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Chinese Architectural Theory

The pattern of Chinese life is made up of the formalities of Confucianism and the informalities of Taoism. It is in the house that the demands of the former are satisifed

Originally published in AR July 1947, thist piece was republished online in November 2015

I spent an evening some time ago with a party of music lovers. We had some chamber music and much talk, leading to a discussion of Confucius’s contention that one can tell from the music of a nation whether or not it is well governed. Attempts were made at defining the nature of music and instances from Western history were brought in to test the truth of the dictum. Ignorance of Chinese music rendered the discussion a little difficult, but that was, it seemed to me, not the only reason for our failure to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. I would say that the course of the discussion was misdirected from the very beginning. You cannot take a statement of Confucius as the basis of a debate in Europe. For there is no theory of music of universal application. To examine Chinese music in the light of standards derived from Western experience, must lead to misunderstandings, to say the least. The meaning of an art in a country with a culture so different from the Western World as that of China can only be understood if all the available evidence is studied carefully and dispassionately in the light of the philosophy underlying it.

Now regarding ancient Chinese music unfortunately very little is known. Only the Book of Rites, a revival of Chou rites (1122 to 256 B.c.), has some references to the use of music in ancient times which may help to clarify Confucius’s saying. Confucius lived in a time of perpetual civil strife (551-478 BC), when ambitious noblemen plotted everywhere against each other, treacherous ministers unashamedly robbed their Princes of their privileges, sacrifices and rites were neglected, and codes of conduct and decorum ignored. Against this chaotic background stands Confucius’s resuscitation of the social order practised in the earlier centuries of the Chou Dynasty. The Book of Rites was the result of his work. Confucius’s aim was to establish a harmonious relationship between father and son, man and the State, and so on. In order to establish such a relationship ceremonies were revived likely to help in the re-introduction of righteousness and propriety. Music played an important part in this. It was employed to give dignity to ceremonial occasions. Therefore it was, according to Tsi-Kung, possible in such a society ” to recognize a good government by its good manners; to appreciate the benevolence of the rules by listening to its music.” Thus for Confucius and his followers music is not a pleasure to the ear or a stimulus to emotions but an implement of virtue in the hands of the State.

A lakeside scene in the Nai Hai

A lakeside scene in the Nai Hai

Now the position of architecture in Chinese philosophy and life is very similar to that of music, and if it is looked at and interpreted by Western standards, the result is bound to be unsatisfactory. There have been many ardent students of architecture lately who have arrived with measuring tape and sketchbook and treated a Chinese temple as if it were the Pantheon. Such research is certainly not without value. But in using Western methods exclusively one cannot but overlook important and interesting points. It is all very well to offer plausible explanations of the characteristic features of Chinese buildings, or to examine-according to the technique of the West-the influences exerted on Chinese architecture by geographical, historical, social, economical conditions, but all that cannot do more than scratch the surface. We must go deeper to see what architecture means in China.

As for Chinese scholars, they also have at least during the last thirty years-made valuable contributions to the study of architecture. For not until after 1900 did architecture attract men of in China. Before then a builder was as an artisan of low social status, and between scholar and builder was unsurmountable. Never before our day would a scholar have condescended to take in what he considered the humble of the builder. But even Chinese scholars have been too prone to measure with against Western standards, instead of emphasizing those Chinese achievements, which may be held to prove a real superiority of the East over the West. Frame construction was discovered in China at a time previous to historical records. The use of the module also was familiar in ancient China. Then there is the outstanding skill in grouping, which we find in Chinese architecture of the past. Mrs. Liang Shih-Cheng writes in her introduction to Prof. Liang’s revised edition of Ching Shih Ying Tsao Tsa Lih, a book on building, published during the Ching Dynasty (221-206 B.c.): “The essence of a Chinese layout is the grouping of individual buildings with court-yards and gardens over a wide area. Therefore even the most important and grandest palace, when looked at in isolation and compared with any famous buildings abroad, will appear small, simple and of inferior appeal. … ” If this is true and buildings were always designed as parts of some larger unit, then they should never be criticized independently; the qualities to be judged must be those of the whole. Not that this does not also apply to certain European buildings. But a European church or palace can always be considered individually as well, a Chinese temple or palace never.

View from the T'uan Ch'eng, a circular mound with high walls in the Imperial City, Peking

View from the T’uan Ch’eng, a circular mound with high walls in the Imperial City, Peking

It goes without saying that one of the fundamental differences between the Western and the Chinese outlook on life is that in Western thought some tension always exists between man and nature, whereas in China ” we find no barrier set up between the life of man and the life of the rest of God’s creations.” Laurence Binyon observed this difference in pictorial art, and it is no less true of architecture. In Chinese paintings it is ” not the glory of the naked human form ” that matters, ” not the proud and conscious assertion of human personality, but all thoughts that lead us out from the universal life and hints of the infinite.” These are the themes dwelt upon, cherished and reiterated. If that is so, then it is hardly conceivable that a building, the work of man’s hands, should be glorified and allowed to dominate its surroundings in defiance of nature rather than be brought into fusion with it. Let us see then how Chinese building is determined by this philosophy. The Ming scholar and painter Li Li-wen has much to say on the ideal house. The following quotation translated by Lin Yutang from The Importance of Living is typical.

” Inside the gate is a footpath and the footpath must be winding. At the turning of the footpath there is an outdoor screen and the screen must be small. Behind the screen there is a terrace and the terrace must be level. On the banks of the terrace there are flowers and the flowers must be fresh. Beyond the flowers is a wall and the wall must be low. By the side of the wall there is a pine tree and the pine tree must be old. At the foot of the pine tree there are rocks and the rocks must be quaint. On the rocks there is a pavilion and the pavilion must be simple. Behind the pavilion there are bamboos and the bamboos must be thin and sparse. At the end of the bamboos there is the house and the house must be secluded …. ” So it is only after a long journey that we arrive at the house itself, and instead of describing it in the way a Western observer would, he dismisses it with the one epithet ” secluded,” and then goes on to take us round the rest of the garden and to show us a winding road, grass plots, ditches, a hill, the vegetables, and finally some drunken guests who do not want to go home. Obviously then the house as such is not in the centre of Li Li-wen’s thoughts, it is only a detail in his conception.

May not this approach to building be the reason why architecture such as flourished in Europe was never developed in China? Instead of a Vitruvius we find scholars like Li Li-wen whose chief interest is living. That abstract beauty which is the ultimate virtue of Western architecture is not looked for at all. The Jesuits would like us to believe that Chinese philosophy is essentially ethical positivism concerned with the laying down of codes of conduct and completely indifferent to metaphysical speculation. There may or may not be a measure of truth in this view of the matter. It is a fact, however, that under the influence of such one-sided conceptions the study of Li Li-wen and a host of other scholars before and after him have been neglected. It is, of course, beyond the scope of the present article to make up for this neglect, but a few words are necessary on the Chinese attitude to beauty in architecture.

The artificial landscape

A pavilion in the Imperial City

It is generally accepted that in every work of architecture there are two aims: one practical and one emotional. In Chinese architecture these two aims are not accomplished by one person, the architect, but divided between the builder and the scholar. The scholar’s interest is in universals; he is glad to leave building to the unlearned builder. From him the scholar only expects the fulfilment of the elementary functions of a house. This appears clearly from a passage in the Book of Change. ” In ancient times, the people lived in caves in the wilderness. Later wise men replaced caves by houses which were built with beams and eaves, the beams for the purpose of providing strength and shelter from the weather.” Beyond this general function of the house there has been hardly any elaboration. Builders working with the materials at their disposal have for centuries been satisfied to fulfil the simple and basic requirement of providing strength and shelter from the weather. Unlike their fellow builders in other parts of the world, they were never required to vault over huge areas for large congregations or pile up imposing monuments to glorify great heroes.

Their job, whether for the nobility or the common man, whether for palace or hut is essentially the same: to divide up and cover a desired area by a varying number of standard bays the size of which is dictated by the varying strength of the timber used. Chinese clients do not insist on individual whims to be satisfied by the builder. An architect is therefore unnecessary. In this the Chinese attitude is utterly different from, say, the Roman. In the Roman world architects, in order to meet the specialized activities of their time had to develop a host of architectural forms. In China, builders solved their problems by the manipulation of basic units, and maybe Chinese architecture was all the happier for that. Now as these basic needs, which were the only ones concerning the builder, changed only very slowly, if at all, no changes in structural forms and materials were called for. The aesthetic result is of a seeming monotony which some critics lament. However, looking intently at any one building in China, one cannot fail to admit that with all the limitations imposed on them the Chinese builders have evolved a simple and organic style.

“Looking intently at any one building in China, one cannot fail to admit that with all the limitations imposed on them the Chinese builders have evolved a simple and organic style.”

 In our long history there are only two treatises dealing with methods of building construction, one by Li Chieh, assistant to the Board of Works in the reign of the Emperor Sung Tai Tsung (976-998), and the other by an unknown author in the Ming Dynasty. His work was cal His work was called Ming Ying Tsao Ching Shih. It is probably now lost. Li Chieh was ordered by the Emperor to revise a treatise on building construction, which had been completed in 1091 by an Inspector of the Board of Works. For three years Li gathered much information on ancient building methods from the records kept in the official archives. His work was finished in 1100. In 1925 it was reproduced by photolithography after an un- successful attempt had been made a few years before. The reprint appeared at the time of the building of Peiping National Library which heralded the coming “Chinese Renaissance.” No doubt this reproduction of an ancient treatise did much to stimulate the growing interest in architecture. Without Li’s book the study of Chinese building construction would be infinitely more difficult than it is now, for instruction in the more difficult than it is now, for instruction in the old days was handed down verbally and sometimes technical innovations were only revealed to the male members of the builder’s family. Li Chieh, in his treatise called Ying Tsao Fa Shih, first defines the various elements of architecture. This part is simply a collection of passages from ancient literature together with some of the author’s notes but no constructive comment. The first passage is the one on the function of a house quoted above from the Book of Change. Li then goes on describing the methods of setting out and making the most important structural members: brackets, columns, roof, beams and so on, and also the manufacturing of tiles, bricks, etc. This part is followed by one on building procedure and the measuring of the finished building. Several diagrams are added to illustrate the description.

A rock garden in the northern part of the Imperial City. The paintings above is by Wang Hsien of the Sung Dynasty

A rock garden in the northern part of the Imperial City. The paintings above is by Wang Hsien of the Sung Dynasty

From Li’s book we gather that the building profession must already in 1100 have been highly organized with many craftsmen of great skill specializing in the carrying out of particular jobs. The following are fully dealt with: the heavy carpenter, light carpenter, sculptor, saw miller, bamboo carpenter, bricklayer, clayworker, painter, tiler, potter, trencher and mason. Sometimes everi finer subdivisions occur, for instance, among the heavy carpenters, specialists in making complicated brackets, coffered ceilings and so on.

In the third chapter of his book, Li Chieh speaks of the materials to be used in building. There were eight sizes of timber called ” ka,” all with a section of the proportion of two to three. The corresponding proportion in the Ching Dynasty seems to have been 8 to 10 or 10 to 12. The different sizes of timbers all had their definite uses. The largest timber for instance, that is a timber of 6 in. by 9 in. scantling, was reserved for the most important and largest buildings. As soon as the size of the timber was decided carpenters could set out the complete building accordingly. The scantling of the timber determined the length of the beam, the length of the beam the size of the rooms. Thus throughout the building right down to the details, one basic module and one proportion were maintained.

“It still remains to be explained on what grounds a client may order a three or a five or an eight-unit house. To the West, especially the modern West, one would assume that it depends on wealth. But this is not so in China.”

The basic module is the area between the four piers called “kien.” The shape of the module area is usually a rectangle with a proportion of two to three. Different plans are evolved through the manipulation of kiens and are described according to their arrangement. Thus when a client orders “three kiens and five kas,” it is understood that there will be three basic units with five timber trusses. Once this is determined then the matter of embellishment is left to the builder who will, without being told, work in the fashion of the day. In this manner the venture of building is reduced to the simple affair of placing an order with the builder under what may be described as a code number. It is unnecessary to say much about the topical interest to the West of this Chinese method of building. However, it still remains to be explained on what grounds a client may order a three or a five or an eight-unit house. To the West, especially the modern West, one would assume that it depends on wealth. But this is not so in China.

It has been said at the beginning of this article that in China music has a social function in the state. The same is true of architecture. Throughout the dynasties, buildings have been meant to express social status. Tou Shih Tsu Cheng, an encyclopedia compiled about 1730, has many chapters mainly devoted to the various systems which throughout the dynasties have governed the relation of buildings to social position and dignity. To judge of this is the scholar’s job, and the role of the scholar in the essentials of Chinese architecture is, as will be shown presently, much greater than the West imagines.

Only a few instances can here be given of how the scholar lays down the law of permitted architectural demands. In the Tang Dynasty, for instance, it is stipulated that for any person in rank below the Prince and above the third class officer, a house should not have more than five kiens and nine kas (allowing for a veranda around the house) and that the lodge should not be of more than three kiens. Any person above the rank of the fifth officer should be entitled to build five kiens and seven kas, and so on. The commoners were only allowed three kiens and must not apply any ostentatious decoration.

A walk on the north slope of the gardens of the Summer Palace

A walk on the north slope of the gardens of the Summer Palace

In the laying out of cities, this rigid observance of social laws is also evident. As far back as the Hsia Dynasty (2205 B.c.) a consistent principle was applied. The sizes of the cities varied in accordance with the rank of the feudal lord. A King was entitled to possess 1,000 li squares, a duke or earl100, a viscount 70, a baron 50, and a commoner 100 mou, so that he would be able to support a family of nine. The disposition of the public buildings in the royal city reflects the same social and philosophical rigidity. In the middle of the city, we read, there should be the palace, on its left the Temple of the Ancestors representing the “way of humanity,” on its right the Temple of the State representing the “way of the earth,” in the front the royal courtyard representing ” faith and loyalty ” and at the back the market representing “profit.” No good ruler should have his eye too much on profit. When it came to actual building, a gentleman of breeding would always erect the temple to his ancestors first, then the granary and only at the end his own dwelling. As soon as this order was upset, collapse menaced the individual, the nation and the dynasty.

When it was faithfully kept, prosperity would follow. Ching Shih Huang Ti (210 B.c.), the builder of the Great Wall, is often said to have brought disaster to the dynasty he founded by his unprecedented extravagance in building. O Fang Kung, whose magnificence is now a legend, squandered an empire. He employed seventy thousand slaves to build a palace for his own enjoyment ; his tyranny was forever cursed. “A saintly king,” it was said, “must build according to propriety not magnificence.” Frugality was the golden rule. Tou Shih Tsu Cheng has a collection of memoranda by famous ministers of the past to reproach their kings when they desired to build unnecessarily grand palaces. The technique of the memoranda is always to show the blessings of frugality supported by the enumeration of crises and disasters, which have followed the evil of extravagance. Lavish building has thus never been officially encouraged. The effect of this policy may have been a slower tempo in the development of architecture in China than in the west, but it certainly is a triumph of philosophy over the frivolity of man.

Within these narrow limits of construction and convention, however, China found ample scope for a free and imaginative play of aesthetic powers. Where construction did not enter and convention had no say, within the walls of the house and in the seclusion of the garden, architecture achieved a new significance, if the West be prepared to include within the term architecture the art of interior adornment and the art of the garden.

In both these fields superb achievements grace the cities and the countryside of China. We say superb-and we mean of the highest aesthetic standard. However, once again it must be emphasized that aesthetics did not enter consciously into the creation of Chinese interior and exterior furnishing anywhere until a very short time ago. Layout was dictated and details determined by wholly different considerations-chiefly two, one religious and one secular, one pertaining to mysticism and one to humanism. Feng Shui, the astrology of siting, is discussed in a separate article following this. On the relation of literature and scholarship to architecture in China, I must enlarge a little more now.

Park landscape, Peking

Park landscape, Peking

Li Li-wen’s exposition of his ideal house is a typical example of the Chinese attitude. Where he describes flowers, trees, rocks, a pavilion, groups of bamboos, a house, and drunken guests, he is not guided in what he says by his own personal whim but by his knowledge of literature and art. A house at the far end of a bamboo grove would to him probably be desirable because of its associations with the Eight Sung Sages and their retreat under the bamboos. Their story the later poets had sung and the painters dabbed on their canvases so often and so enchantingly that nothing better could be wished for by the educated than a house in the likeness of theirs.

Again the rocks, pine trees and pavilion conjured associations with past philosophers who sought in the midst of an age of strife. These are only two examples from the vast store of familiar pictures living in the mind of a scholar who has read much and seen much. To him clients would go for advice, when they want to build a house and lie out grounds, and not an architect or garden-architect. In the ideal house literature, painting and living must all be one. ‘This attitude still prevails to-day, as it seems to have prevailed from time immemorial. You can to-day find wealthy merchants of little education building a house on a tiny plot of land with a fish-pond the size of a bath tub and a mount barely big enough for a child to crawl up, and then name it, from the expressly written couplets a friend of moderate scholarship, “The So-and Retreat,” or “The So-and-so Villa by the Hill” And you can read on the other hand in of the past how the philosopher and scholar the life that really matters into the of the builder and the gardener.

Take, for instance, Dreams of the Red Chamber, a novel depicting the life of an aristocratic family about 1680 and the chapters it contains on the building of the “Garden of the Great Spectacle.” Very little is said about the making of the garden, except that the owner having decided that he wants a house, some outhouses and a garden, sends for an old man called Wu, who apparently in less than one morning’s time can cope with all the wishes of his client. Nothing then is said about the actual building. Finally, one day, all is completed and ready for inspection, where-upon the owner takes a party of his guests on a tour round the garden. Theirs is going to be a worthier occupation than mere building or super-visiting of building. The owners of the house have asked them to compose poems and couplets and to give names to the various spots of interest, including the various buildings within the garden. He tells his guests ” though there are many spots, many pavilions and houses ” on his estate, “it can without names and appropriate hold no flowers, willows, hills and water of any character.” So let us follow them and listen to their discussion on the qualities of the garden.

A painting showing the close resemblance, in form and texture, between the Chinese artificial landscape and the works of the Chinese masters of landscape paintings

A painting showing the close resemblance, in form and texture, between the Chinese artificial landscape and the works of the Chinese masters of landscape paintings

The party first arrives at the gate lodge, which is five kiens in a row. The roof is covered with pantiles; the ‘windows and doors are all carved with patterns in the latest fashion. The lodge and the wall are whitewashed giving a feeling of dignity and refinement. Passing the gate, the guests suddenly find themselves in front of a green hill screening off the view. Round the foot of the hill and on one side, there are a number of boulders through which a narrow winding footpath winds like “a sheep’s gut” to the entrance of a tunnel. Here the party pauses to let literary associations rise. Some suggest names such as “The Piled Green” and “The Embroidered Rock” but they don’t find favour. Nothing so florid should meet us right at the beginning of our perambulations. So the name chosen is more prosaic : “The Winding Path to Tranquillity.” Through the tunnel, the party then comes to a terrace surrounded by a balustrade of white stone. In front is a pond of crystal-clear water and at the back rocks ” soaring sky high ” with tall trees in great profusion. Through the branches appear the curved roofs of two pavilions like birds in flight.

From the terrace the party crosses a bridge passing another pavilion in the middle of the bridge. The pavilions beyond the rocks remind the party at once of the wing-like pavilion described in the famous essay An Episode in the Pavilion of a Drunken Old Man, by the Sung poet Ou Yang Hsiu. However, the parallel is not perfect, for in the Episode no water is mentioned. But apropos the drunken old man and the presence of water in the scene before the eyes of the guests, one of them suggests another line by the same poet from his description of Hsien Tsu, the source of the river Sing Shansi. The second proposal is “Flowing Jade,” which is what Ou Yang Hsiu calls the water of the spring used for the distilling of the famous Shansi spirit. Should the vista then be “Flowing Jade”? The name is objected to as too obvious and in rather bad taste because associated with drinking. So the end of the discussion is yet another name: ” Sirig Fragrance,” passed as highly suitable because the word Sing can mean both the river and” flowing.” A couplet is now composed on the spot to commemorate the beauty of Flowing Fragrance or River Sing Fragrance.

Hsieh Ch'u yuan, in the pleasure garden of the Summer Palace

Hsieh Ch’u yuan, in the pleasure garden of the Summer Palace

“Along the banks, the willow trees borrow the green of the three bamboo poles [the punt poles].”

“Over the opposite shores, flowers share the fragrance from one pulsation.”

So the party journeys on enjoying the scenery, communing with the poets of the past and sharing with the painters the revealing beauty of nature. Here and there are rows of houses and scattered pavilions, and a shelter projects over the steep bank of the river. They seem to be there in order that men might stay to contemplate nature or to enjoy to the full the pleasure offered by the changing seasons. There is a ” Snow Shelter ” by the shore covered on both sides by tall bamboo shoots and with one side facing the water. From its windows one can angle under cover. It is called the ” Snow Shelter,” because the day after a heavy snow, when the whole world seems transformed into “white silver,” a party is meant to go there to sit sipping hot wine and nibbling a piece of meat roasted over an open fire. There is evidently a highly civilized and sophisticated art of living behind all this. The scholar is its soul. To appreciate it, you have to be of the class that knows its classics. How comparatively insignificant the house in itself must be in such a system will be obvious. There was no compelling reason why it should not be standardized in design and very simple in equipment. “Confucius lived in a quiet place; a house needs no more than propriety.” The Sung scholar Lin Yu Shih in a famous passage praised a humble abode. He said: ” Though my house was humble, my virtue was worthy. With my verandah green with moss and green light reflected from the grass plot into my room through the blinds, I could have laughter and talk with learned scholars and was safe from calls of the vulgar. I could play gently on my guitar and read without interference and without feeling tired-Chu-Ko Liang of Nanyang lived in a pavilion in Honan like this-the Master Kung would say this is not at all a humble abode.”

“Confucius lived in a quiet place; a house needs no more than propriety”

Let us end with this passage and sum up. Chinese architecture is essentially the work of two persons: the scholar and the builder. What there is of creative work is the former’s-his the social, his the religious and his the literary premises of building. The builder fulfils the needs analysed and formulated by the scholar. He fulfils them in a simple skilful way, but what he does loses its higher meaning if looked at on nothing but its own merits in the manner in which we look at Western building. To study the builder’s work to the exclusion of the scholar’s would be to study empty shells.

In present-day China, where most of the people smoke cigarettes, where you see jeeps dashing along the streets of Chungking, the problem to keep up the pace of the time is as acute as in any country. As far as architecture is concerned that means that an adjustment must be found between a tradition (a spiritual rather than a formal tradition) and a Western notion of architecture imported only some thirty years ago. It is evident that a country like China would lose far more than it can possibly win, if it were to adopt European thought and methods lock, stock and barrel, regardless of whether these foreign conceptions are served up with a foreign or a Chinese Renaissance dressing. No-the past thousands of years cannot have been spent in vain.


But how can a synthesis be found? One thing is certain. The building tradition, which has been described, has an immense contemporary value. If we can keep a sense of materials and of logical construction, the technical survival of our architecture should be secured. We may regret the somewhat arrogant indifference of Chinese scholars towards the builder. But after all, their noninterference in matters of building proper may be a good thing at this moment. We may also regret that the builders of the past had no faith in progress as those of the West have had ever since Merovingian and Carolingian days. But that also has its advantages. Progress does not necessarily increase happiness. Maybe the Chinese builders were happier people than their brothers in Europe, practising a happy and tranquil art.

These vital values are worth keeping. They are the scholar’s share in architecture in the widest sense. It is due to him that China thinks of architecture in terms of landscape, that is of a good life, close to fields, close to hills and close to the water, where we may live humbly conscious of a vast universe, share our pleasures with all the great scholars and poets and painters of the past. A philosophy which teaches us not to outdo the little bungalow next-door nor to play up to the wealthier neighbour on the other side surely il’l as good a school of architecture as any. And, moreover, all these conceptions are indigenously Chinese.

So our way in my opinion should be to go on learning of “the Bamboo Retreat,” the “Drunken Old Man,” the “Western Lake” and so on and start sketching and working out designs inspired by them, remembering not to assert ourselves in any ill-mannered way. Perhaps-who knows? One day we may thus find ourselves sane architects of a Chinese twentieth century.

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