Japsang: A Group of Small Animal-Shaped Statues
If you have ever visited Korean royal places such as Gyeonbokgung or Changdeokgung, you might have noticed a school of small, cute, animal-shaped statues lined up on the edge of the eaves and wondered what they are and their purpose, as they don’t seem to match the ornateness of the palaces. These figures are called Japsang and, surprisingly, they are considered critical elements in the construction of royal palaces that elevate the level of construction.
Japsang were never seen during the Three Kingdoms Period (57 BCE – 935 CE). However, during the Goryo Dynasty (918 CE – 1392 CE), there are records, although rare and in dragon or monster shapes, about the use of Japsang. Drawings from this period vividly illustrates these small statues on top of palace buildings. This tradition would continue on to the Joseon Dynasty (1392 CE – 1897 CE) as Sungnyemun (also known as Namdaemun), first built in 1398 and is the first National Treasure of South Korea, has nine Japsang on the edge of its eaves. The number of Japsang is always an odd number, ranging from 3 to 11. The more, the better.
During the Joseon Dynasty (1392 CE – 1910 CE), which was under the influence of the Ming Dynasty (1368 CE – 1644 CE), Koreans began to place Japsang on high-class buildings such as palaces. It is believed that during that time, Koreans’ greatest fear was fire since most of the buildings were made of wood. Japsang, therefore, were believed to prevent fire in a shamanistic way.
Japsang are comprised of different animals – dragon, phoenix, lion, giraffe, sea horse, haetae (a mythical unicorn lion), and monkey – that are considered sacred and become guardians to the building. Although the origins differ, each of these animals has its own name. The first few animals, for example, were named after the characters in Hsi Yu Chi (西遊記; Journey to the West) such as Tang Sanzang and Sun Wukong according to studies from the early 20th century. Through this, it can be inferred that the Koreans hoped Japsang would be strong like the protagonists in the story.
Today, in addition to the ancient palaces, you can see Japsang on the Blue House, the Korean presidential residence. Next time you see them, let’s hope they do their job well.