Chinese Portal With Temperate Forest Landscape

Carrie Nelson, designer

The Chinese portal represents an entrance to a Buddhist temple with a circular doorway that is influenced by ancient Taoist beliefs representing the entry to heaven (the ideal world). The blending of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian beliefs embodied in the portal design reflects the interactions amongst these three religious and cultural belief systems in China.

The four square medallions on the portal have multiple meanings in Buddhism and Chinese tradition. The floral motif on the left is the lotus symbolizing purity, the beauty of its white blossom emerging from muddy waters. On the right is the chrysanthemum, which symbolizes endurance and prosperity (Temko, 38, 60; Hangen, 71). In Taoism the shape of the tortoise represents "the Great Triad, the entire cosmos, with its domed shape back as the sky, the body in the middle as either the earth or the people, and the lower shell as the waters." Buddhists revere the tortoise as one of the early incarnations of the Buddha (Cooper, 229). In Buddhism the deer represents meditation, gentleness and meekness and is associated with the first sermon of the Buddha "which set the Wheel of the Law in action" (Cooper, 71). One tenet of the Buddhist Eightfold Path states, "Do nothing to harm any living creature" (Eerdman, 232).

The two round medallions on the portal are mythical creatures, the dragon and the phoenix. While Western cultures perceive dragons as destructive, in Eastern cultures, such as the Chinese, the dragon is considered beneficent. Dragons represent forces of yang, creation and control of the heavens and rain (Rawson, 91, 95, 96, 98). The dragon seen on the portal is adapted from an 8th century CE bronze mirror design and is associated with strength, goodness and virility. According to the Chinese scholar Wang Fa, the parts of a dragon resemble nine animals: horns of a stag, head of a camel, eyes of a demon, neck of a snake, belly of a clam, scales of a carp, claws of an eagle, soles of a tiger, and ears of a cow (Cooper, 86). Similarly, Chinese scholars have proposed that the phoenix is a composite creature which symbolizes the cosmos through its different parts: the head of a solar cock, the back of a lunar swallow, wings symbolizing the wind, a tail representing flowers and trees, and feet signifying the earth. In addition to its cosmic association, the phoenix represents the yin forces of beauty, delicacy and peace. The dragon and phoenix together represent the union of all opposites, the balance and harmony of the forces of change symbolized by yin and yang (Cooper, 181-182).

A giant panda sits in the doorway of the portal munching on his dietary staple, bamboo. The Chinese government has designated the panda a national treasure and vigorously works to protect it. By the year 2000, over 500 preserves had been set aside for pandas, as well as for the golden monkey, rare pheasants and endangered plants. It is estimated that less than 1,000 pandas are living in isolated bamboo thickets necessary for the survival of the panda. Researchers are actively studying the animal and increasing its numbers through breeding programs (Simon, 173,175). Pandas were once killed for their pelts because the Chinese believed the pelt protected the wearer from misfortune. The mountainous landscape seen through the portal is the Wanglang Reserve in Central China that has been set aside for the panda (Burton, 212-3).

The red-crested crane flying across the landscape is a Chinese symbol of longevity and good fortune. Archeological evidence indicates the crane has existed for ten million years. The crane family is made up of 220 species and can be found in every part of the world except Antarctica and South America. All cranes are threatened to some extent due to the loss of shallow streams and marshes that are their habitat (Forshaw, 70-73). The migratory sandhill crane is indigenous to all of North America and is known for its entertaining dancing motions during spring courtship. They mate for life and live to be forty to sixty years old in captivity. The large white whooping crane is making a comeback from near extinction in North America. Thanks to the efforts of many wildlife conservation groups, it now numbers over 300.