According to the authors of a book published in Chinese in 1987 and entitled Zi Jin Cheng mi lu (Obscure Documents Concerning the Forbidden City), it was the association between the zhi and the law which gave birth to a tradition of placing pairs of images of mythic unicorn zhi at the entrances to the law courts and other important government offices in ancient China. It was thought that these pairs of zhi could not only distinguish between the innocent and the guilty in a court of law, but that they also had the power to identify and punish corrupt officials. These authors believe that at some unknown point in time this idea became transposed in people’s minds, with the result that pairs of zhi came to represent the incorruptibility of the government officials themselves. Thus images of unicorn zhi not only guarded the entrance to the law courts, and served as ferocious but impartial guardians and administrators of justice, but they also became visual symbols of the virtue and incorruptibility of the magistrates and judges who presided within.

Yet what evidence is there to prove that images of pairs of unicorn zhi were placed at the entrances to law courts and other important government offices during the Bronze Age in China? Very little of the wooden architecture of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties survives, so there is no way to know whether law courts, as we think of them today, actually existed, or even whether buildings were specially designed for this purpose at that time. However, we do know that during the Shang Dynasty in China the main entrance doors to important buildings were double doors, for this is clearly depicted in the oracle bone character men meaning ‘door’ or ‘gate’ (fig.9).

Figure 9. Oracle bone pictograph men

This ancient architectural feature thus offers a logical reason for the choice of two images of unicorn zhi, one to guard each panel of the double door.

Symmetrical pairs of animals and mythic zoomorphs certainly dominate the designs cast on the surface of bronze bells and ritual vessels of the Shang Dynasty, and such symmetry naturally calls to mind the ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang which expresses all alternation and duality (colour plate 8).

Plate 8. Shang Dynasty bronze bell (nao). ROM (931.13.165)

Yet the concept of yinyang is not found in Chinese texts prior to the Western Zhou Dynasty (1027-771 B.C.E.). The pairing of yin, meaning the shady side, dark, the female principle, the moon, the earth, water, night, cold, interior, etc., and yang, meaning the sunny side, light, the male principle, the sun, the heavens, air, day, heat, exterior, etc., was certainly to become central to Chinese cosmology during the Zhou Dynasty. Nevertheless, no archaeological evidence exists at present to prove that the pairing of zhi images occurred before the Eastern Han Dynasty. Therefore, one cannot assume that this particular tradition dates back to the Bronze Age.

Archaeological excavations in China have revealed nothing to date which might offer a clue as to the actual appearance of images of unicorn zhi during the Shang and Western Zhou Dynasties. However, a Shang oracle bone in the Royal Ontario Museum collection records the question “Will there be rain if a dragon is constructed in [such and such] a field?” which apparently refers to the creation of a model of a dragon for use in a ceremony praying for rain (Hsü 1996, 983). Thus it is reasonable to suggest that in the Shang period, three-dimensional images of zhi could have been carved from wood or sculpted in clay, or made of some other perishable material such as straw. The use of sculptured images of unicorn zhi to guard the entrances to important buildings also makes sense in the light of later Chinese tradition, where sculpture was almost always designed to be placed within an architectural context.

Ample evidence survives from Shang Dynasty tombs to confirm that small sculptures of animals made of jade or hardstone were treasured possessions of the elite. In addition, larger seated animals, including a tiger and an owl, which were carved from stone for use as wooden frame supports for musical chime sets, have been recovered from Tomb 1001 at Houjiazhuang, the Shang royal cemetery site at Anyang, Henan Province. Nevertheless, judging from surviving evidence, large scale sculpture in clay and stone does not appear to have begun in China until the Qin and Western Han Dynasties respectively. It is possible that two-dimensional images of unicorn zhi were painted on courtyard walls or on silk banners hung near the entrances to official government buildings during the later Bronze Age in China, for there are literary descriptions of palace wall paintings by at least the Warring States period. This ancient mural painting tradition is confirmed by Wang Chong when he says, “In the court-yards of public buildings, Gao Yao’s xiezhi is painted” (emphasis added).

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