A model of the unaa (central plaza) at Shuri castle, showing the officials of the Ryukyuan court scholar-aristocracy lined up, facing east, for their New Year’s audience with the king, who faces west out of the second story of the Seiden (Main Hall). Photo my own.
Reading lots about Ming & Qing court ritual, the construction of kingship & emperorship, the significance of particular directions, and so forth, and I got to thinking… actually, I’ve been thinking for a while, why is Shuri Castle arranged facing west?
Any introductory course of East Asian art & architecture, and indeed most survey courses in History of East Asia, will touch upon the organization of the Chinese Imperial Palace. It is situated according to strict geomantic notions, relating to the significance of the cardinal directions, and in some important respects, as a model or microcosm of the cosmic order itself. In Beijing, as in Chang’an, the whole palace, and particularly the audience hall, is arranged on a north-south axis, with the Emperor sitting in the north, facing south. Officials gather to his south, lining up on the east and west sides of the hall, or of the courtyard, lined up with the highest-ranking officials to the north, closer to the emperor, and the lowest-ranking ones at the southern end of the line, furthest from His Majesty. When they kneel and prostrate, they do so to the north. This is all probably even more complex than I know, but at least one of the notions that may be connected into this is one mentioned in the Analects, attributed to Confucius himself, that the Emperor is like the North Star, sitting at the northernmost point of the cosmos, facing south towards all the other stars, and remaining still while all the other stars move about the North Star as central axis. Thus, both North and Center are the most elite directions in court ritual.
The rooftops of the various buildings in the Forbidden City, Beijing, all aligned to a north-south axis. Image from Translate.com.
This is emulated in the Honmaru Palace of Edo castle, the seat of the Tokugawa shogunate. While the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Tàihédiàn), the main audience hall at Beijing, is organized lengthwise, longer from east to west, the main audience hall at the shogun’s palace, the Ôhiroma, is much longer from north to south. Still, in Edo, in emulation of Chinese norms, the shogun sits at the northern end of the hall, his officials lined up along the eastern and western walls, from highest (north) to lowest (south) in rank (among those in the hall, of course – most of those of middling and low rank can’t even enter the hall), and the figure(s) being received in audience sit towards the south end. When all bowed and prostrated, they do so to the north, towards the shogun.
The main audience hall at Nijô Castle in Kyoto, of similar design to that no longer extant at Edo castle, which would have also been oriented along a north-south axis. Photo from Marked Post.
So, why is Shuri castle, royal palace of a kingdom strongly modeled on the Ming Confucian mode, and with the palace’s architecture and layout in many other respects an emulation of the Forbidden City in miniature, oriented to the west, and not to the south?
It has been suggested(Though I am an idiot and did not note down the citation…) that the palace may have been arranged in this manner so as to face China, and thus to show the kingdom’s deference and admiration for the greatness of Ming civilization. However, within the traditional Chinese architectural schema, the emperor sits at north and looks ”down” upon his people, his realm, to his south. Thus, this arrangement would seem to have the King of Ryûkyû sitting in the east and looking ”down” upon not only his people, but also ”down” towards China, which is clearly not the intention. On the other hand, east is traditionally a more elite direction than west within the Chinese Imperial Palace, so situating the king in the east, facing west, makes some sense. I wonder what can be said for the fact that, by facing west, the king is, yes, looking upon his people insofar as he is facing the courtyard filled with officials, and beyond it, Kumemura and Naha, but, actually most of the people and land of his realm would be behind him, and to the left and right (north, and south). Maybe that’s irrelevant. No symbol can do everything.
I wonder if perhaps this is connected to the distinctly Ryukyuan notions of the king as Tedako (太陽の子, son of the Sun), in contrast to the Chinese Emperor, who is the Son of Heaven (天子), but not necessarily associated with the Sun. The Japanese Emperor is also fashioned as descended from the Sun Goddess, but while he still sits in the north and faces south in the Chinese manner, that doesn’t mean the Ryukyuan king has to do the same. Yingkit Chan, in his brilliant 2010 MA thesis, in fact emphasizes that while Ryukyu is generally seen as having been heavily Sinicized, in truth, the Ryukyu court showed considerable agency in incorporating its adoption of Chinese elements into a court culture which remained distinctly Ryukyuan in many important ways. This would certainly seem to be one of them. In Ryukyu, unlike in China or Japan, there is also an association of the east with Nirai Kanai, the mythical home of the gods across the sea.
I have by no means “read up” on this issue – just read whatever I happen to have already been reading this week anyway, and sort of writing “stream of thought.” Who knows, maybe I’ll come across something in my further readings which actually explains it. In the meantime, what do you think? Any ideas? Have you maybe come across anything explaining the reasoning behind this?
Both Shuri photos my own, taken 18 Sept 2014.