Bird on the Roof
One of the first sights to catch my eye in Taipei was the classic Chinese roof ornament or “roof charm” showing a man sitting on a bird, usually a chicken or phoenix, which was traditionally the first in a series of ceramic “walking beasts” on the roof ridge of important buildings. This is meant to be auspicious or protective, and there are variations in the design of man and bird, as well as in the story told to explain its use for 2,000 years. One story says a king was saved in battle by a bird; another that an evil prince was strung up from a roof; another simply says that as a fire creature, the bird will keep fire away from the house. Other mythical creatures that may follow are the phoenix, dragon, lion, and unicorn.
Immortals Fly High
When visiting temples in Taipei, I’ve learned to look up at the top of the Dragon Columns that often mark the main entrance halls. These beautifully carved stone columns each show a large dragon spiraling upward to welcome worshipers (dragons are fierce but good). The dragons are usually interlaced with smaller figures, clouds, and birds, and frequently near the top, intriguing characters riding cranes or phoenixes. They represent more than the “longevity” that cranes imply, and very likely depict specific identities of the Eight Immortals of Taoist lore. In Taipei I’ve found quite a few of these magical bird-riding heroes and heroines, who were said to transcend the human state and gain supernatural powers they used to help the common people.
Extraordinary colorful artwork can be found covering temple roofs in Taiwan. Many are made with a technique called “cut & paste shard” or “cut pottery” because the intricate details are put together from ceramic shards. This labor-intensive “recycling” style originated in Southeast China and has been practiced in Taiwan since 1912.