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Character Building

The book Chinese Architecture and Metaphor: Song Culture in the Yinzao Fashi Building Manual by Jiren Feng brings new light to the study of Chinese architectural writing

For someone who can barely make out a dozen characters to ‘review’ this book would be an impertinence. This is not a review therefore, but a ‘notice’ as they used to say.

Professor Feng’s book is primarily concerned with the Yingzao Fashi (as its title makes clear), the building handbook written by Li Jie, who is usually described as an ‘official’; working in the Imperial Directorate of Construction, he certainly was that − though he was also a painter-calligrapher, a philologist, a horse-fancier and gambler, someone very different from his much earlier Roman Imperial opposite number, the very sedate Vitruvius.

A millennium separated them, and while a retired, independent Vitruvius dedicated his book to Augustus, Li wrote at the direct command of one Emperor − Zhezong (1086-1100). And his book was finally published by yet another, Huizong (no mean calligrapher himself, the originator of the ‘Slender Gold’ style) in 1103, and it became the most important work on architecture and building for Imperial China.

It has, of course, been much studied − even in English − over the last century, but it is Professor Feng’s contention, which seems entirely justified, that it has been treated too much as a handbook to standard details and measurements, even though it is centrally concerned with metaphors, of which the most important is the analogy between the structure of plant forms and that of columns, and the entablature of bracket-corbels which support the roof.

The analogy is not one of look-alike, but is structurally reasoned. Moreover, Feng has given Li’s book a fascinating but rather unfamiliar context − since it is, after all, the culmination of much architectural theorising which went on in more general works: the Erya (an encyclopaedic dictionary which includes much architectural terminology − compiled a millennium before Li’s book) and the commentary on it, Erya Shu; the fragmentary Mujing of Yu Hao, or the Sanlitu of Nie Zhongyi are the best known.

And of course Li garnered material from such predecessors, much as Vitruvius relied on older Hellenistic architect-theorists. However the writings of Li Jie’s predecessors, unlike those of Vitruvius, do survive, though they are unfortunately all too little known.

Most are writings of literary men, scholar-calligraphers. In all of them a great deal of attention is devoted to geometry − to the manipulation of the water-level, the compass, and the plumb-line as well as to ritual practice: the establishing of orientation, the varieties of geomancy and that physical and historical examination of the terrain which is popularly familiar in the west as Feng Shui − but which has its own complex, ancient literature.

Li Jie did not just rely on his reading, but gathered much information from craftsmen, so that the language in which he writes is an amalgam of the learnt style of the scholar-philologists and the more pedestrian locutions of masons and woodworkers.

But it is evident that his narrative will be quite unfamiliar to Western architectural historians since the style of many of his predecessors (some of the texts he considers are rhymed prose rhapsodies in praise of grand and famous buildings) will come as a surprise.

All this Professor Feng has considered in detail with the help of many quotations, given first in Chinese characters and then in English translation. He demonstrates − convincingly, to my mind − that the tradition of Chinese architecture originates in the confluence of two streams, the craftsmanly and the literary, but with craftsmen often partnering the literati as near-equals.

Jiren Feng’s book is the latest volume in the University of Hawaii’s Spatial Habitus series which is a very worthwhile enterprise and I, for one, hope that he will be encouraged by the reception of this book to undertake further studies of Chinese architectural writing which are virtually unknown to Western historians and theorists.

Chinese Architecture and Metaphor; Song Culture in the Yingzao Fashi Building Manual, Jiren Feng, University of Hawaii Press/Hong Kong University Press, $53

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