Architecture since 1400

Architecture since 1400

by Kathleen James-Chakraborty

ISBN: 9780816673971

Publisher Univ Of Minnesota Press

Published in Arts & Photography/Design & Decorative Arts

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Ming and Qing China

In 1368 the Ming dynasty seized control of China from the descendants of the Mongol invader Genghis Khan, who had ruled the Middle Kingdom since 1271. The Hongwu emperor, the founder of the new dynasty, shifted his capital from Dadu, present-day Beijing, to Nanjing. Upon his death, his grandson became emperor. After only four years, however, Hongwu's fourth son seized the throne from his nephew. Already governor of Dadu, the Yongle emperor shifted the capital back to his stronghold there. To confirm his rule, in 1407 he began the construction of the Forbidden City, still the world's largest palace and the center of Chinese government until the declaration of a republic in 1912 (Figure 1.1). The process of building the palace helped consolidate Ming rule. The Forbidden City's delicate balance of order and flexibility, tradition and innovation, and its integration of monumental and vernacular precedent demonstrate architecture's ability to embody aspirations and to support their realization. The form of the vast palace was indivisible from the identity of the Middle Kingdom over the course of half a millennium. Although almost nothing one sees on the site today dates to Yongle's reign, no structure provides a better introduction to the enduring importance of early fifteenth-century architecture and urbanism.

The palace compellingly quoted and expanded two key precedents. The first was a long history of planned Chinese capital cities, the second the courtyard house, whose prevalence from north to south and east to west was a unifying element throughout the empire. Already for more than three thousand years, Chinese imperial capitals had been planned in a roughly similar fashion determined by ideas of celestial order. Capital cities were built within rectangular enclosures, most auspiciously with mountains located to the north. Although each wall was pierced by at least one gate, the main gate was typically located to the south. Major avenues running north–south or east–west connected these gates. Major and even minor avenues bounded a grid of residential wards, which were often themselves walled and entered through gates. The grandest of these, typically located either in the center or at the northern end of the city, was the walled palace compound. This was eventually divided into administrative and residential halves. While access to the palace was limited, thriving markets were visited regularly both by the inhabitants of the city and by traders from throughout China and beyond. Also located outside the palace, but within the city walls, were the altars to which the emperor traveled annually to make sacrifices and pray. Gardens and the water running through them were the chief interruption to the geometrical regularity of Chinese imperial city plans. Imperial tomb complexes, always situated beyond the city walls, were, however, almost as rigidly planned as the palaces formerly inhabited by the people buried within them. For most of the history of the type, these cities were usually the largest in the world in terms of both area and population. Only in the period covered by this book did they begin to be equaled and even eclipsed by the expansion of urbanism in other parts of Asia and the world.

The plan of fifteenth-century Beijing conformed to these norms but also improved upon them. This was, for instance, one of the first Chinese cities to feature brick rather than only rammed-earth walls. The palace compound was an island within a walled imperial city that was surrounded by what became known as the inner city once further extensions were built to the south. All major buildings were arranged along or just to the side of the north– south axis, but the central location of the Forbidden City disrupted traffic across Beijing in any direction.

For much of recorded human history, China has been the world's best-established and most powerful empire, with some of its highest standards of living. China's emperors have not often controlled all the land within the country's present boundaries, but they have typically ruled both the north and the south. The expanse of territory and its population was far greater than that governed by any European between the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century and the flowering of its Spanish successor a thousand years later.

Since at least the fifth century B.C.E., ancient Iran had served as the origin for both the European and Islamic understanding of royal ritual. China performed the same role in East Asia. The great empires of the ancient eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, including the Roman and the Byzantine, did not survive into modern times. In China the imperial system remained relatively stable until the nineteenth century, despite changes of dynasty, across the ancient, medieval, and early modern eras. Thus there was no need in China for a Renaissance or even for the complex transformations of local traditions found in the Ottoman and Mughal Empires, whose architecture was inflected by their indigenous pre-Islamic heritage. Rather than leaping over a millennium to revive a past culture, as many Italian intellectuals were to do during the Renaissance, Chinese architects and their imperial patrons refined long-standing traditions whose origins were in many cases equally remote. During the Ming dynasty, China was the global power it had always been. Its international exports, above all silk, porcelain, and tea, were in increasing demand throughout the Islamic and European world, as well as closer to home.

The Ming dynasty ruled until 1644, when it was replaced by the Qing, a Manchu dynasty, the members of which, like the Mongols, were descended from inhabitants of the central Asian steppes. The Ming and Qing dynasties spanned the period in Chinese history that saw the greatest centralized rule by the emperor. This centralization was facilitated in part by the form of the imperial palace.

Although many of the elements of Chinese imperial city planning and of Chinese architecture remained relatively constant over centuries, there was room for dynamic change. The original Forbidden City was begun in 1407 and completed in 1421. Alterations continued, however, right up to the abolition of the monarchy. Over time, the palace slowly changed, as the series of halls was rebuilt after frequent fires and as the location of imperial government shifted from the outer fringes to the more private inner sanctum. Moreover, in keeping with more general trends in Chinese architecture, the private parts of the palace became increasingly elaborate.

This splendid palace, home for centuries to one of the most celebrated courts that has ever existed, differed only in scale, color, and the details of its decoration from environments with which most Chinese were familiar, whether or not they lived in them. Much of the architecture of the Forbidden City was but a larger and grander version of the houses of many far more ordinary Ming- and Qing-era Chinese, particularly if they were prosperous city dwellers, wealthy rural landowners, or the servants of either. This continuity across class lines supported a stable social order in which hierarchy was accorded within the primary social unit—the extended family—according to age and gender. The high degree of formal order present throughout much Chinese domestic architecture represented a cosmic diagram of an ideal political and social order adhered to by many across the length and breadth of China.

The Ming palace was composed of a series of five gates leading to the Three Great Halls, in which state ceremonies were conducted, behind which were the Three Back Halls (Palace of Heavenly Purity), where the imperial family lived, and a garden. This basic organization had a long history in China. Quarters for family members, servants, and staff flanked the raised courtyards around the main halls. In the eighteenth century the emperor moved out of the Palace of Heavenly Purity, which became an audience hall, but he still lived along the central axis.

One aspect of the palace that most distinguished it from ordinary dwellings was the approach. Typical Ming courtyard houses were entered from slightly off center, but the avenue to the palace lay on axis with the main boulevard north from the city's principal gate. Visitors gained admission through a sequence of five gateways. The most important of these was the third, or Wu Men, also known as the Meridian Gateway (Figure 1.2). The U-shaped Wu Men was the place where the government presented itself to the public, where edicts were issued to the civil service, where high-ranking officials waited for imperial audiences, and where rebels were executed in full sight of the city. The Wu Men was set apart from the rest of the city by the bright red color of its walls and by the use of yellow roof tiles, both of which were allowed only in this imperial context. Color and scale, rather than form and material, originally distinguished the palace from the other buildings of the city.

On the other side of the Wu Men are the marble bridges spanning the River of Golden Water. The sinuousness of this carefully channeled waterway provided one of the "natural" antidotes to the rigorous rectilinear geometry of the rest of the complex, a feature integral to traditional Chinese architecture and essential in preventing it from becoming monotonous. At one time the waterway may have had a defensive role, much like the moats surrounding medieval European castles, but that was no longer the case by the time the Forbidden City was built.

At the far end of the grandest of the palace courtyards is the Taihe Dian, or Hall of Supreme Harmony (Figure 1.3). Built in 1669 on the site of the Ming throne hall and remodeled in 1765, it was used by the Qing only on the most special occasions, such as the celebration of the New Year or the emperor's birthday. Here one has on an unequaled scale the plan of a typical Chinese courtyard house. The form accorded any male head of a prosperous Chinese extended family was elaborated to make it appropriately grand for the emperor.

The single-story hall was the basic unit of Chinese courtyard houses; columns rather than walls supported its roof. When the inhabitant ranked high enough, as here, these columns terminated in an elaborate system of brackets. Sumptuary laws controlled access to many ornamental and some structural details. The lavishness found here bore testimony to the emperor's ability to pay for the time-consuming skills of the best craftspeople to elaborate the fundamentals of this architectural system. A series of stepped platforms lifts the hall, which is wider and deeper than its vernacular counterparts, far up into the air, as if the building itself were a throne. One of the building's most important features, reserved for the emperor, is a special path up the center of its stairs. Called a spirit way, it is flanked by steps for the emperor's bearers—the emperor never walked up to the Taihe Dian unassisted.

The interior is a columned hall (Figure 1.4). At the center, reached by yet another flight of steps, is the throne. Gold leaf and lacquer decoration ornament a wooden frame; its ceiling is carved into elaborate coffers. At the summit sat the splendidly attired emperor. From here he could look out over the assembled courtiers and over the routes through which his edicts were carried into the distant corners of the realm. He and his highest courtiers could also watch the proceedings taking place in the great plaza beyond; flags, banners, and music contributed to the overall effect.

In terms of its length and spatial discipline, this sequence was the longest and most rigidly organized of any palace in the world. The Forbidden City, like its counterparts elsewhere, however, was not just a place of ritual display; it was also home to a court composed of thousands of family members, officials, and servants. The more intimate spaces provided appropriate settings for the daily rituals of the lives of the majority of the palace's inhabitants. The emperor's many concubines had their own quarters, guarded by eunuchs. The shift of the center of the emperor's residence from the Palace of Heavenly Purity to the less formal Palace of Mental Cultivation provided court women with unprecedented access to the locus of rule. From 1861 until her death in 1908, the Dowager Empress Cixi was China's de facto ruler, holding audience from behind a curtain in a room of this palace.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, much of the housing stock of Beijing consisted of miniature versions of the Forbidden City (Figure 1.5). A family's wealth and status were expressed architecturally by the number of times they were able to repeat the hall form; in larger houses a hall often consisted of a single three-, five-, or even seven-bay room. Originally halls were built largely of wood; over time, brick became more popular as greater population densities depleted the available forest resources. If the family could afford it, rooms to the left and right of the main hall provided quarters for married sons or grandsons, or for second wives and their children. A slightly larger house included separate quarters for unmarried daughters and a second court for additional male relatives and their families, or for servants. The largest of these complexes had literally hundreds of courtyards and were inhabited by clans, extended families stretching over three or more generations and including first and second cousins as well as hundreds of servants. Little of this structure, social or architectural, was ever visible from the street, however. The entrance was usually located off center, an asymmetrical twist intended to ward off evil spirits, who were believed to travel in straight lines, and to make the house more easily defensible against attack.

The courtyard house functioned as a social as well as an architectural system. Individual families across much of China inhabited these houses according to almost identical patterns. In this hierarchy, everyone knew where he or she belonged. Age always took precedence over youth, as did men over women of the same generation. The experience could be reassuring or confining, depending on one's temperament and that of the relatives with whom one lived according to these social conventions.

This spatial system was exceptionally rigid, giving definition to an equally inflexible social structure, whether on the scale of the imperial government or the ordinary extended family. But it was not the only kind of environment the Chinese inhabited. A government like China's depended not only on the emperor and his court but also on a large civil service spread throughout the country. Passing the exams to become part of this bureaucracy, and potentially to make one's fortune through participation in it, required training as a scholar. In the equivalent of liberal arts education today, this necessitated not only learning to read and write and mastering the body of knowledge required of an administrator—say, the value of the cloth to be taxed—but also gaining knowledge of the culture in a larger sense. This system was one of the most modern aspects of the empire. It unified the elite of the entire society, wherever in the empire they lived. One thing that these elite were trained to appreciate, regardless of where they grew up, was mountain landscapes. This was different from Europe, where those who lived elsewhere regarded mountainous regions as uncivilized until about 1800.

Excerpted from "Architecture since 1400" by Kathleen James-Chakraborty. Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen James-Chakraborty. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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