Temple Roof Ornaments

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on October 5, 2015.)

Roof ornaments at Hongyuan Temple, Shiyan, Shenzhen

Many temples feature whimsical characters on the ridges at each corner of the roof. These figures, like the yellow color of the roofs themselves, were generally reserved for imperial buildings, or for those who had obtained imperial permission.

Typically, there will be a man on a bird at the very front end, and a dragon of larger scale at the back end of the line. Between the two is an odd number of animals of various descriptions. The more animals there are, the more important the building is, with nine as a maximum.

The dragon represents the imperial authority. It may also provide protection against fire, as dragons are associated with water.

The man on the other end of the row, who appears to be sitting on a chicken, is a source of much speculation. He may be seated on a phoenix, himself being a Daoist immortal. In another story, he is an imperial officer, and the animals behind him represent the enforcement of discipline (eyes are watching!) to hold him to his responsibilities. They will eat him if he fails. Yet another version says he was an officer who failed to do his duty; having been chased onto the roof, he hanged himself from the very end. The figure reminds all of his shame.

One more story says he is actually an emperor. He is mounted on a chicken to remind him to remain humble, and keep him close to the common people.

It should be pointed out that since the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1911) there is no longer any imperial enforcement of the rules for roof decorations, and they may be seen on various types of buildings.

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