I've been travelling around Asia for a few months and one recurring theme is that in important places in China and Taiwan the buildings have "Roof Charms" on them. When I first encountered them in the Forbidden City the audio guide explained that they signify which buildings are more important (the more charms, the more important the building is). After that, I encountered roof charms in a few places, most lately in the Chiang Kai-shek memorial area which is pretty modern but the buildings have variable number of roof charms, including multiple sets on the same building but on different roof floors. My experience in other location is also a pretty random number on each roof.

My question is whether the number of roof charms has any meaning and if so what is it?

(Searching google didn't give me a sufficiently good answer)

  • Is this a question about history or about architecture? Could you cite the results from the google search? (Even insufficient answers are part of the research process).
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 20, 2013 at 12:12
  • 3
    I like this question. However, the Wikipedia link you provided appears to answer it. (Always an odd number of creatures, up to 9. The more creatures the more important the building. However, lately since tourists like them they've been putting them on some otherwise inappropriate things). Is there something beyond that you'd like to know?
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 20, 2013 at 15:48
  • @MarkC.Wallace I linked the only substantial information I found. The rest were pictures, but I admit I only searched for about 20 minutes.
    – Mikle
    Commented Nov 21, 2013 at 12:22
  • @T.E.D. I wanted to get a more substantial answer then "importance". I get that it worked that way in the Forbidden City, but outside of it "importance" is not well defined. I am aware that "because tourists liked them" is a very good answer, but I wanted to hear it from an expert and not just rely on my own intuition.
    – Mikle
    Commented Nov 21, 2013 at 12:26

1 Answer 1


I'm a specialist of Japan not China but many influences including architecture came from China to Japan. Japan, South Korea and China all had their own long architectural histories. In addition to the information on roof charms already supplied, various symbols were used there for the protection of buildings. In particular is it typical to see ornamental roof tiles representing water and mythical or fearsome beasts (e.g. shachihoko and onigawara) to protect the building from fire (and other calamities). Most of these buildings are wooden with ceramic tile roofs. Horyu-ji in Nara offers some examples of elaborate roof decoration, especially the building called Kondo.

See: onigawara (ogre tile) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onigawara; Horyu-ji temple in Nara, Japan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%C5%8Dry%C5%AB-ji (horyuji)

  • Thanks for the interesting links. I missed Nara on my trip in Japan and I regret it.
    – Mikle
    Commented Nov 21, 2013 at 12:28

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