The four celestial beasts are originated from China, to be precise it is from Chinese constellation. It is already date back to at least the second century BC. In Chinese constellation, the sky is divided into 5 regions: East, South, West, North and Center. Each cardinal region is associated with one celestial beast, while the center is associated with the Emperor. The East direction is associated with the Azure Dragon. South is associated with the Vermillion Bird. West is associated with the White Tiger. North is associated with the Black Tortoise.
In Japan, the Azure Dragon of the East is called Seiryuu (called Qīng Lóng in China). Seiryuu is associated with the season spring, the color blue or green, and the element wood. Seiryu is powerful and arrogant.1 In Kyoto there are temples dedicated to each of these guardian spirits. There are several temples dedicated to Seiryuu, one of them is Kiyomizu Temple in Eastern Kyoto. Before the entrance of the Kiyomizu Temple there is a statue of the dragon which is said to drink from the waterfall within the temple complex at nighttime. Hence each year a ceremony to worship Seiryuu is held.2
In Japan, the Vermilion Bird of the South is called Suzaku (called Zhū Què in China). Suzaku is associated with the season summer, the color red, and the element fire. Suzaku can make small seeds grow into giant trees.1 The Vermilion bird is an elegant and noble bird in both appearance and behavior, it is very selective in what it eats and where it perches. Suzaku is portrayed with radiant feathers with many different hues of vermilion. Suzaku is often mistaken for Fenghuang, the Chinese Phoenix, due to similarities in appearance. Fenghuang is legendary ruler of birds associated with the Chinese Empress in the same way the dragon is associated with the Emperor, while the Vermilion Bird is a mythological spirit creature of the Chinese constellations.3 Fenghuang is said to be made up of the beak of a rooster, the face of a swallow, the forehead of a fowl, the neck of a snake, the breast of a goose, the back of a tortoise, the hindquarters of a stag and the tail of a fish. Its feathers contain the five fundamental colors: black, white, red, blue and yellow.4 The color of feather of Suzaku and Fenghuang are different, so you can distinguish them by looking at its color.
Byakko is the Japanese name of the White Tiger of the West (Bái Hǔ is the Chinese name). Byakko is associated with the season autumn, the color white, and the element metal. Byakko observes the world with clairvoyance, but is a fierce warrior in battle.1 Tigers represent ferocious defense like metal or steel.5 It was said that the white tiger would only appear when the Emperor ruled with absolute virtue, or if there was peace throughout the world. In the Chinese five elements, the color white represents the west. Hence the white tiger became a mythological guardian of the west.6
Genbu is the Japanese name of The Black Tortoise of the North (Xuán Wǔ is the Chinese name). Genbu is associated with the season winter, the color black, and the element water. Says Derek Walters: “One of the Celestial Emblems, the symbol of longevity and wisdom. It is said that its shell represents the vault of the universe. A common symbol for longevity is the Tortoise and Snake, whose union was thought to have engendered the universe. The reason why tortoise symbolism has been superseded by the Black Warrior as the emblem of the North, is probably due to the fact that ‘tortoise’ is a term of abuse in China.” 7 In the artwork, tortoise is often made together with snake. The ancient Chinese believed that there is no male tortoise, thus the female tortoise had to mate with other species, which is snake. 7 In Chinese culture, especially under the influence of Taoism, the shell of tortoise is the symbol of heaven and earth. The upside is the heaven and the underside is the earth. The shell of tortoise is also represents an armor, that is why Genbu is also known as the Black Warrior.7
SEASONS & CARDINAL DIRECTION
There is connection between seasons and cardinal directions. It is based on the direction of the handle of Big Dipper on a certain season. Since the North Star is the star most in line with the Earth’s axis, it becomes the “pivot of the sky”, with other stars and constellations appearing to revolve around it. The handle of the Big Dipper points to the four directions as we go through the seasons of the year. In the Spring the handle of the Big Dipper points East, in Summer it points South, in the Fall to the West, and in the Winter to the North.8 But we know that the stars finish their rotation everyday, 23 hours 56 minutes to be exact. Therefore, there must be a certain time when the observation is done. Based on a simulation I did on certain software, the observation is most likely to be done on midnight.
ELEMENT & CARDINAL DIRECTION
“As wood energy describes the feeling of the sun rising in the east we can also add the direction of the east to wood energy. In this way fire is associated with the south and the midday sun, metal with the west and sunset, and water with the north.”9 We can get the relationship between midday sun and south with looking at the rotation of Earth. Due to the tilt of rotation of Earth relative to the Sun (23.5°), in the area located more than 23.5°N the midday sun is always located at the South. China is located between 18° and 54°N. Therefore, in most area of China, the midday sun is always located at the South.
The early record of the four celestial beasts that ever found is a tomb in China. In 1987, a tomb was found at Xishuipo (西水坡) in Puyang, Henan Province. There were images of the Azure Dragon, the White Tiger, and the Big Dipper created with clam shell and bones. It is believed that the tomb belongs to the Neolithic Age, dating to about 6,000 years ago.10 In Japan, the early records are date back to Asuka period (600 – 710 AD). We can find the image of the four celestial beasts on the tomb walls at Takamatsuzuka 高松塚 in Nara7 and in Kitora Tomb in Asuka village. In Kitora Tomb, the four celestial beasts were drawn on four sides of the tomb. Each beast was drawn on its corresponding direction: Seiryuu on the East, Suzaku on the South, Byakko on the West and Genbu on the North. The ceiling of Kitora was painted with remarkably detailed stars, constellations and Sei Shuku (moon stations). Based on investigation on 2001, the stars were painted on gold leaf. 11 In Kitora Tomb, the four celestial beasts on the four sides of the tomb represent four elements: wood, fire, metal and water. The missing element is earth, which is represented by the Emperor. It seems that the one who lied on the tomb is the representation of the element earth. Moreover, the element earth is associated with the direction center, it match with the corpse which was put on the center of the tomb.
What I think is interesting about ancient people is they want to know the how one thing relates with the others which may looks like they have no relation at all. Just like the relationship of elements with directions, seasons, human organs (I did not talk about it in this paper). They even have relationship between elements and medicine. My question is what they will do after they know the relationship. Kyoto is said to be protected by the four celestial beasts due to its surrounding topography matches with the topographical representation of the four beasts on the respective direction. They also chose Tokyo as their capital based on the matching topography. But actually, is it true? I find it hard to believe it and just think of it as a superstitious thing. Maybe it is just to make them feel safer by being protected by something. I think it is the same as their believe in Kami. They just believe them with faith. My negative hypothesis is, maybe they did not believe in the four celestial beasts. They just chose a match area and thought that just in case that they exist, they can protect the capital. And if they are not exists, no harm will be gain.
Setsu Gekka – Gekka no Kenshi Fansite, “The Four Gods,” http://spirits.kaillera.ru/tckb/setsugekka/storyline/shishin_main.htm 2 Wikipedia, “Azure Dragon,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azure_Dragon 3 Wikipedia, “Vermilion Bird,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vermilion_Bird 4 Wikipedia, “Fenghuang,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fenghuang 5 Kitty Lark, “Shrine to the Four Gods,” http://alimystic.0catch.com/yyhiy/godshrine.html 6 Wikipedia, “White Tiger (Chinese astronomy),” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Tiger_(Chinese_astronomy) 7 Mark Schumacher, “Shijin (Shishin),”
http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/ssu-ling.shtml 8 Clair C. Cunneen, “Travelling with the Big Dipper,” http://www.satyacenter.com/traveling-with-the-big-dipper?img=1 9 “The Five Elements,” http://www.chienergy.co.uk/fiveelements.htm 10 Wikipedia, “Four Symbols (Chinese constellation),” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Symbols_(Chinese_constellation) 11 Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara, “Kitora Kofun,” http://www2.gol.com/users/stever/kitora.htm