Roof Decoration

Image shows Imperial roof decoration of a minor building at the Forbidden City.

Chinese imperial roof decoration or roof charms or roof-figures (檐獸 / 檐兽; Pinyin: yán shòu) or (走獸 / 走兽; Pinyin: zǒu shòu) or (蹲獸 / 蹲兽; Pinyin: Dūn shòu) was only allowed on official buildings of the empire. Chinese roofs are typically of the hip roof type, with small gables. Variant versions are still widespread in Chinese temples and has spread to the rest of East Asia and parts of Southeast Asia.

The highest possible status imperial roof decoration would have a man riding a bird, nine beasts, immortal figure, and a dragon.

multiple gables with decorations
Along the unions between the roof panels, near the corner, a row of small figures is placed. These are often made of glazed ceramic and form an outward marching procession. Here we see the imperial yellow glaze reserved for the emperor.

At the tail of the procession will be an imperial dragon, representing the authority of the state.

At the head of the procession will be a man riding a Phoenix, one legend suggests that this represents a minon of the emperor who grew greedy for power and was hanged from the roof gable for treason. Another version of this figurine is an immortal riding a fenghuang-bird or qilin. Yet another intrepretation is that this is a person serving the emperor, being watched by the following beasts.

In between will be mythical beasts, usually an odd number of them. The mythical beasts are set to pounce upon the man and devour him should he stray from performing his duties with faithfulness and rectitude.

In the illustration at the top there are only three beasts; the number of beasts indicating the importance of the duties performed within the building or within the courtyard protected by a gate. The maximum number of beasts is nine, including evil-dispelling bull, courageous goat-bull (獬豸), wind- and storm-summoning fish (狎魚), mythical lion (狻猊), auspicious seahorse, heavenly horse, lion, and chiwen (鴟吻, a son of dragon). Note the addition of an immortal guardian (行什, hangshi) in front of the dragon holding onto a sword like a cane.

These examples are found within the Imperial Palace Museum of the Forbidden City, Beijing, China. Other examples can be found on functional structures such as gates and baracks of the Great Wall of China.

With the fall of the empire (in 1911 C.E.) such decorations are now seen on commercial structures and tourist boats.

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