Fives and Nines

Beijing, China. April 2013.

Of the Ying and the Yang, the Yang is held to be the positive. It is also the hard, the active, the logical and the male. And the odd. Numbers, that is. Our docent tells us that because they are Yang, the Chinese value the odd numbers from one to nine highly, the numbers greater than nine being some combination of the numbers less than ten. In particular, they value the number five because it is in the middle of the odd numbers from one to nine, and the middle is the most stable, most true position. So the gates to the Forbidden City all have five openings, even if you can only see three of them from a distance. There are five sets of stairs and five bridges over the rivers, but no one walks on the middle path. The middle path is the path of the star, the path of the emperor.

The Chinese also have a special reverence for the number nine, because, well, because it is the biggest of the odd numbers and everyone loves a superlative. Each of the five sets of doors in any gate in the Forbidden City is studded with nine rows of nine gold studs.

We worked our way through the fives and nines, among the thousands of visitors, until our docent pointed up and showed us the only occurrence of a ten. The corners of the roofs are adorned with little animal figures, more like action figures than gargoyles, little bipedal animals that face out in neat lines. The more animals, the more important the building, the more important the people in the building. At most, there can be nine animal figures. Except on the roof of the throne room. The throne room is the highest building in the Forbidden City, raised on a dias, its nine doors closed. At each corner of the roof, ten animals look out over the crowd. It’s hard to see from the ground, but I think the tenth might be seated in a chair.

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