconstruction, extensions and repairs in times of prosperity and so on.

How does one go about reading something as gargantuan as the Forbidden City? The simple answer is to do it step by step. I could imagine spending a few days examining a cathedral in Europe, but the Forbidden City could take months. How to read the Forbidden City—it’s a book that needs to be written—would include examining the general orientation of the place, buildings and furniture, numbers and shapes, colours, construction, the roofs, columns, domes and ceilings, animal, bird and plant symbolism, and looking beyond the objects and images of the Palace to examine the history and symbolism of imperial dress, the ceremonial attire of the emperor, for example, or the dress of tributary envoys or the Mongol nobility.

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