I like to enter China through Shanghai. In my mind this is ChinaLite; many people can speak English, they are used to tourists, and the city is a mash up of old and picturesque China and the brash new China. We’d given ourselves a day of indulgence, full blown tourist treatment, before traveling on. Our hotel was a five minute walk from the famous 16th century Garden of Peace and Comfort: more popularly known as the Yu garden, 豫园. We had a long breakfast and walked over to the garden.
In this SaturdayLite post I wanted to show you that the garden is not just a place for foreign tourists. Nothing in China is. Just as in India, the local crowd of tourists far outnumbers foreigners. I did a bit of guerilla photography, but the trio posing at the moon gate in the featured photo noticed us. We had a nice conversation: their sentences peppered with a few words of English, ours with a word or two of Putonghua. We established that they were from Shanghai, and we were from India. We walked through parts of the garden at roughly the same pace, and they continued to point out interesting things to us.
This moon gate is not typical, since there is a closed door behind it. But I like it for another reason: the lattice work on the door behind it (visible through the glass) is typically Chinese. When you look carefully at it you notice that the symmetry is very subtle. The top and bottom halves are not simply copies of each other. This subtlety, the refusal of obvious symmetries, is a hallmark of Chinese art and architecture.
So many more aesthetic alternatives become available when you reject symmetries. One example is in the undulating walls which separate different sections of the garden. When you look carefully above the gates which open in the walls, you notice that the undulations are the bodies of dragons; their heads are seen above the gates which pierce the wall. The one in the photo above shows a little toad below the dragon. Many animals in Chinese architecture seem to have symbolic value. The toad symbolizes longevity. Together with the dragon, it symbolized a long life full of good fortune. A very appropriate symbol for a garden of peace and comfort.
Bhutan’s traditional religious paintings appear in many places. Trucks bear the image of the lotus (padma or pema). The tiger, the snow lion, the dragon and the Yamantaka are seen in murals in temples as well as people’s homes. Dzongs, monasteries and temples contain magnificent murals. A sampling of these is in the gallery below (click to see a slideshow).
Yak in a mural in Thimphu, Bhutan
Tiger in a mural in Thimphu, Bhutan
Parable of the four friends, mural in Punkaha Dzong, Bhutan
Pheasant in a mural in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
Ducks in a mural in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
Black necked cranes in a mural in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
Kalachakra in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
Tiger and Snow Lion on the wall of a house in Phuentsholing, Bhutan
A truck in Phuentsholing, Bhutan
Mural showing Yamantaka in a house near Paro, Bhutan
Dragon mural on a house near Paro, Bhutan
Painting in a lhakhang on the route to Taktsang gompa, Bhutan
Dragons figure very prominently in Chinese culture. They are clearly the champion amongst animals, and may even beat humans. Emperors liked to associate themselves with dragons to make it clear to lesser forms of humans that they are superior. Chinese dragons do not seem to have wings. They are said to be creatures of water, although they are also associated with fire, as in the image above (from the nine-dragon screen in the Forbidden City).
The Pisou is a different kind of a dragon. It eats money and gives out nothing. So if you believe in Fengshui then you would like to keep a couple of them in the house, but make sure that they face outwards. Then they will bring in money. Never make the mistake of having them facing inwards, because then they eat up your money. You can recognize them in temples because people stuff money into their mouths. The fine and well-fed specimen shown above comes from the Confucius Temple (Kong Miao) near Yong He Gang.
The Bixi must be a gentle creature. A hybrid of a turtle and a dragon, it performs a turtle’s job of holding up pillars. But since it is also a dragon, it only holds up pillars with imperial edicts. This uncomplaining individual holds up a pillar inside the Kong Miao temple celebrating an emperor’s bloody victory in a war.
Hybridisation reaches an ultimate with the Kylin, which has a dragon’s head, a lion’s tail, the hooves of an ox, antlers of a deer and fish-scales all over its body. This magical animal is a powerful protector with its ability to repel evil and punish wickedness. The lion is an important beast, of course. A pair of them protects many of the gates in the Forbidden City, but it is a lesser creature. Low enough in the hierarchy that they can be seen alongside entrances to the fancier shops and restaurants all over the city.
Although the tiger is an important beast, it is hardly seen in decorations. The phoenix is the symbol of the empress, and although nearly as powerful as the dragon, is seen much less often. The heron figures prominently in imperial settings, symbolising patience and long life. The turtle, almost as important as the dragon, holds up pillars and heavy things, but also symbolises long life. So much so that turtle soup is supposed to be very good for you even today.