Traditional Chinese Topping Out

“Topping Out” refers to the process of installing the highest central beam on the roof of a building. This central beam bears the responsibility of ensuring the stability and supporting the overall structure of the dwelling. In the Chinese lunar calendar, “Topping Out” also signifies the installation of the roof beam of a structure. This process is a crucial stage in building construction, and the timing is often chosen during a “full moon” or “rising tide” period, symbolizing family unity and the influx of wealth like the surging tide.

Primarily, it denotes the installation of the highest central beam on a building’s roof. Besides its practical role in the architectural structure, the term “central beam” holds significant intangible religious connotations. Hence, during the ceremony of “Topping Out,” the beam’s function is to connect the construction of the temple, the divine, the relationship between heaven and earth, and the people in a religious context. As the saying goes: “The ‘Topping Out’ ceremony is like crowning a person.”

what is traditional Chinese topping out

“Topping Out” is the most crucial stage in building a house, and it should ideally be performed during the auspicious times of a “full moon” or a “rising tide,” symbolizing family unity and an influx of wealth akin to the surging tide. If the timing for “Topping Out” clashes with an important family member’s birth time, it must be avoided. Before the “Topping Out” ceremony, it’s customary to offer sacrifices to the deities, including a “whole pig” (represented by a pig’s head and tail, symbolizing completeness) commonly referred to as “Lishi.”

The sacrificial offerings consist of fish, goose, tofu, eggs, salt, and soy sauce, presented in five or seven colors on a red lacquer plate placed at the head of the sacrificial table. Additionally, there are twenty-four bowls of various dishes and twelve basins of fruits from both north and south. A couplet such as “Fortunate to meet the yellow path and cleverly encounter the Purple Star when setting the pillars” is affixed. It’s essential to use yellow or green paper for the couplets and avoid using red paper. Red silk hangs at both ends of the beam, with a copper decoration of the Qing Shunzhi era suspended below, symbolizing “peace and harmony.”

In ancient times, before installing the main beam in construction, a ceremony reciting the “Topping Out文” (a text invoking auspiciousness and longevity for the house) was held to pray for a firm foundation and enduring safety for the dwelling. Xu Shi from the Ming Dynasty provided an explanation in his work “Wen Ti Ming Bian Xu Shuo”: “The ‘Topping Out文’ is the speech performed by craftsmen during the ‘Topping Out’ ceremony. When common people build houses, they choose an auspicious time for the ‘Topping Out’ and celebrate by gifting face-wrapped buns (nowadays referred to as steamed buns) and other items. This is done to reward the craftsmen, who then throw the face-wrapped buns onto the beam while reciting this text as a blessing. The text begins and ends with appropriate language, while the middle contains six poems, each comprising three lines, symbolizing the four directions, above and below, in a common style.”

Topping Out meaning

“Beam” represents the tranquility and stability of the entire house structure, symbolizing a pillar that supports the entire household. Below the central part of the beam, an octagonal figure is painted to ward off evil spirits and safeguard the house, ensuring peace and harmony. When painting the octagonal figure on the ridge beam, it’s imperative to select an auspicious day and fast, allowing the painted octagon to serve its protective function against negative influences.

The “Beam” is not merely the physical structure but also the center of temples or residences, serving as a reference for ceremonies. During the grand ritual of placing the “Beam,” the hope is for its support to ensure the building’s durability, domestic peace, and prosperity. The smooth placement of the “Beam” significantly impacts the future destinies of people, events, and objects related to its symbolism, according to religious beliefs.

Before the beam is touched by an axe, it can be positioned as desired. However, once the “動斧日” or the “day the axe is moved” as specified in ancient books arrives, the beam ceases to be an ordinary object.

The sanctification of the “Beam” begins with the purification using clean incense and symbols, followed by measuring the beam’s dimensions. The size is crafted according to the propitious dimensions of the building. If an auspicious day for the “Topping Out” ceremony isn’t chosen yet, the “Beam” must be “stored,” placed in a temple or a clean place, worshipped with incense, awaiting the auspicious day. According to religious beliefs, once the axe touches the wood on the “動斧日,” the beam becomes a sacred object housing the “梁神,” and it must not be casually touched to avoid contamination. A red thread binds a “Great Longevity Gold” in the center of the beam, while red paper circles the two ends.

Flowers, red candles, symbolic food offerings (approximately two sets), and three small bowls of round glutinous rice balls, fruits, and sacrificial animals are arranged symmetrically. For the “Topping Out” work, two individuals born in the Year of the Dragon and the Year of the Tiger are required. There’s a belief in the “Dragon and Tiger Position,” signifying that the pairing of the Dragon and Tiger is more auspicious and influential, contributing to the temple’s peace and prosperity. The main woodworker for the “Topping Out” must tie a red silk cloth around their waist, as red fabric has the function of warding off evil spirits.

During the “Topping Out” process, offerings of fish, goose, tofu, eggs, salt, and soy sauce are placed on a wooden lacquered plate at the head of the table, followed by twenty-four bowls of various dishes and twelve basins of fruits from the north and south. A couplet like “Fortunate to meet the yellow path and cleverly encounter the Purple Star when setting the pillars” is put up in yellow or green paper, strictly avoiding red paper. Red silk hangs from both ends of the beam, and a Qing Shunzhi copper ornament hangs below, signifying “peace and harmony.”

The woodworkers must purify themselves before the ceremony. Then, the “拜梁” is performed, followed by prayers to temple deities, territorial spirits, household gods, Master Lu Ban, and the “梁神.” The person presiding the ceremony uses a vermilion brush to mark the two ends of the beam as the “点梁眼.” Subsequently, individuals born in the Year of the Dragon and the Year of the Tiger, according to the directions of the temple’s Azure Dragon and White Tiger, symbolically lift the beam. Usually, this is only done symbolically, and then the head woodworker and assistants carry out the actual work.

Both ends of the beam are pasted with round glutinous rice balls, symbolizing the seamless integration of the beam and the temple’s structure. The bound longevity gold is also integrated into the temple’s structure to symbolize its longevity and perpetuity.

As the “Beam” is raised, all believers inside and outside the temple shout, “Enter! Enter!” Amidst the vibrant atmosphere, the beam reaches the roof and is finally “归岫,” marked by lighting firecrackers and burning gold, signifying the completion of the ritual.

Regarding the positioning of the “Beam,” for structures facing east or west, the beam’s head points north and its tail points south. For structures facing north or south, the beam’s head points east, and its tail points west. Observers are cautioned against watching the ceremony if they are within a year of mourning, undergoing menstruation, or during certain astrological clashes.

Furthermore, after the “Topping Out” ceremony, some individuals hang red cotton strings with stacks of approximately two-and-a-half-inch tall “Fuk Jin” and silver paper on both ends of the beam. According to elderly tradition, this is done to attract both large and small fortunes, accepting all types of financial gains, but the area under the beam should be concealed by a ceiling and not easily seen.

Topping Out etiquette

“China is revered as the ‘land of rituals’ due to the ancient Chinese emphasis on etiquette in all endeavors. Building a house, a significant event in production and life, was accompanied by a plethora of ceremonies from start to finish.

According to historical records, the tradition of the beam-raising ceremony during house construction dates back to the Wei and Jin Dynasties, spreading nationwide by the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

The house construction rituals were primarily auspicious ceremonies, seeking the longevity and prosperity of the house, wealth, and flourishing descendants. These rituals typically involved several steps: site selection, central pillar placement, beam-raising, door setting, and completion. Among these, the beam-raising ceremony was considered the most pivotal.

The beam, a critical horizontal component in construction, bore the weight of upper components and the roof. Traditional Chinese architecture featured various beams—three-beam, five-beam, seven-beam, nine-beam, single-step, double-step, mounted-door, moon, embracing-head, and peaceful beams, among others. Locals believed that the success of the beam-raising not only affected the house’s structural integrity but also influenced the future prosperity of its inhabitants. An old rural saying illustrates this belief: ‘A beam on the roof ensures grain within; without it, livestock won’t thrive.’

Despite regional variations, the beam-raising ceremonies were highly revered. The process involved rituals such as dedicating the beam, actual beam-raising, receiving offerings, tossing offerings, and awaiting the craftsmen.

The selection of the primary beam was central to the entire ceremony. Before the beam-raising, careful selection and crafting were crucial. In certain regions like Taishun, selecting a suitable beam wasn’t simple. The criteria were stringent: it had to be cedar, tall and straight, with lush foliage, moderate age, and surrounded by smaller cedars symbolizing abundant offspring. A single standalone beam wouldn’t be considered.

During the beam felling, preserving the surrounding smaller cedars was imperative. The direction of felling had to be southward, avoiding other directions. On the day of crafting, an auspicious day was selected, preceded by the lighting of three incense sticks and two firecrackers before commencement.

Upon completion, a propitious day was chosen for the beam-raising ceremony. Traditionally, this day should not astrologically conflict with any member of the household, or unfavorable consequences might ensue. Additionally, individuals with zodiac clashes or incompatibilities with the ceremony time should also abstain.

During the actual beam-raising, a preliminary dedication to the beam was essential. The adorned main beam, carried into the new house, was accompanied by offerings on the altar—pork, fish, chicken, goose, eggs, tofu, candles—while craftsmen offered good wishes and toasts. Post dedication, craftsmen hoisted the beam onto the roof, accompanied by firecrackers, the chant of the beam-raising song, and the exclamation ‘Rise, for great fortune!’

The process was distinct in different regions, with some emphasizing smooth and even lifting of the beam, while others had the east end higher than the west, symbolizing ‘Azure Dragon’ and ‘White Tiger,’ respectively.

Upon securing the beam, the host placed various offerings at the center, symbolizing prosperity. Cloth and shoes might be placed underneath, signifying a solid foundation and wealth. Further rituals involved tossing wrapped food offerings into a basket held by the host, symbolizing wealth acquisition.

The most festive part was the ‘beam tossing,’ where various items were thrown from the beam, grabbed by attendees, symbolizing the arrival of wealth. This was accompanied by auspicious words denoting prosperity in different directions.

Upon conclusion, the attendees left the new house, allowing sunlight to shine on the beam, termed ‘sunbathing the beam.’ Finally, the host treated the craftsmen and guests to a feast, marking the end of the ceremony.

Although today’s technology has minimized wooden house construction, the symbolic beam-raising ceremonies still endure, celebrating the completion of the final roof layer in various regions. Even abroad, in countries like Germany, such ceremonies persist, albeit with simpler rites, symbolizing wishes for happiness and peace.

[Auspicious phrases under the beam] such as ‘Good luck and fortune.’

[Beam dedication excerpts] included passages wishing for prosperity, longevity, and generational fortune.”

“After placing the main beam steadily, the host brings the ‘five-grain colorful bags’ gifted by relatives and friends to the rooftop, placing them at the center of the beam, signifying abundant harvests. Red cloth is spread over the beam. In some places, a pair of shoes is stitched at the bottom of the red cloth, symbolizing a solid foundation for the new homeowner. In other regions, a red cloth bag containing red dates, peanuts, rice, wheat, and evergreen plants is hung in the middle of the main beam, symbolizing ‘fortune, prosperity, longevity, happiness, eternal youth.’

Subsequently, craftsmen wrap fruits and food items in red cloth, speaking blessings as they toss these wrapped items into a wicker basket held by the homeowner. This process, known as ‘receiving the package,’ symbolizes receiving treasures.

The most festive part of the beam-raising ceremony is the ‘beam tossing.’ After the homeowner receives the packages, craftsmen throw candies, peanuts, steamed buns, copper coins, and ‘gold ingots’ from the beam to the surroundings, allowing men, women, young, and old spectators to scramble for them. The more people involved, the happier the host, signifying ‘rolling in wealth.’ During this event, craftsmen often utter auspicious words like: ‘To the east, sunrise brings prosperity; to the west, mythical beasts bring double joy; to the south, generations become scholars; to the north, rice reserves fill annually.’

After the beam tossing, everyone exits the new house, allowing the sun to shine on the beam, known as ‘sunbathing the beam.’ Finally, the host hosts a feast for craftsmen, assistants, relatives, and friends, distributing red envelopes, concluding the entire beam-raising ceremony.

Foreign countries also have beam-raising rituals. In today’s technologically advanced era, few people construct wooden houses. However, symbolic beam-raising ceremonies persist in various regions, celebrating the completion of the final roof layer. In countries like Germany, where people still construct wooden houses, after placing the main beam, carpenters place a floral wreath or a small tree decorated with ribbons on the roof ridge. Then, the foreman earnestly prays, blessing the homeowner’s family with happiness and good fortune. After the prayer, an empty cup is thrown to symbolize the homeowner’s happiness. Finally, the host treats the craftsmen to a sumptuous banquet. Although these ceremonies are not as complex as the traditional Chinese beam-raising ceremony, their intent is similar, wishing for happiness and peace.

Greetings:

Greeting phrases are written on red paper and posted under the main beam. Northerners often use phrases like: ‘Tangong prevails over the gods. Good fortune upon beam-raising.’ Four-character auspicious phrases are written on red paper and posted at the top of the pillars, such as ‘Fortunes favor auspicious clouds; your dwelling stands tall for generations. Lucky stars shine brightly; blessings flourish in the land. Sunrise crowns the roof; Purple Microcosm revolves around the beam. Beam-raising brings auspiciousness; tile-laying welcomes prosperity. Heaven’s eye gazes upon the land; sunlight supports the beam. Flowers bloom when pillars are erected; birds sing when the beam is raised. Golden beams radiate; jade pillars uphold the sky.’

Beam-Raising Inscription:

Auspicious timing brings prosperity to the house; wealth enters the home in abundance. Propitious timing for beam-raising brings prosperity to the people; descendants become wealthy and fortunate. To the left, the Azure Dragon brings treasures; to the right, the White Tiger enters the fields. Good fortune arrives at the door; horses bring prosperity to the home. With each step forward, thousands of people prosper; life spans lengthen with each step; the family enters wealth with each step; the hometown is blessed with fortune and prosperity; the family enjoys eternal prosperity. Progress! Progress! Great strides lead to great wealth and prosperity.

Beam Dedication Inscription:

During auspicious timing, heaven and earth open, and dedicating the beam brings prosperity to all. Born in the distant mountains, originally named Jin Niang, the disciple respectfully requests you to become the main beam. Master Carpenter Lu Ban personally crafts it, ensuring peace and prosperity for thousands of years. A cup of wine is offered in honor of the beam’s head; the family produces scholars for generations. A cup of wine is offered in honor of the beam’s tail; the family thrives through the ages. A cup of wine is offered in the center of the beam; the family prospers in the fields through the ages.”

Customs and Rituals

Before the beam-raising, the head craftsman sings the ‘beam-raising song’ while pouring wine from the beam’s head to its tail. Once finished, the host presents ‘red envelopes’ to the craftsmen. Then, the head craftsmen exchange greetings, shouting ‘Raise, great luck and great profit!’ They slowly pull the beam up to the pillar using ropes, ensuring the east end of the beam is higher than the west end, as the east symbolizes the ‘Azure Dragon’ while the west represents the ‘White Tiger.’ Firecrackers ring out at this moment. When the main beam is fitted into the mortise, a steamed bun is tossed down from the beam. At this point, the son and daughter-in-law hold a red quilt to catch the tossed bun, symbolizing the passing down of the family line. Whoever catches the buns thrown outside the quilt or intentionally aimed at the onlookers’ crowd grabs them enthusiastically, known as ‘grabbing the beam-raising steamed bun,’ signifying celebration.

In the evening, the host holds a ‘beam-raising banquet,’ inviting craftsmen and relatives. Hoping for rain during the beam-raising implies ‘timely rainfall for abundant life.’ After the beam-raising, lighting a fire symbolizes ‘crackling sound.’ On the beam-raising day, neighbors use red cloth as flags, hanging them on their rooftops to avoid ‘feng shui’ conflicts. In folk house construction, ‘raising the beam’ signifies the joy of completing a grand building.

On the beam-raising day, the host prepares a feast, welcoming congratulations from relatives and friends. During the beam-raising, as the fan is raised, celebratory firecrackers boom, attracting a large audience. The carpenters perform a ritual with chicken blood, and the eastern side dresses in red to pay respect to the beam. The carpenters cheer, ‘Follow and obey!’ The hosts respond, ‘Great!’ ‘Raise the golden phoenix and call out! Great! Blessings come with the golden chicken!’ A unique and rhythmic exchange. The carpenters cheer while vigorously throwing rice cakes downward, creating a lively scene as villagers rush to grab them. After the founding of the country, people construct new houses, following modern construction and planning, no longer adhering to the old customs of inviting ‘earth gods,’ divining auspicious moments, or invoking deities for groundbreaking. However, the tradition of ‘raising the beam’ persists. On this day, relatives and friends come to offer gifts and help with construction, painting the beam red and inscribing the names of the builders and the auspicious date of construction.

Even today, in some areas, the tradition of ‘raising the beam’ and ‘grabbing rice cakes’ continues, while others use candies instead.”

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