As with each World Showcase pavilion, the government of the 'host country', in this case the People's Republic of China, works with the Imagineers to determine various aspects of each pavilion. More than anything, World Showcase offers each member country a ready made visitor bureau and travel agency and is a great way to introduce guests to their country; as such, it pays to pay attention to detail.
Visitors to the China Pavilion can't help but be amazed at the specific style and subtle touches in this pavilion; one of the more special items are the Imperial roof decorations. Imperial roof decorations, roof charms, or roof figures signified official government buildings up to 1911 (C.E.) in imperial China. While each instance of these figures may vary, there are some constants in their appearance and processional order:
1. At the end, or back, of the procession a dragon/hanging beast is featured;
2. At the beginning, or front, of the procession a man or immortal is perched upon a Chinese phoenix/hen;
3. In between the two a number of mythical beasts connect the two and are usually an odd number of beasts;
4. The number of beasts signifies the importance of the building with the maximum number of nine beasts;
5. The most important buildings in the empire would feature another immortal directly in front of the phoenix at the end of the procession.
It's here where things start to become a mess due to the content in Alex Wright's 'The Imagineering Field Guide to Epcot' and the internet's propensity to cut and paste ad infinitum. On page 87 in the Quick Takes section of the World Showcase - China portion of the book readers find the following statement:
Decorative figures on rooftops have specific meaningsOn the whole we find the Field Guides to be indispensable but this item above leaves us scratching our heads and wondering why it was included in the text and what Wright's source is. (My, how we'd love an edition of the Field Guides with source information.) Why shouldn't we take this statement at face value? First of all, the most often quoted texts are Juliet Bredon's Peking - A Historical and Intimate Description of its Chief Places of Interest (1921) and Charles Alfred Speed William's Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives (1941). Each of these texts tells a similar tale. Bredon's states a cruel despot from the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 B.C.), Emperor Min, was overthrown by his subjects, hung from the eaves of a building, and left to die from exposure to the elements. Furthermore, to remind residents of his evil ways an effigy was placed on prominent buildings as a warning to others and animals placed in back to prevent him from escaping his predicament. (Sound familiar? Check out page 87 of the Field Guide.) William's exposition is much the same only this time it is Prince Min of the Chi'i state who is defeated in battle and left to a similar fate. The residents of the state place him in effigy atop a hen with a dragon watching over and it isn't until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 C.E.) or more than 1,500 years later that the interspersed beasts are added.
The man seated on the hen on the roof of Nine Dragons Restaurant is Prince Min, a 3rd-century ruler who was hanged for his cruelty. It is customary to install an effigy of him as a warning to other tyrants. The various animals are placed there to keep him from escaping. Wright, Alex. The Imagineering Field Guide to Epcot at Walt Disney World. New York: Disney Editions, 2006 (first edition).
Yikes. Are we to assume the most powerful dynasty throughout time was willing to adopt a practice from another family some 1,500 years later in the Forbidden City especially one that featured ruler killed at the hands of his subjects? That doesn't make much sense to the editorial staff here nor to many others. What does make sense is an alternate explanation and one that makes more sense given the figures prominence in the Forbidden City and their inclusion at Epcot's China Pavilion.
The phoenix, or Feng Huang, is the greatest of all birds and symbolizes peace and prosperity. When combined with the dragon it comprises the totality of the universe and is the ying to the dragon's yang. The feng huang is also a messenger to and from the heavens and could be interpreted as the emperor's direct line of contact. If we consider other cues from the Forbidden City, this explanation is much more in line with the overall vibe of the pavilion and should certainly inspire someone to research it more thoroughly. What's most disappointing though, is the Field Guide's quick embrace of the Prince Min story and the fact it didn't connect the dots especially when it states the unique marriage of Phoenix and Dragon directly above its section on poor Prince Min on page 87.
What do you think?
These photographs were taken by the author in May and October 2010.
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