Monday, 31 December 2012

guardians at the gate

I explained the origin of the ancient Chinese custom of pasting posters of ‘door gods’ on the front door of a house in Leaping Dragon, but for my final post of 2012 I’ve chosen to compare how these ‘gods’ are depicted on various public buildings in the area where I live. The buildings described are the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall (left in the two pictures below), the Hau Ku Shek Ancestral Hall (centre) and the local Tin Hau temple (right).

I assume that these painted figures are repainted from time to time, and if you compare the figures that guard the two ancestral halls, you will see that those guarding the Hau Ku Shek Ancestral Hall appear to have been repainted quite recently, but all the various elements of the designs, from the oddly effeminate gesture of the hands not holding a weapon to the details of the costumes, are replicated in both cases, albeit with a degree of artistic licence involved, particularly in the faces.

This leads me to assume that a template exists for painting door gods on wooden doors, and that both painters followed it. I assume too that what we see today is a constantly retouched and repainted version of the work of the anonymous artist who painted the original figures. The template would also prescribe the weaponry carried, a Chinese halberd or ji and a broadsword by Yuchi Jingde, and a pole sword and a longsword by Qin Shubao.

However, if such a template ever existed, it wasn’t followed by whoever was responsible for the door gods guarding the Tin Hau temple. Only the ethnicity of the guards (Qin Shubao was obviously Han Chinese, while Yuchi Jingde appears to have been of Turkic origin—and the name isn’t Chinese) and the weapons they hold are the same. But the temple version of Yuchi Jingde is vastly more fearsome than his counterparts at the two ancestral halls, and the stance of Qin Shubao is more confrontational.

Three versions of Yuchi Jingde.

Three versions of Qin Shubao.

Finally, here is the cheap commercial version. The two posters are mirror images of each other; the only differences are in the overprinted facial hair. However, such posters are at least as effective as the elaborately painted door gods guarding temples and ancestral halls. And at least as effective as Janus, the Roman god of doorways and entrances, after whom next month is named. Janus is said to have had two heads, allowing him to look both ways at once, but he is unlikely to have done a better protection job than Yuchi Jingde and Qin Shubao, who have tirelessly been guarding Chinese homes from evil spirits and the harbingers of bad luck for almost 1,400 years and seem as popular as ever.


I will conclude with a traditional Cantonese salutation, appropriate at the change of years: lung ma ching san (may you have the strength of a dragon or horse).

13 comments:

  1. your observations are really interesting. Apart from the description of the tradition, the pictures also help readers from other places to understand the comparison. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks for commenting. Look out for more posts on Chinese customs in the future.

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  2. Nice observation Dennis. I suppose these posters are prints from existing templates. When I was a student of art school, I went to Guizhou province collected some woodblock prints from countryside. Some of them with different colors combination, but all come from same templates. But I have to admit, I don't know much about Chinese folk art, even though I like many of them. I agree, the modern commercial versions all look so cheesy.

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    1. Thanks for this interesting and useful information Yunyi. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but the building of an ancestral hall required the permission of the emperor, so these buildings were regarded as elitist by Mao Zedong. Many in China were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but those in Hong Kong survived unscathed and are in good condition. As well as the painted door gods, these buildings feature exquisitely painted friezes, wonderfully intricate plaster mouldings, elaborately carved roof beams and bizarre ceramic figures of mythical animals.

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    1. And the same to you Yunyi, or as we say in Hong Kong: “kung hei fat choi”.

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    2. I always want to ask foreigners this question: do you like Cantonese better or Mandarin? I personally found Cantonese extremely beautiful if it spoken by "right" persons. And I really don't think Mandarin sounds good, not even as good as my Sichuan dialect.

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    3. I agree with you Yunyi. I find Cantonese to be very musical, and the glottal stops make it more interesting than Putonghua, which has what I consider to be very muddy vowels (cf. the final vowel in the names Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu). However, a lot of the Cantonese spoken where I live is very slangy and informal and thus less pleasant on the ear.

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    4. I can't stand Cantonese (I speak Hokkien) ... and I loathe Mandarin only because I can't get the 2nd and 3rd tones correct when there are switches. It does not pay to be a tone deaf Chinese person. hahahah Happy New Year to you both.

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    5. I can’t really comment. I’m aware of Hokkien, and where it is spoken, but I wouldn’t recognize it if I heard it. But you are certainly right to say that being tone deaf would be the ultimate handicap for a Chinese, whatever dialect they speak. I have enough trouble with the tones in Cantonese, and I’m not tone deaf.

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  4. So much detail and colour, I quite like how they do their artwork (although these may be templates) most of the time.
    I smiled reading your comment to Yun Yi because I obviously would not be able to tell the differences but in my ignorance, and lack of knowledge here, is Cantonese and Mandarin the same language but direct dialects then? Or is it a different language altogether?

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    1. Cantonese and Mandarin (Putonghua) are close to being mutually unintelligible Rum, although they do share the same written language. Both could be considered dialects.

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