2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 28

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Wood to Stone and Beyond - Chinese Architecture Through the Materials Microscope

Organizer and Chair: Alexandra Harrer, Tsinghua University, Austria

Discussant: Tracy G. Miller, Vanderbilt University, USA

The panel explores the idea of building in imperial China as a whole, beyond specific materials, and proposes a least common denominator inherent to all of them. It challenges the ingrained prejudice of past Western scholars, that more durable materials such as natural stone, artificial bricks, or reinforced concrete were always superior to transient ones such as wood. Here, Chinese architecture is the perfect bridge between the overlapping fields of art history and technical science, and the notion of adopting and adapting characteristic wooden features as thematic, decorative motifs onto another material (fangmu 仿木) is the key to understanding Chinese history and culture. The ultimate goal of the panel is to identify the hitherto-unnoticed complexity and wide range of the thrilling fangmu phenomenon in China and to capture the “fourth dimension of wood” – a term coined by the panel chair that describes the outstanding quality of overcoming the natural limitations of innate material characteristics. The panel will start with a short introductory talk to set the stage for three in-depth research papers that focus on outstanding case-studies from antiquity to modern times. They will reveal wood-like features in rough ceramic materials or even in metals such as copper alloys, and aim to address the reliability of such evidence compared with contemporary timber construction and historical texts about architecture.

The Fourth Dimension of Wood
Alexandra Harrer, Tsinghua University, Austria

Every discussion about Chinese architecture usually starts with the predominant role of wood - a heterogeneous, anisotropic cellular material that was easy to work with and widely available. Over the past three millennia, woodworking technology has gradually advanced to create a modular design system of standardized, pre-fabricated building blocks that were second to none and which became an icon of Chinese civilization beyond its political boundaries. This is not to say that all historical buildings were made solely of timber, nor that the builders of the past relied exclusively on this transient material. Rather, wood was the defining factor that made Chinese architecture unique. The far-reaching impact is still vividly evident in numerous decorations that visually mimic wooden models in other formats and materials. Examples of such embellishments adorn a variety of structures and artifacts, ranging from large-scale brick pagodas and stone bridges to small-scale pottery objects excavated from underground tombs. The introductory talk briefly explains the idea behind the panel and its leitmotif: it defines the terms “fangmu” and “fourth dimension of wood,” and assigns signature features of Chinese timber technology to their non-timber representations. To give an accurate picture of the phenomenon, it addresses the variety of building materials and abundance of mixed styles that existed in pre-modern China alongside the purely wooden structures. It puts Chinese timber architecture into the socio-cultural context of pre-modern Europe and the United States, and explains both its fascination for past Western scholars and their misleading notions about it.

Build for the Living: Brick and Stone Buildingsof the Yuan dynasty in South China
Lala Zuo, Swarthmore College, USA

In ancient China, stone-and-brick structures are habitually connected to ideas of afterlife: an underground palace for a ruler at rest, a house-shaped sarcophagus preserving the dead body, a pagoda in memorial of a prominent monk after one’s nirvana, or a shrine venerating the ancestors. Ancient people in China might believe that timber architecture was for this life, while stone-and-brick structures were monuments for the deceased. The fact that stone-and-brick architecture are often designed to be simulation of the timber buttresses the dominance of timber, both structurally and aesthetically, in the construction history of ancient China. Nevertheless, in the Yuan dynasty, there were exceptions to the association of stone structure and afterlife. This paper will explore two stone buildings that were built in the Yuan dynasty in south China. They were all constructed as real buildings for daily religious activities. This paper examines the structure, decoration, and constructive technique of the buildings to answer two questions. First, were these stone buildings merely built to carry on the tradition of mimicking the timber architecture? Second, why those buildings were built of stone instead of wood? To conclude, I intend to investigate what the Yuan builders have contributed to the development of stone-and-brick architecture in ancient China.

Shining Splendor: The Historical Significance, Structure and Composition of the Chinese Copper Hall
Jianwei Zhang, Peking University, China

In discussions on traditional Chinese building materials or imitation of timber structures, metal is usually forgotten. Although it is true that metal architecture cannot be seen as often as other non-timber structures, the history of metal serving as a building material can be traced back to the Shang Dynasty, according to archaeological evidence. And when western travelers and missionaries began to introduce Chinese architecture at the late 19th century, some of them were amazed by the shining “golden shrines”, which imitated the structure of timber architecture with all the components being made of copper alloy. However, after that there was no further research on this special type of architecture for a century. During the past six years, my fieldwork has covered the metal architecture sites all over China, including the copper halls and metal pagodas. This presentation will focus on the copper halls. In the six survivals, the earliest one was built in 1307 CE, in Mount Wudang; three are from the Ming Dynasty, in Mount Wudang, Mount Wutai, and Mount Taishan; and two are from the Qing Dynasty, in Kunming and the Summer Palace, Beijing. Three key questions are discussed for the first time. First, design and imitation: what is the structure like? Second, history and significance: Why made of copper? Last but not least, composition: what exactly is the alloy? Bronze or brass, and why? My presentation will include pictures, line drawings and 3-D models, analysis data and stele texts from my survey.

Beyond Wood and Stone: The Non-Material Aspect of Chinese Architecture
Cary Y. Liu, Princeton University, USA

. The aesthetic idea of "use in uselessness" characterizes aspects of the conception of architecture in China. As expressed in ancient texts including the Daodejing:"It is precisely where there is emptiness, that we find the usefulness of a room." The material of architecture—wood, stone, clay, and metal—forms the physical container that gives emptiness its shape and body. What fills the emptiness—space, ritual, living, action, words, etc.—activates usefulness and determines the relationships between the material and non-material aspects of architecture. This preliminary paper will explore various ways and means emptiness has been filled in Chinese building, traditional practices and concepts that have resulted in Sun Yat-sen's characterization that "All the so-called houses in China…are built after the model of a temple. When a Chinese builds a house he has more regard for the dead than for the living….The house is planned not for comfort but for ceremonies…"