Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Culture of Chinese Doorsill

       Coming from a handicap/disability sensitive country, I was shocked at the general lack of public accessibility in China. I already posted photos of the pyramid stairways leading to many businesses in Jinan in an early China Talk blog entry. My visit to the Forbidden City in Beijing came soon after an Oral English class on American Halloween vs Chinese ghost traditions, so I was more aware of such things while touring the palace complex. Every single main entrance doorway had an obstacle. You must step over a large, 6-12" high doorsill. In all my travels I don't recall ever seeing a such a significant obstacle at the entrance-way to a home or castle. Naturally, I asked about this feature and was told that it kept spirits out because they couldn't negotiate over the high doorsill with their old, creaky knees. HUH?!   My students were bemused by my questions, observations and humor concerning spirits and doorsills when I returned from Beijing. Spirits have bum knees? Can't spirits just float through the door? I settled down by the time Jane gave her presentation and was impressed with her wisdom as she reflected on this tradition.

            Do your remember last semester professor Kuzmich asked us why our old Chinese architecture had such a high doorsill? Today, I want to provide a more specific answer.

        When China was not unified, Chinese people already had common view on building doorsills. Even the doorsill built day was chosen in advance, and its color must suited the gate well. Se we can see the importance of the doorsill for ancient Chinese.

        Why the doorsill was treated so seriously? There are reason in two aspects.
        First of all, in the practical aspects. The doorsill worked in keeping off the rainwater, strong winds, small animals, such as mice. Also it helped to shut the door tightly. What's more, the ancient people were mostly in loose clothes. So when they strides the doorsill, they had to hold their legs high, and the hidden weapon (if there was one) would be seen.

        However, the cultural meanings of doorsill also plays an important part. Firstly, it's a symbol of boundary, making a distinction between your own home and the outside world. Secondly, it represented the owner's class and status; the higher status you were in, the higher doorsill it was. Thirdly, the doorsill symbolized a wall, maybe it's a bit difficult for professor Kuzmich to understand, while, you can comprehend it as western "magic," though, I prefer to regard it as a wish or will. Whatever, at the time, it really meant keeping off the dirt and ghost, hoping to keep the whole family safe and healthy. Fourthly, it's said that when people died, his soul might jump out of his house to be a ghost. In case of that, people built the high doorsill, to keep the soul in, for the soul couldn't jump so high.

        There are also some interesting things about the doorsill. For instance, we can't step on it, for in human's life, it symbolized the master's back or neck; in another word, it is 'dignity.' And in Buddhism, stepping the doorsill meant you might wander on the bound of Yin and Yang when you died. Also, men should step his left foot first; women was opposite.

        We can see something about Chinese him conception from the culture of doorsill which includes privacy space, sense of safe, and best wishes to family members. Chinese architecture is not like western ones, which is open to the outsiders. While, in modes society, we hardly have doorsills any more, maybe which can be regarded as a positive attitude to open and absorb.

        In our modern life, we prefer to regard the doorsill as an obstacle. There are "doorsills" in education, political reform, social conscience, and so forth. We are overcoming them actively. It is the same with our tradition, just like the saying goes: discard the dross and take the essence.  Only in this way can our Chinese culture get more and more prosperous.




  1. Very interesting. I should have realized there would be more symbolism but hadn't known just how far it goes. Quite the list of practical reasons for a high doorsill.

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  3. Very interesting! The hidden weapons angle made my eyes open.


  4. Thanks for sharing this information. No doubt. The security gate is very important for public place or company. We also sale Barrier Gate in China.