A very old belief in the Empire applies attributes to the four cardinal directions. (These directions, by the way, are absolute rather than relative to the circle of the world. Thus North points to the very top edge of the world disc, East to the far right etc. In the Empire North relatively refers to the centre of the world, but if you were to travel in a straight line beyond the centre you would still be going north).
From the topography of the Imperial Heartland comes the general assignment of the directions - North is Mountains, South is Sea. East is River and West is Plains (sometimes called Hills). North and South are referred to as the Major Directions and East and West as the Minor Directions. On top of these is the "direction" of Centre, which may be a later addition. The five directions and their associated geography are then given mythical animal figures that represent them and are believed by some to live at the far extreme of those directions (see Sidebar). These creatures are described right back in the Classic of the Four Corners. Educated folk see them purely as metaphor for other powers and conditions whereas the peasantry sometimes worships them as spirits or gods.
This ordering of things has some effect on the life of ordinary people. The most obvious is the ordering of Imperial cities, with the five directions representing different walks of life. Golden Crow, the Ruler, is found at the centre of the city and hence that's where the government buildings are. Jade Gibbon represents farmers and labourers, therefore food markets and lower class houses are found in the north of cities. Glass Frog is the symbol of soldiers and guards. Barracks are always based in the east. Bronze Porpoise represents craftsmen and artisans, and they are quartered in the south. Ruby Horse is the symbol of philosophers and thinkers. Schools and the like (including bathhouses) are located in the western quarter of cities.
Beyond that, the animals and minerals are often used as physical symbols. Soldiers may march into battle holding banners bearing the frog, for example. Golden Crow may appear on government seals. The fabled underwater ships of the Empire may be built of bronze in the shape of the dolphin. Jade may be buried at the corners of agricultural land or in the foundations of buildings.
Creatures of the Five Directions
North: Jade Gibbon.
This creature is slow and stupid, but he is also honest, steadfast and strong.
East: Glass Frog.
This creature represents loyalty and duty. Glass Frog was a servant of the East Sun during the Time of Four Suns. When East Sun became the overall sun he had to traverse the Underworld somehow. Glass Frog swallows the sun in the west, swims through the Underworld and then spits the sun into the sky in the morning. Glass Frog's throat pouch is transparent but tinged with red, hence the red colour of the sky sometimes seen in evening and morning. Glass Frog sometimes shines in the sunlight himself as the evening or morning star.
South: Bronze Porpoise.
A flighty, frivolous creature who nonetheless possesses both mighty strength and a clever mind.
West: Ruby Horse.
A great beast with eight legs, winged hooves and fire for its mane and tail. Ruby Horse is wild and untamed. When it gallops across the sky it can create storms and its fiery tail can cause wildfire in the plains. It is a creature of raw, untapped energy.
Centre: Golden Crow.
This creature is a later addition and represents rulership over the other creatures. The legend of Golden Crow tells how he managed to gain a token from the other four enabling him to control them, and how they relinquished loyalty to him.