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Decoding the Mystery of 'Nine'

An interesting feature of Chinese architecture, particularly imperial buildings, is the significance of the number nine. Although for most nine is an ordinary number, for ancient Chinese philosophers it carried a special philosophical meaning.

  The Occult Art of Numerology

In ancient Chinese philosophy, the heaven was Yang or masculine while the earth was Yin or feminine. Since numbers were considered a mystical part of the universe, the ancient Chinese regarded odd numbers as masculine and even numbers as feminine. Nine, as the largest single digit, took on the meaning of "ultimate masculinity" and implied the loftiest reverence for heaven. Therefore, the number nine symbolized the supreme sovereignty of the emperor who was the Son of Heaven.

For this reason, the Son of Heaven would naturally communicate and offer sacrifices to heaven from a world composed of nines. Hence, the number nine (or its multiples) is often employed in imperial structures and designs. Ancient palaces were usually designed as nine-section architectural complexes related to the number nine in number or size, with doors, windows, stairs or fixtures also multiples of nine or otherwise related.

  Nine and the Forbidden City

Nails on the imperial doors

The Forbidden City, located in the center of Beijing and constructed in the early 14th century, served as the imperial palace of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. The rectangular palace covers an area of some 720,000 square kilometers -- 961 meters in length and 760 meters in width. It has a total of 9,999 bays (room space; an area enclosed by four poles); the Gate Tower of Tian'anmen is nine by nine bays.

The number of gilded doornails on all major gates at the Forbidden City and imperial gardens are good examples of the nine phenomena. Each door, which is adorned with nine doornails, both vertically and horizontally (81 nails in total), represents the supreme power of the emperor. This is also the case with the Ming Underground Palace marble gates of the Dingling Mausoleum in Beijing with 81 (9 x 9) studs carved out of the stone.

The Donghuamen (East Flowery Gate) at the Forbidden City, however, is an exception. It has nine rows, each with only eight doornails. In the past the gate was called "Ghost Gate" and was used during royal funeral processions of the Qing Dynasty. Since even numbers belong to the Ying category, the gate had only 72 (8 x 9) doornails on the double doors.

There are four so-called Jao Lou (Corner Towers) guarding the four corners of the palace compound which used to be stationed by the emperor's guardsmen. The rare towers each have nine roof beams, 18 pillars and 72 ridgepoles. They are ingeniously built using the magic number nine. Each of the three numbers are either nines or multiples of nine, and the total of the three numbers is 9 + 18 + 72, which equals 99 -- a heavenly number reserved for the Forbidden City.

On the roof in the palace are nine mythical beasts called Wen . These auspicious animals were installed to protect the imperial home and ward off evil spirits and fire.

Nine dragon screen

The palace's Nine Dragon Screen is the biggest of the three famous Nine Dragons Screens (the other two are located in Datong, Shanxi Province and Beihai Park in Beijing respectively) in China. The screen was built in 1771 under Emperor Qianlong and is about 3.5 meters high and 30 meters long. The intricate construction consists of 270 pieces of glazed yellow, blue, white and purple tiles depicting nine surging dragons playing with pearls against a background of clouds and the sea. The arrangement -- nine dragons in the front and five on the edge -- implies the emperor's supremacy. The number nine, as the largest single digit, when combined with the number five (the center) represented the Son of Heaven.

The number nine was sometimes combined with the number five to represent imperial majesty. The Great Hall at Tian'anmen is nine bays wide by five bays deep. The imperial throne was named "nine and five" and the emperor was called the "honor of nine and five."

  Nine and Temple of Heaven

Another good place to see the occult art of numerology within architecture is at the Temple of Heaven where emperors of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties prayed for a good harvest in the spring and offered sacrifices to heaven in the winter.

Circular Mound Altar

The number nine is ubiquitous in the architecture of the sacrificial temple, especially at the Circular Mound Altar (Huanqiutan ). There are three tiers of staircases made of white marble, each with nine steps respectively on all four sides. The white marble balustrades around each tier equal nine or are multiples of nine. The upper terrace is made up of nine concentric rings of slabs with the innermost ring consisting of nine fan-shaped slabs; each outer ring consists of slabs arranged in increasing multiples of nine, i.e., the innermost circle consists of nine slabs, the second ring of 18 (2 x 9), the third of 27 (3 x 9), and so on. The final or ninth ring is made up of 81 or 9 x 9 slabs.

The sum of all diameters of the three tiers of the Circular Mound Altar is 45 zhang (an ancient unit of measurement). As a multiple of nine, 45 also symbolizes the supreme position of the emperor and heaven (5 x 9 = 45).

Along the steps up the Circular Mound Altar in the center is a round stone slab called Tianxinshi (Center-of-Heaven Stone). During each ceremony the shrine of god was placed on the Center-of-Heaven Stone to symbolize that god lived above the "nine heavens."

Seventeen-Arch Bridge

The world-famous Seventeen-Arched Bridge at the Summer Palace in Beijing is also related to the number nine. Counting the arches from either end of the bridge towards the center, you'll find the largest - the ninth arch-is in the middle.

But the number nine was not only used on buildings. A division of ancient feudal government officials was called "nine-level," and there were nine capital armies in the capital city. Annual festival feasts for the royal court of the Qing consisted of 99 kinds of foods, including fruit, succade (sweetmeats, or sugar preserves) and snacks. To celebrate an emperor's birthday activities such as acrobatic performances and the lighting of the eternity spring lamps were featured. Ideally, there were 9 x 9 (81) forms of entertainment called the "nine-nine big celebration" to wish the emperor good luck and a long life.

Gradually, the number "nine" became exclusively reserved for the emperor and, as a result, ordinary people, including high-ranking officials and royal family members, were prohibited from using the number "nine" in daily life.