Right outside the south side of Qianmen gate, in Beijing, is a marker called the Zero Point of China. Most tourist will not even see it. They may accidently walk by it, and think it is pretty, but they have no idea of it true value.
Zero Point. That is an odd name for a marker. It is fairly new, but the bronze marker is steeped in Chinese symbolism and national meaning. Find out more here about its precedence in history, its functional purpose, and its symbology.
The History of Zero Points
The Zero Point is a concept that has existed in some of the great empires of the past. A central marker, usually a stone, would be placed in the center of political control or the spiritual heart of an empire.
The Romans performed this very act, placing what was believed to be a bronze monument called the “Milliarium Aureum” in the center of the Forum of Ancient Rome. It became known as the Golden Milestone.
All major city and road distances in the Roman Empire were to be calculated based on their relative positions to this marker. The distances to the major Roman cities were thought to have been carved on it in 20 BC. The base is still believed to be there, though no one knows which of the possible candidates is the actual one.
Constantinople, the later seat of the Eastern Roman Empire, carried on this idea. Other empires have certainly followed suit, and had their most important “soul” point marked. This point in some way identified who they thought they were as an empire or nation. Then they could calculate distance from the reaches of their empire to this important location.
Opps, getting philosophical. Well, it IS philosophical when you talk about the soul of a nation.
Modern Zero Points
America has done this, too. In the original planning for Washington, DC, the architect L’Enfant planned for a zero point stone to be placed in the capital. Alas, it did not get permanently placed until 1923. The stone is just south of the White House, in President’s Park.
There is a 16 point compass rose on top. The design is probably taken from the compass rose symbols on old nautical maps, the inspiration for the mariner’s compass designs.
Modern China got around to placing their Zero Point in 2006. The Chinese government placed this marker at the entrance to Beijing, the existing Qianmen gate. This is significant, as this gate was the ceremonial gate that the Emperor would pass through on his way to perform rites at the Temple of Heaven complex.
To me, that would make an excellent “soul” point for a country so rich in history.
Beijing Zero Point in Detail
This bronze zero point marker has four points protruding from a wheel. There are radial lines spreading outward from the center.
The marker itself is beautiful bronze, and laid flush to the surrounding stone. Beside it, a small bronze sign describing the symbols and purpose of the marker is also laid flush in the pavement stones.
The Four Directions and Beasts
Each point corresponds to a different point of the compass, and represents an element from the five element system. There are four beasts on the marker, one for each direction, and each beast is associated with one of the elements.
West is the White Tiger, and that represents the element Metal. Metal is associated with the season Autumn. Its human name is Jian Bing.
South is the Vermilion Bird, often called the Phoenix Bird, and represents the element Fire. Fire is also the element that is associated with Summer. The animal’s name is Ling Guang.
East is the Green Dragon, and that represents the element Wood. Wood is also associated with Spring. This beast is also known as the Azure Dragon. It has a human name, and that is Meng Zhang.
North is the Black Tortoise, and its element is Water. The human name for it is Zhi Ming. Water is also associated with Winter.
There is a fifth beast that is Yellow Dragon. This beast is associated with Center and represents the element Earth. It does not appear on the marker, perhaps as the “0” takes up the middle.
While we are naming names, I will tell you that its name is Huáng-lóng.
* This modern depiction of the four directions are a simplification of the twenty-four “cardinal” directions involving the Chinese Zodiac and some other “stuff”.
These beasts are part of the soul of China. It should be no surprise that they are there on the “soul” point.
This “Soul Point” is a Statement
This is something that great nations do, and I believe that China has put this marker here to make a statement. The point they want to make is that they are a nation that is as worthy as the old empires, and they are here to stay.
Be sure to visit this under-appreciated gem on your way to Tiannanmen Square. Now that you know the inside story…
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Additional Resources for The Zero Point of China
- Panoramic 3-D VR View of the Zero Point of China – Jesse Lee provides an exceptional Virtual Reality photo of the Zero Point of China. Folks, this is a 360 degree, 3 axis view. Wow! Click on the photo and move it with your mouse. If you don’t mind strange Chinese characters showing on the browser bar, get the full experience at the photo’s home page.
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