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Traditional Korean roof with Japsang figures

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

Traditional Korean roof with Japsang figures

Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul, South Korea.[1]

Date: 2009

Japsang is a group of small animal-shaped statues made of clay and placed on top of the roofs, lined up on the edge of vertical ridges at the eaves. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392 CE – 1910 CE), which was under the influence of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368 CE – 1644 CE), Koreans began to place Japsang on top of the roofs of royal palaces. It has since become a significant element in the construction of royal palaces; however, Japsang is not present on roofs of private houses and temple buildings. Japsang is always installed in odd numbers, ranging from 3 to 11, and comprises different animals – dragon, phoenix, lion, giraffe, sea horse, haetae (a mythical unicorn lion), and monkey – considered sacred and becoming guardians to the building. Japsang’s main characters originated from the Chinese novel Journey to the West (Hsi Yu Chi)[2], published in 1592 during the Ming dynasty.

Japsang figures were used as decorative symbols to represent the authority, dignity, and grandeur of a building and as shamanic symbols to protect from and chase away evil spirits, harmful energy, and misfortune. Like the Chinese, it is believed that Koreans’ greatest fear was a fire during that time since most of the buildings were made of wood. Japsang, therefore, was believed to prevent fire in a shamanistic way. Nowadays, in addition to the ancient palaces, Japsang is present on the Blue House roof, the Korean presidential residence.


[1] Gyeongbokgung Palace was the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty. Located in northern Seoul, South Korea, the largest of the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon dynasty in 1395, Gyeongbokgung served as the home of Kings of the Joseon dynasty, the Kings’ households, and Joseon’s government. Today, the palace is arguably regarded as being the most beautiful and grandest of all five palaces. It also houses the National Palace Museum and the National Folk Museum within the premises of the complex. [2] Journey to the West is a Chinese novel published in the 16th century during the Ming dynasty and attributed to Wu Cheng’en. It is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. It has been described as arguably the most popular literary work in East Asia. Arthur Waley’s abridged translation, monkey, is well known in English-speaking countries. The novel is an extended account of the legendary pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang. He traveled to the “Western Regions” (Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent) to obtain Buddhist sacred texts (sūtras) and returned after many trials and much suffering. Journey to the West has strong roots in Chinese folk religion, mythology, Confucianist, Taoist, and Buddhist philosophy. The pantheon of Taoist immortals and Buddhist bodhisattvas are still reflective of some Chinese religious attitudes today. Perpetually popular, the novel is at once a comic adventure story, a humorous satire of Chinese bureaucracy, a source of spiritual insight, and an extended allegory. Sources:

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