The Nine-Dragon Screen Walls

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on January 11, 2015.)

Nine-dragon screen wall at Fayu Temple, Putuo Shan

A common feature at many temples is the screen wall. These may have started as simple privacy devices, to prevent casual passersby from looking into the courtyards of everything from small homes to palaces. The tradition is ancient; in the Analects [3:22], Confucius wrote, "The princes of the states have a special ritual screen at their door…"

But in time it came to be associated with the practice of feng shui, and it was said that ghosts (or evil spirits, or bad luck) could only travel in straight lines. This accounts for screen walls, zigzag bridges, and even curved roof eaves.

Naturally, screens belonging to the rich came to be elegantly decorated. One of the most impressive of this type is the Nine-Dragon Screen Wall. Famous examples can be found in various ancient cities: Beijing, Datong, and Xi'an, for example. One I especially like is at Fayu Temple on Putuo Shan (though it now stands against a blank wall, since the entrance was moved).

But why the prevalence of nine dragons, a count famously found in the name of the Hong Kong district named Kowloon (in Mandarin, Jiu Long), meaning "Nine Dragons"? It seems that nine--the largest number represented by one character in Chinese as in Arabic numbers, and associated with Imperial power--is also the number of sons of the mythical Dragon King. These nine sons, assigned different names in various traditions, are hybrids between the dragon and various other (natural) animals. Perhaps most famous is the bixi, the dragon/turtles often seen with steles on their backs. Other dragon sons can be found on temple roofs (fish), censers (lions), and bells (dogs).

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