In Search of the "Four Gods" Protecting Capital Cities in Cultural East Asia

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


Throughout East Asia, great care was taken to select suitable locations for constructing tombs, residences, and cities. A site was considered auspicious if protected by four gods: the Black Turtle-Snake, the Vermilion Bird, the Azure Dragon, and the White Tiger.
As in any other polity within the East Asian cultural sphere, geophysical divination thus became an integral part of the site selection process preceding the relocation of capital cities in ancient Japan. Although primary sources provide scant information on the actual landscape features representing these gods, secondary sources generally resort to the term “the four guardian gods are in balance” (shijin sōō) and its interpretation offered in the Sakuteiki, the text on garden aesthetics attributed to Tachibana Toshitsuna (1028–1094).
In a section on the planting of trees, the Sakuteiki explains that an auspicious site requires the presence of a mountain, a plain, a river, and a road to the north, south, east, and west, respectively. It is commonly assumed that this way of divining the gods in the landscape was a development unique to Japan.
However, having shown in previous research that this “Sakuteiki-model” ultimately derives from Chinese traditions, this paper moves beyond the Japanese archipelago and presents a more in-depth study of the continental sources. Although the principles of what is required from an auspicious site are identical, there are some significant differences with regard to remedying topographical deficiencies in the various texts.
PeriodApr 2 2011
Event titleAssociation for Asian Studies annual conference
Event typeConference
LocationHonolulu, United StatesShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational