Text from the book
Beijing and Xi'an

Bronze Lion in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony

Photo © the author, Charles Schoenfeld
Note: This photo does not appear in the book

Joseph Campbell, one of the world's foremost interpreters of myth, outlined the patterns and archetypes that are found throughout mythological storytelling. In his work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell identified a force (often personified by a character) known as a "threshold guardian," which a hero is likely to encounter when attempting to enter a zone of magnified power. Apparently, the artists and architects who designed the Forbidden City in Beijing drew their inspiration from some of the same sources as the storytellers of old. In the Forbidden City, there are seven pairs of bronze lions placed in front of seven different palace gates. In addition to showing off the wealth and luxury of the court, these threshold guardians serve to impress upon visitors the dignity and importance of the emperor, making it clear that his palace is a "zone of magnified power."

The lions in the Forbidden City were cast during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Six pairs are gilded bronze, such as the one shown here. The pair in front of the Gate of Supreme Harmony are plain bronze--a darker shade of gray, as opposed to the polished metallic color of this one--and are the largest, at 4.36 meters tall. In each pair, the lion in the east is a male with an ornamented sphere--possibly meant to symbolize the world--under his right paw, and the one on the west is a female with a lion cub under her left paw.

This particular lion stands in front of Taihedian, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which housed the main imperial throne of the Ming and Qing Dynasty emperors. There the emperor would receive court officials, dispatch generals to distant battles, and celebrate festivals such as the Chinese New Year, the Winter Solstice, the emperor's birthday, and ascensions to the throne. Twenty-four emperors were crowned in Beijing during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and all of these ceremonies took place in Taihedian.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony was built in the year 1406. It has been renovated seven times since then, and the current structure dates from 1697, when it was rebuilt during the reign of Emperor Kang Xi. It was once the tallest structure in Beijing--there was an imperial edict forbidding the construction of any taller buildings in the civilian parts of the city. It is still, to this day, the largest wooden building in China, standing 37.44 meters tall, 63.96 meters wide, and 37.2 meters deep. The roof is supported by 72 pillars arranged in six rows. A traditional method of calculating a building's size is to count the space delimited by four pillars as a "room," and by this method, Taihedian is 55 "rooms" in area. Its floor is paved with golden bricks, baked for 136 days and then polished by immersion in tung oil, and nearly every surface is decorated with carved or gilded dragons, symbols of the emperor.

In the center of the hall, enclosed by six thick, gilded columns, sits the imperial throne. This imposing seat is made of sandalwood, and rests on a two-meter-high dais. The throne is surrounded by symbolic artwork, including two bronze crane-shaped candlesticks, and incense burners in the shape of a column, an elephant, and a mythical beast called a luduan.

The coffered ceiling above the throne is exquisitely decorated. At its center are two dragons playing with a giant pearl. The pearl was said to have mystical properties--it could detect whether the person seated on the throne was a genuine descendant of the legendary Yellow Emperor, Huang Di. Should anyone but the proper emperor sit upon the throne, the pearl would supposedly drop from its mount and land upon the usurper's head, killing him.

During the last emperor's coronation on this throne, the three-year-old child monarch kept crying, "I want to go home." Court officials took this as a dark omen, and indeed, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown within three years.

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Text © 2000 Hugh Lauter Levin Associates. All rights reserved.