Chinese Gate Piers
A Chinese nursery rhyme goes something like this, 芒鈧揂 little crying boy, sitting on the gate pier, eagerly wants a bride芒鈧γ⑩偓聺
The Chinese gate pier 茅鈥斅ヂ⒙?in question is the embodiment of culture, embracing the memory of old Beijing, of quadrangles and of many Beijingers芒鈧劉 childhood.
The gate pier, a projecting feature of quadrangles, is the outer part of men zhen shi(bearing stone of a door in traditional Chinese folk house) which supports the doorframe and the door spindle.
Though the priority of a door is to keep the house safe, in ancient China, to decorate it was an important way to show the house owners芒鈧劉 social status, which contributed to the diversified gate pier culture.
Usually made of bluestone, most gate piers in Beijing are 85 cm in width at the maximum and 25 cm in height at a minimum.
Among various construction styles, the mainstream of gate piers was the drum-shaped and the box-shaped. The former, as its name, is designed as a drum in shape, featuring rich cultural metaphors. The latter, a cuboid, has three sides outside the door with simple but propitious reliefs.
Men zhen shi 茅鈥斅ε锯€⒚嘎?is believed to be the origin of the gate pier and can be traced to ancient architecture during the Han Dynasty (206B.C.-220A.D.). The development of gate piers was greatly boosted by the construction of ancient Chinese capitals, such as the Middle Capital of Liao Dynasty (960-1127) and Dadu of Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
The golden age of gate piers was the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644-1911), during which the governments made plans for urban construction and advocated the self-built courtyard.
Officials of different ranks constructed mansions while common citizens built houses of various sizes. As time rolled on, gate piers not only served as a part of the door, they also indicate the social rank of the house owner as well as his personal cultivation.
The earliest surviving gate piers in Beijing located in front of the Altar of the Earth and Harvests in the Sun Yat-sen Park, which is said to be the heritage of Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) Dynasties.
Gate piers in Beijing can be classified into six types according to the house owners芒鈧劉 stations: gate piers of royal families, of military and civilian officials, of wealthy families, of literary families, of shops and of average families.
Lion-shaped majestic gate piers were exclusive to royal families, which were made of marble. Military and civilian families laid drum-shaped gate piers in front of their doors, and in these gate piers were some designs engraved to show their official ranks.
Similarly, drum-shaped gate piers were also used by wealthy families, in which, differently, auspicious designs were carved. Adapted into bookcases, box-shaped gate piers were also the choice of lettered families, implying the owners芒鈧劉 great knowledge.
Designs carved in the gate piers are varied. The most commonly seen are the auspicious designs such as kylin (an animal in Chinese mythology), ruyi (an S-shaped ornamental object, a symbol of good luck), and xiangyun (auspicious clouds).
Designs of longevity and health are also frequently engraved in gate piers, like fu shou shuang quan which consists of bats and peaches and a crane and a turtle.
Each gate pier carries a story or a message from its owner, which develops a unique culture integrating Chinese folk stories, homophonic and auspicious culture.
Marble-made lion-shaped gate piers set by royal families are in pairs, a male on the left and a female on the right. The male one steps upon an embroidery ball with its right claw to represent power, which is called lion rolling the embroidery ball. Under the left claw of the female one is a baby lion, meaning that the family will have many offspring.
Some families place two lion sculptures, an adult and a baby one, on one gate pier. 芒鈧揕ion芒鈧?in Chinese sounds shi which is the same pronunciation as 芒鈧揼eneration芒鈧?in Chinese. Then two lions in Chinese can be read shi shi, meaning 芒鈧揻rom generation to generation芒鈧? The message conveyed by this gate pier is in the hope of living together from generation to generation.
Peach in China is the symbol of longevity. As folklore goes, Xi Wang Mu (a character in Chinese mythology, Queen Mother of the West) lives forever after eating longevity peaches.
Bai Yuan Shou Tao (the white monkey and longevity peaches) tells a story: The mother of the white monkey in Yunmengshan (a mount in Beijing) fell ill and wanted to eat peaches. The white monkey was a filial son and went to steal peaches of immortality. Fairy Sun Zhenren who was guarding the peach orchard caught him, but he was moved by the monkey芒鈧劉s filial piety and let it go. To repay, the recovered mother let her son send a book on the art of war to fairy Sun. Since then on, Bai Yuan Shou Tao is endowed with wishes of longevity.
Kylin is an animal in Chinese mythology. There are two sorts of gate piers featuring kirin. The one is a kylin turning round its head and opening its mouth. This kylin gazes into the sky, majestically having every appearance of god, which is to pray for the peace, order and prosperity of the country.
The other is based on a story about kylin: One night, Confucius saw a flash of light rising into the sky. At dawn, he encountered a boy by the river beating a kylin with stones. Confucius rushed to cover the kylin with his cloth and dressed its wound. The kylin licked his hands and gave him three books through its mouth. Gate piers with this carved design on are to wish good luck in imperial examinations.
Gate piers are a unique vehicle for Chinese culture. They marked down folk stories, history and the hopes of their owners.
Bearing all kinds of wishes and dreams, gate piers stand in front of doors, guarding families and witnessing one age passing after another.