Bìxì 赑屃; China’s Monster

Bixi 赑屃 Bì Xì; China’s Monster

B for Bixi  赑屃 Bì Xì; China's Monster. Shou qiu Bixi Shandong near Qufu
B for Bixi / 赑屃 / Bì Xì; China’s Monster Shouqiu Bixi near Qufu

Bixi 赑屃 Bì Xì; China’s Monster . If you have ever visited a Chinese temple, you will have come across this mythological beast, straining under the heavy weight of the stele it is carrying. Though often referred to as a turtle or tortoise, the Bixi is in fact a hybrid creature with the body of a dragon, topped by the shell of a turtle.

Bixi and cat at the Dongyue Temple Beijing
Bixi and cat at the Dongyue Temple Beijing

Bixi / 赑屃 / Bì Xì; China’s Monster: The Legend

According to legend, the Bixi was one of the nine sons of the Dragon King. Endowed with super-natural strength, he could move mountains and stir up the seas. However, King Yu the Great (c. 2123–2025 BC), famous for bringing the floods under control, managed to tame the great beast that subsequently helped him dig canals and throw up barriers to keep the waters at bay.

B for Bixi  赑屃 /Bì Xì; China's Monster: Bixi at the Jietai Si temple near Beijing
Bixi 赑屃 /Bì Xì; China’s Monster: Bixi at the Jietai Si temple near Beijing

Once the risk of flooding had subsided, Yu was worried the Bixi might go back to wreaking havoc with the mountains and seas. In order to prevent this, he made him carry a mammoth stone with an inscription praising his deeds.

Bixis in Jietai si near Beijing
Bixi 赑屃 /Bì Xì; China’s Monster:Bixis in Jietai si near Beijing

The tradition of stelae borne by turtles or tortoises originated in the late Han dynasty (early 3rd century) and continued to flourish during the Ming (1368 to 1644) and Qing (1644 to 1912) dynasties.  Apparently, the early specimens still looked like real aquatic turtles, but the later ones started sprouting small ears and showing large, prominent teeth, eventually morphing into the characteristic dragon-headed creature we are most familiar with nowadays.

Bixi  赑屃 Bì Xì; China's Monster. Giant Bixi Qufu Shandong
Giant Bixi Qufu Shandong

Bixi / 赑屃 / Bì Xì; China’s Monster: Not only in China

Apart from temples, sculptures of Bixi also appear at the entrance to mausoleums, bearing funerary tablets, as well as near bridges and archways, commemorating important events such as imperial visits. Besides China, Bixi can also be found in other East Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam and even as far as Mongolia and parts of Russia.

Bixi  赑屃 Bì Xì; China's Monster. Colossal Bixi Kaiyuan Temple Zhending
Colossal Bixi Kaiyuan Temple Zhending

People traditionally like to rub the Bixi for good luck, which unfortunately can damage the sculptures and erase the patterns on their shell or the inscriptions.

Adam and a Bixi Mencius temple Zuocheng Shandong
Adam and a Bixi Mencius temple Zuocheng Shandong near Qufu

Bìxì; 赑屃 China’s Monster: INTERESTING EARLY EXAMPLES:

Bixi  赑屃 Bì Xì; China's Monster. Shouqiu Bixi near Qufu
Shouqiu Bixi near Qufu

Confucius Temple Qufu: The creatures looked quite realistic through the Song dynasty, when huge tortoise pedestals, such as the ones in Shou Qiu near Qufu.

The Nestorian stele in the Beilin Museum in Xi'an, China.
The Nestorian stele in the Beilin Museum in Xi’an, China. David Castor (user:dcastor). 

In Xian, in 1625, an ancient Christian stele was unearthed and later mounted on the back of a turtle. This so-called Nestorian stele dates from the Tang dynasty (781) and bears witness to 150 years of early Christianity in China.

Nestorian stele dates from the Tang dynasty (781)
Nestorian stele dates from the Tang dynasty (781) Photo taken by Frits V. Holm in Xi’an in 1907

Its inscriptions in Chinese and Syriac Aramaic (Aramaic being the language Jesus would have spoken) describe the existence of Christian communities in several cities in northern China. According to the stele, missionaries belonging to the Church of the East came to China in the ninth year of emperor Tai Tsung (635) with sacred books and images. The stele was buried in 845, probably during a period of religious persecution.

Top of Bixi Stele Mencious Temple Zuocheng Shandong
Top of Bixi Stele Mencius Temple Zuocheng Shandong near Qufu

In 1907, the stele was moved to Xian’s fascinating Stele Forest museum, where it can still be admired.

Colossal Bixi Kaiyuan Temple Zhending

Colossal Bixi Kaiyuan Temple Zhending

These days, long-lost Bixi continue to be unearthed during archaeological excavations and construction work. Among the most remarkable finds is the discovery of a huge 1200-year-old Bi Xi in Zhengding (Hebei Province) in June 2006.

Margie and theColossal Bixi Kaiyuan Temple Zhending
Margie and theColossal Bixi Kaiyuan Temple Zhending

The stone turtle is 8.4 m long, 3.2 m wide, and 2.6 m tall, and weighs 107 tons. It has since been moved to Zhengding’s Kaiyuan Temple.[20]


Arhats: China’s Enlightened Gentlemen

Arhats (or Luohan,十八羅漢, in Chinese)

Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple Kunming Yunnan Province
Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple Kunming Yunnan Province

Arhats: China’s Enlightened Gentlemen:If you love visiting Chinese Buddhist temples, as we do, you will probably be familiar with the term Arhat, as colourful paintings and sculptures of these monk-like beings, shown in groups of 16, 18, or even 500, are a common feature of temple halls.

Ancient Long-Eyebrowed Arhat Cangyan Shan Hebei Province
Ancient Long-Eyebrowed Arhat Cangyan Shan Hebei Province

Arhats: China’s Enlightened Gentlemen: who or what exactly are Arhats?

But, who or what exactly are Arhats?  The word Arhat comes from Sanskrit and means ‘one who is worthy’; in Buddhism, that is a person who has gained insight into the true nature of existence and has achieved Nirvana (spiritual enlightenment).  In this way, Arhats, who are usually monks or nuns, manage to free themselves from ignorance, excitability, ambition, and the desire for existence, so that they will not be reborn.

Frightening Arhat Azure Cloud Temple Fragrant Hills Beijing
Frightening Arhat Azure Cloud Temple Fragrant Hills Beijing

Although this definition seems fairly clear, we have to bear in mind that the concept of the Arhat has changed over the centuries, and varies between different schools of Buddhism.

Two Wise and Benign Arhats Azure Cloud Temple Fragrant Hills Beijing
Two Wise and Benign Arhats Azure Cloud Temple Fragrant Hills Beijing

Whereas in the Theravada tradition becoming an Arhat is considered to be the proper goal of a Buddhist, Mahayana Buddhism uses the term for people far advanced along the path of Enlightenment, but who may not have reached full Buddhahood.

Arhats painted during the Ming Dynasty Shanxi Museum Taiyuan
Arhats painted during the Ming Dynasty Shanxi Museum Taiyuan

Moreover, they believe that the Bodhisattva is a higher goal of perfection. Although the ultimate purpose of the Bodhisattva is to achieve enlightenment and become a Buddha, they are willing to postpone their entrance into Nirvana in order to remain in the world and save other beings from suffering.

A Smiling Arhat Azure Cloud Temple Fragrant Hills Beijing
A Smiling Arhat Azure Cloud Temple Fragrant Hills Beijing

This difference of interpretation seems to be one of the fundamental divergences between the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. However, even in Mahayana Buddhism, the accomplishments of Arhats are recognized and celebrated, mainly because they have transcended the mundane world.

Ancient Emaciated Arhat Wutai Shan Shanxi Province
Ancient Emaciated Arhat Wutai Shan Shanxi Province

The Chinese Buddhist tradition and Arhats

In the Chinese Buddhist tradition,  Arhats are usually depicted in groups of 16 and later 18; all with their own names and personalities: Deer Sitting, Happy, Raised Bowl, Raised Pagoda, Meditating, Oversea, Elephant Riding, Laughing Lion, Open Heart, Raised Hand, Thinking, Scratched Ear, Calico Bag, Plantain, Long Eyebrow, Doorman, Taming Dragon and Taming Tiger. Interestingly, the cult of the 18 Arhats only became popular in China, while other Buddhist countries such as Japan continue to revere just 16.

'Surfing' Arhat Wutai Shan Shanxi Province
‘Surfing’ Arhat Wutai Shan Shanxi Province

These 16 or 18 represent the closest disciples of the Buddha who were chosen by him to remain in this world and not to enter nirvana until the coming of the next Buddha, in order to give people something / someone to worship. We can think of them as the Buddhist equivalents of Christian saints, or apostles.

A Smiling Two-Headed Arhat Azure Cloud Temple Fragrant Hills Beijing
A Smiling Two-Headed Arhat Azure Cloud Temple Fragrant Hills Beijing

Leaving aside the tricky question of exactly how holy or perfect the Arhats are, what has always puzzled us is the way they are portrayed: Arhat paintings and sculptures are often sinister, ludicrous, grotesque, or just downright ugly. Of course, from a Western point of view this is extremely shocking, because we associate ugliness with evil and beauty with goodness: just think of the idealized images of Christian saints and angels. And it has taken us a long time to find information to shed some light on this mystery. So, here is what we have come up with.

Vain Arhat  Giuyuan Chan Si Wuhan
Vain Arhat Giuyuan Chan Si Wuhan

The Influence of Guanxiu (貫休 / Guànxiū)

Apparently, the first famous portraits of Arhats were painted by the Chinese monk, painter, poet, and calligrapher Guanxiu (貫休 / Guànxiū) in 891 CE. Guanxiu started his career during the Tang dynasty, in what has often been described as a golden age for literature and the arts.

Guanxiu Arhats Shengyin Temple
Guanxiu Arhats Shengyin Temple

However, the Tang dynasty had been in decline for some time and eventually collapsed in 907, which meant that many artists lost their patrons.

Arhats painted during the Ming Dynasty Shanxi Museum Taiyuan
Arhats painted during the Ming Dynasty Shanxi Museum Taiyuan

For this reason, Guanxiu fled to the city of Chengdu in 901, where something like a miniature Tang court still existed and where Wang Jian, the founding emperor of the Former Shu (one of the Ten Kingdoms formed during the chaotic period between the rules of the Tang and Song dynasties) took him in and gave him the honorific title Great Master of the Chan Moon.

Gossiping Arhats Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple Kunming Yunnan Province
Gossiping Arhats Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple Kunming Yunnan Province

The Legend Of Guanxiu’s painting skills

Legend has it that the Arhats had heard about Guanxiu’s painting skills and appeared to him in a dream and asked him to paint their portraits. In the paintings, the Arhats are portrayed as foreigners with bushy eyebrows, large eyes, hanging cheeks and high noses. Moreover, they look unkempt, shabby and eccentric. By showing them like this, it seems that Guanxiu wanted to emphasize that they were like outsiders, vagabonds and beggars; beings who had left all worldly desires behind.

Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple Kunming Yunnan Province
Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple Kunming Yunnan Province

Following Guanxiu’s example, the Chan painters, as they became known, continued representing Arhats with exaggerated and almost perverse features, accentuating their decrepit, skeletal bodies and bony faces, as well as their advanced age.

Arhat Cangyan Shan Hebei Province
Arhat Cangyan Shan Hebei Province

Although Guanxiu’s portraits remained extremely important in Chinese Buddhist iconography, over time, the Arhats started to look less foreign, though no less eccentric.

Arhats painted during the Ming Dynasty Shanxi Museum Taiyuan
Arhats painted during the Ming Dynasty Shanxi Museum Taiyuan

Art historian Max Loehr on Guanxiu’s Arhats

According to art historian Max Loehr, Guanxiu’s Arhats represent the physical incarnation of the persecution Buddhists suffered in eighth-century China; a persecution that almost wiped out the Buddhist establishment. Their tormented faces make the Arhats look like survivors of death and destruction.

Screaming Arhat Giuyuan Chan Si Wuhan
Screaming Arhat Giuyuan Chan Si Wuhan

However, given that Chinese artists had been painting and sculpting expressive and powerful Arhats for centuries, it seems unlikely that either Guanxiu’s uncommon talent or religious persecution alone can account for the grotesque images that fascinate us so. Cultural differences between East and West must play a part too.

Guanxiu Arhats Shengyin Temple
Guanxiu Arhats Shengyin Temple

In a fascinating blog post dating from 2009, the Argentinian cartoonist and illustrator Enrique (Quique) Alcatena, who apparently finds much of his inspiration in mythology, explains that in Asian cultures the ferocious, wild looks of the Arhats are recognized as a symbol of the superhuman strength of these illuminated beings and their determination to crush darkness and evil.

Warrior Arhat with slightly Mongolian appearance Fragrant Hills Beijing
Warrior Arhat with slightly Mongolian appearance Fragrant Hills Beijing

In fact, the Arhats need to look fearsome if they want to inspire fear in devils and other forces of evil and keep them at bay.

Angry Looking Arhat Giuyuan Chan Si Wuhan
Angry Looking Arhat Giuyuan Chan Si Wuhan

The Destruction of the Shengyin Temple

Guanxiu donated his paintings to the Shengyin Temple in Qiantang (in present day Hangzhou) where they were preserved with great care and ceremonious respect. The Shengyin Temple was destroyed duing the Taiping Rebellion (1850 1864). However, the Qianlong Emperor (Qing Dynasty) , who visted the Shengyin Temple in 1757, was so impressed by the paintings that he managed to have copies made and what exist now are those copies and copies (rubbings) of those copies.

Guanxiu Arhat Shengyin Temple
Guanxiu Arhats Shengyin Temple

Another set of sixteen Arhats is preserved in the Japanese Imperial Household Collection. This collection bears an inscription dated to 894. It states Guanxiu began the set while living in Lanxi, Zhejiang province.

Guanxiu Arhats Shengyin Temple
Guanxiu Arhats Shengyin Temple

Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple: Read about our visit to the amzaing Bamboo temple near Kunming