These ornamental pillars here in front of Tiananmen 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.
According to 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 Tiananmen. 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.
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