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The Water-Power Clock

17 September 2007

Known as the Garden of Gardens (万园之园) for possessing extensive collection of buildings and gardens and artworks, the Garden of Perfect Clarity (圆明园) once covered an area of 3.5 km², almost 5 times the size of the Forbidden City, and is said to be the biggest royal garden in history and the largest museum the world ever had.

Situated in the northwest part of Beijing between the Tsinghua and Beijing universities, it is built in the 18th and early 19th centuries on the principles of traditional Chinese architectural theories and practices which has thousands years of history.

Within this marvelous estate, there was a corner with a group of European-style buildings and gardens, commonly referred as the Western Terrace (西洋楼). Unlike the rest of the 95 percent of the Perfect Clarity primarily constructed with timbers and bricks, this European corner was built of stones entirely.

Within this stone wonderland, there was an imposing building called the Hall of Tranquil Sea (海晏堂) which is the centrepiece of this Western domain; in front of the Tranquil Sea there was a fan-shaped pond with a fountain in the middle; by the pond in the both south and north shores there were twelve alters; on the alters there were twelve figures representing twelve Chinese zodiac animals (生肖).

Each zodiac figure had a matching animal head made of bronze (青铜兽首) and a human body crafted with stone, complete with a water pipe in the hollow space of the torso.

In the traditional Chinese system, the twelve zodiacs are not just used to mark the year, the month and the day, but the time as well, and it was exactly what these zodiac symbols stood by the Tranquil Sea for.

At each zodiac hour (时辰, two hours), a corresponding zodiac figure would spew out water from its mouth. By the due noon, 12 zodiacs spray hosed the pond all together. Thus this set of time-conscious fountain was dubbed the “Water-power Clock“.

The splendid Garden of Gardens was, sadly, looted and then burned to the ground by the Anglo-French military arsonists who invaded China in 1860 in the name of teaching Chinese how to behave in a civilised manner. It took the barbaric Easterners 200 years to build and destroyed by 3000 civilised Westerners in just three days.

Gone with the blaze were countless culture relics, some dated back to the Shang (16 - 11BC), Zhou (11 - 221BC) and Han (221BC - 220AD) dynasties, and some are utterly irreplaceable. Among them were the twelve bronze zodiac heads.

It was until in recent years, four of the twelve, including Ox, Tiger, Monkey and Pig, were bought back at auctions by China with huge price paid. While Rat and Rabbit remain in the French museum, the whereabouts of Dragon, Snake, Goat, Rooster and Dog are still unknown, and may never be known.

It is under such an circumstance, the decision to reproduce the whole set of the time-conscious zodiacs was made.

And so here they are. On 12 September, the freshly crafted 12 zodiac figures made their first presence at the historical antique store Liuli Chang (琉璃厂).

The European corner in the Chinese palace garden:
The Hall of Tranquil Sea, looking from a garden pavilion

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Next: The Garden of Gardens


This bronze snake head is one of the twelve zodiac figures newly crafted based on the old relics that have been missing for 140 years since the Garden of Gardens was destroyed by Europeans.

Yin-yang in Chinese Zodiacs:

Chinese zodiacs, like nearly everything in the traditional Chinese cultural system, is said to have wonderfully reflected the underlying yin-yang dual aspects:

The first team, Rat and Ox, represents intelligence (yin) and diligence (yang).

The second team, Tiger and Rabbit, symbolises courage (yang) and caution (yin).

The third team, Dragon and Snake, stands for firmness (yang) and softness (yin).

The forth team, Horse and Goat, signifies progress (yang) and reservation (yin).

The fifth team, Monkey and Rooster, implies flexibility (yin) and formality (yang).

The six team, Dog and Pig, indicates royalty (yang) and sociability (yin).

The Hours and their associated Chinese zodiacs:

Rat: 11pm - 1am
Ox: 1am - 3 am
Tiger: 3am - 5am
Rabbit: 5am - 7am
Dragon: 7am - 9am
Snake: 9am - 11am
Horse: 11am - 1pm
Goat: 1pm - 3pm
Monkey: 3pm - 5pm
Roster: 5pm - 7pm
Dog: 7pm - 9pm
Pig: 9pm - 11pm


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