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The Mysteries of the Palace Roofs


The roofs of the Chinese Palace buildings deserve special attention. Originally the roofs were made mostly of wood, and to prevent the tiles from sliding, wooden nails were used. However, without lightning rods, the palace roof would easily catch fire. Therefore, some alchemists suggested that symbols of the fish-tail star could be installed on the roof to prevent fire. Later, these symbols were replaced by glazed tiles which were shaped like lucky animals, some of these imaginary.

On the roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, there is an immortal riding a phoenix, followed by a dragon, a phoenix, a lion, a heavenly steed, a sea horse, a suanni, a yayu, a xiezhi, a douniu and a hangshi. This was actually the fixed pattern for the order of the animals. Significantly, the number of animals on the roof shows the seniority of the building, which in turn referred to the seniority of the owner. The greater the number, the higher the positon. As we know, the Hall of Supreme Harmony was the throne hall, so it had the most animals on the roof. No other buildings in the country should have more animals on the roof.

The other buildings in the Forbidden City are less important, therefore, the number of small animals on the roof are reduced. The reduction would always start from the rear, first hangshi, then douniu and so on. For example, the Palace of Heavenly Purity where the emperor lived and dealt with state affairs, was just after the Hall of Supreme Harmony in importance, therefore only hangshi was taken away. The Palace of Earthly Tranquility, the residence of the Ming Empresses and the wedding room of the Emperors, was even less important, therefore, hangshi, douniuand xiezhi were missing from the roof.

The animals on the roof were all auspicious characters in Chinese myths, used here to protect the emperors and bring good luck to the palace and ensure the stability of the country. More interestingly, the roofs, more specifically the glazed tiles, for most of the imperial palaces are yellow, and yellow has long been used as an imperial colour. The ancient Chinese believed that the world was made up of five elements, namely, metal, wood, water, fire and earth, and yellow represents the earth, which for a long time was considered the center of the universe by our ancestors.

However, the roofs for the Imperial Library (Wen Yuan Ge), east of the Gate of Supreme Harmony, where the famous 36,000 volume Si Ku Quan Shu was kept are black glazed tiles. Black also has something to do with the theory of five elements, representing water, and it thought to be able to prevent fire from destroying the library.

The South Three Abodes (Nan San Suo) were the residences for the Qing princes, located near the Imperial Kitchen and Tea House. The roofs are green, strictly following the rule for the living quarters of the princes.

Color, like the animals on the roofs of the imperial palace, also indicated the social status of the owners.

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