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Stele on the Back of Stone Tortoise

view:author:Magic Stoneupdate:2012/11/16

Visitors to China's mausoleums, temples and parks will come across many a stone stele standing on a stone pedestal in the form of a tortoise. Some of these stelae are well shaped out of high-grade smooth stone and bear inscriptions engraved in elegant calligraphy; the more important ones are sheltered by pavilions from weathering.

A stele of this type consists of three parts: the crown, the body and the pedestal. The crown is usually carved with a pattern of chi, a mythological animal supposed to be one of the nine sons of Dragon. It has often been taken as a dragon's head, which it resembles.


One might be tempted to ask how the stelae, some of which are as tall as a dozen metres, were lifted up and erected on the back of the stone tortoises in the days when mechanical devices were unknown. The problem, legend has it, was solved at the suggestion of a deity who appeared to the Ming Emperor Chengzu in his dream. The emperor wanted to erect a monumental stele for his father Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming, but the stele was too big, and the workers were all at a loss what to do. The god in the dream told the vexed emperor to use a method in which "the stele and the tortoise will not see each other". Enlightened by the cryptic message, the engineers and masons buried the stone tortoise and made a slope with earth, along which the stele was moved up and placed on top of the buried tortoise. With the earth removed, the stele was stood well in place. After that this became the standard operation for erecting stelae.

Tortoise-borne stelae are now regarded as important cultural relics, valued for the light they throw on historical events, studies of calligraphic arts and related subjects.