These ornamental pillars here in front of Tian'anmen are made of
white marble. In Chinese, they are called Huabiao, and they are a common feature at most
of China's ancient buildings. A stone column rests on a round or octagonal base and is
surrounded by a railing. Dragons are carved into the column and at the top a life-size
stone animal keeps watch.
legends, the first such pillars were used about 4,000 years ago when Yao and Shun were the
country's rulers. At that time, they were made of wood, not marble, and they weren't just
ornamental. They were landmarks used for traveling. Later, Yao and Shun found another use
for the pillars. They were used as suggestion boxes of a sort. The common people could
post comments and advice for their ruler on the poles. However, with the establishment of
the feudal system, suggestions from the common people were replaced by carvings of
dragons, a symbol of royal power.
A more plausible
theory about the origin of this type of pillar focuses on an ancient instrument for
measurement. In the Spring and Autumn Period, more than 2,500 years ago, before a building
was constructed, the designers erected a pole. This pole, called "Biao" in
Chinese, cast a shadow on the ground which helped the designers determine the proper
directions. Since many construction projects lasted over long periods of time and a
durable "compass" was needed, the pole was made of stone. When the building was
completed, the stone pole was incorporated into the structure.
There are some of
the idiosyncrasies of the Huabiao here at Tian'anmen. The animals on the top of these
pillars are looking away from the palace. Behind the gate there is another set of pillars,
and the animals on those pillars are facing inward, looking towards the gate. Why the
difference? Well, the two sets of pillars were erected during the Ming Dynasty, about 500
years ago, and the strategic positioning of these animal heads reflects the hopes the
populace had for their leader.
The columns inside
the palace facing the gate admonish the emperor to, at times, leave his palace and go out
among the common people, so as to better understand them. The name given those pillars
reflects this challenge. They are called "Wangjunchu" which can be translated as
"Expecting his Majesty to go on inspection."
In contrast, the
pillars here outside the gate are called "Wangjungui" which translates as
"Looking forward to the emperor's return." They are supposed to be a reminder to
the emperor that, after he enjoys touring his realm, he must return to the palace to
attend to the affairs of the government. Even back then, an emperor's subjects tried to
put a limit to the amount of time he spent on vacation.