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Chinese architecture: what makes it different?

April 30, 2014 2 comments
Central axis of the central kingdom: the Forbidden City, Beijing

Central axis of the central kingdom: the Forbidden City, Beijing

The very term Chinese religious architecture, which I’ve written about here before, and spoke about in Beijing a couple of weeks ago, is a misnomer. Pagodas are religious; imperial sacrificial altars, of which only a handful ever existed at any one time, are religious. All other building types in Han China before the C17 are barely distinguishable from each other: there is one way of doing architecture, and buildings are classified by status, not function. Exceptions are subtle: for example, Taoist temples are often on high platforms; Confucian temples sometimes have moon-shaped pools outside them; mosques of course have Arabic inscriptions and Qibla-facing prayer halls, sometimes of stone. But this kind of thing is small beer.

This is remarkable. In all the other Major Civlisations (Ancient Rome excepted) there is a country mile in terms of scale, materials and/or form between religious buildings and other types of buildings. A Hindu temple could never be mistaken for a Buddhist one; from ancient Egypt to the ancient Khmer, the only buildings to be made of permanent materials were places of worship, leaving a landscape dotted with temple ruins in which the remains of homes are barely traceable.

There are several reasons for this perfectly rational but very unusual Chinese approach to architecture. The two most pat ones both have some truth to them; firstly, this is a precociously humanistic culture, in which religious conviction is very varied and not the defining feature of society in the way it was in medieval Europe (or, traditionally, in Tibet); secondly, and in contradiction, religious ideas — spirituality, the desire to encourage efficacious and beneficient responses from a spirit-world, small daily rituals — suffuse architecture/culture of all types, so there is no reason to separate a house from a temple. This is true of many, perhaps most, traditional cultures, but in China it has had a profound impact on buildings. If the temple is a home, the home is also a temple.

Perhaps an extension of this, while the Song-era Chinese building manuals, the Yingzao Fashi, make no distinction between a temple and any other kind of building, they emphatically distinguish imperial buildings, palaces and temples alike, from others; and by the same token the oldest buildings to exhibit the key characteristics of Chinese architecture, around the start of the first millenium BCE, seem to have been at once temples and palaces.

In other words, one of the reasons for this cross-functional approach is that traditional Chinese culture placed huge store in the religious role of the emperor as the ritual glue between heaven and earth. There thus is a sense in which palace and temple are overlapping categories. One can push this too far: the notion that royal power is also divine power is the motivating force behind many great temples in many great cultures without their also literally being palaces, but nevertheless there is much in it.

Finally, there is the simple fact that China achieved an infinitely modular and flexible architectural tradition and had good reason to consider it good for any kind of building, resulting in structures grand, flexible, beautiful and practical enough to suit all needs.

The Buddhist temple at Nanchansi, Shanxi, one of the oldest complete buildings of timber on the planet.

The Buddhist temple at Nanchansi, Shanxi, one of the oldest complete buildings of timber on the planet.

Allied to this is the most striking thing about these buildings, compared to their peers in other cultures. They are rarely enormous: in all China, as far as I can see, the Temple of Confucius at Qufu, Shandong is (as far as I can see) the only emphatically religious complex to bear comparison in terms of size with (say) the great medieval Christian buildings which are frequently seen in Europe. Perhaps, if the scale of their surviving comparitors in Japan (such as the Todaiji, Nara) is anything to go by, this was different under the Tang. We don’t know — and we don’t know because  the Chinese, very remarkably, as well as never going for the truly gargantuan and emphatically religious structures which, from Angkor to Thebes, from Baghdad to Cordoba, from Tieotihuacan to Samarra, were seen elsewhere, never developed an aspiration to permanency; that is, they never did what everyone else did, which is convert an architecture of timber to one of stone, brick or tile.

This is most remarkable. It reminds us that this step, while it occurred everywhere else, is actually rather odd. What made the ancient Americans, the Buddhists, the Greeks and the Egyptians respectively, to take four early and clear examples, decide the religious buildings, unlike any other kinds of building, should be made of permanent materials, even if the result was simply a carbon copy of an archjitecture that already existed in timber or mudbrick or bound reeds or whatever, is one of the world’s great architectural mysteries, and the answer, it seems to me, is likely to be bound up with religion itself. But in China, in spite of perfectly excellent traditions of masoncraft, and various interesting exceptions-to-the-rule, this simply never happened.

This has enormous implications. It means little in China is genuinely old. In an ancient culture — while by no means the oldest architectural tradition on earth, Chinese traditional architecture is still with us, and has arguably been around longer and with even greater continuity than the nearest (just-) surviving competitor, the architecture of Classical Europe —  it is odd to find few buildings older than 2 or 300 years. It is also hard to ‘read’ structures that will look identical if renewed yesterday or thirty years or a century ago, and whose maintenance in any case requires constant replacement of parts. It creates an enormous perception gap when people from China come to view the genuinely ancient, multi-layered structures found elsewhere on earth (especially in ancient Egyptian, Christian and Islamic cultures). It plays games with outsiders’ approach to what they are seeing, and perhaps with locals’ understanding of what is old (and whether ‘oldness’ matters), too: the whole shebang of authenticity gets mixed-up.

It also means that in China we are seeing, still being built today (if ironically often in very permanent concrete), the equivalent of pre-Doric Greek temples, pre-Imhotep Egyptian temples, or pre-chaitya cave Buddhist prayer halls: a surviving mature architecture of impermanent materials. It is as if the architectural history current elsewhere is here being read backwards.

These major exceptions-to-the-global-architectural rule must also reflect centuries of lost conversations, in which incoming Buddhist, Islamic and Christian architectural traditions have to adapt themselves to the architecture of the far east, rather than vice versa; ie that their practitioners have to accept the local way of building over that they might have brought with them. The churches built by the Jesuits in China in the C17 are the first buildings to successfully insist that their way of doing things is superior to, or must be used for the religious buildings of, their culture rather than the Chinese alternatives. And all this is in spite of the existence around the borders and within the bounds of the empire, of the opposite, more globally normative, tradition. Architectures of stone, in which religious buildings emphatically stand out from other types of building in all kinds of ways, following south-east Asian traditions in Yunnan, central Asian traditions of Arab and Persian origin in Xinjiang, and a distinctive and unique blend of Indian and Chinese and indigenous in Tibet.

The Circular Mound Altar at Tiantan (the Temple of Heaven), Beijing, midwinter solstice 2012: unique survivor of an ancient tradition.

The Circular Mound Altar at Tiantan (the Temple of Heaven), Beijing, midwinter solstice 2012: unique survivor of an ancient tradition.

I’ve written before about the significance to all this of the imperial sacrificial altars. While always few in number, they are the only building type to be both emphatically religious and indigenously Chinese. The Temple of Heaven is by far the best surviving example of a kind of building that can only ever have existed in small numbers near to an imperial capital. Here the world famous and beautiful circular Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is more of a one-off and was often less important, both as an example of the type and in terms of its original ritual role, than the other main Circular Mound Altar.

The latter structure bring up a whole range of themes: firstly, this is an architecture of open-air ritual settings, a manipulation of a landscape, of a type that was commonplace at the birth of architecture — the henges of north-west Europe bear illuminating comparison — but which nowhere else was preserved into the modern world (it was last used about a century ago) and in the process became a sophisticated and complete architectural form in its own right. So once again, China is turning the global chronological picture on its head.

Secondly, it is a reminder of the significance of landscape in Chinese architecture: the setting of buildings is crucial, and charged with sacral ideas about how buildings and landscapes should interact if man is to be in harmony with the forces of the natural world. This wider sacred landscape survives in China’s network of sacred mountains, etc, and more crucially from an architectural point of view, it survives in the footprint of the capital city. In spite of its violent makeovers of the 1950s and since the 1990s (it’s still underway), the great north-south axis and nested enclosures of a carefully-laid out imperial capital, every detail of which reflects religious ideas about the architectural setting in which imperial power would be most divinely efficacious, survives: the ring roads and grids of the modern city are extending it out into the surrounding plain. Such planned ‘sacred cities’ existed in other cultures, but I don’t know of anything surviving of this scale and sophistication: it is in itself a work of global significance.

How many of those who visit the Olympic park know that its site is on the symettrical north-south axis at the core of the city’s cosmology? How many of those who go boating on the lake in Behai park, with its pretty Nepali/Tibetan dagoba, realise the protective role of the park itself in this layout, or that Qionghua island is a giant 3-d model of a Buddhist mandala?

Much more ubiquitous in the Chinese landscape than the imperial altars, however, was the other uniquely religious building type of traditional China: the pagoda. But this, the stretched-out and sinicised Buddhist stupa, is not indigenously Chinese: in function and symbolic design, at least, it is Indian, albeit given a strong East Asian twist, its tower like form combining the elaborately composed and tower-like stupas of Central Asia with indigenous watch towers or ges.

Pagodas existed in great variety, and were often of brick or stone: their rapid spread in the first millennium BCE must have had a dramatic impact on the appearance of the country, introducing permanent and distinctively religious structures for the first time.

It is not often noted, however, how they diversify, being placed in the landscape for all kinds of reasons not originally intended and not at all particularly to do with honouring the Buddha (such as to bring good feng shui), and ultimately almost disappeared, being replaced by the Buddha image as the essential feature of a temple in a manner not seen in other Buddhist architectures, where the stupa remains the defining structure of a temple.

I guess two buildings of ancient China are known across the world: the pagoda and the Great Wall. The two make an illuminating compare-and-contrast sequence, in which the Wall symbolises a closed, inward-looking, bureaucratic and autocratic picture of this society, while the pagoda, as well as providing the most concrete link between Chinese traditional architecture and the traditions that developed in the other major civilisations, embodies China’s oft-overlooked historic phases of openness, variety, experiment and spirituality.

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China VI: Yellow Earth

April 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Dust going round and round, a recycling of itself,spreading on roeds, covering  the dead in mounds, blooming in clouds, a great desert -on-the-move to shock the megoapolis into its shrinking smallness, shunted by an army of aunts from stairwells and kitchens and deep-pored underwear, wiped up from its settling place by a billion feet and a million tyres, crushed deep into local mountains, sorted by a thousand shifting hands, tidally made and remade by an unconscious compact of wilderness and man. Making the hills hang in a haze above hemselves, aculturated mists. Unlike sea-tides, dust-tides are unpredictable, a complex fractal compact of wind and man, billowing cumuli from roads uncapped by tarmac, an oceanic Yellow sea of wiped carbon,  mountain-baked silicate, particules of human flesh. Mounding up at the foot of the scarp, like a beach against a cliff.

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China V: hunting the border

April 10, 2011 Leave a comment
This is one of my favourite walks: along the Yalu riverfront on a clear day, trying to assess the state of things over the border in North Korea. I’ve known this extraordinary border for 18 years now: this side of the water was looking shiny and go-ahead by comparison in 1993, but has since transformed itself several times over and is now a forest of tall buildings; indeed even as the demolition of what remained of Old Dandong is completed, an entirely New Dandong is being constructed several miles to the south. What this means to those over the water is anyone’s guess. They can’t even make the excuse that we’re not Communists. In any case, almost nothing has changed since I wrote about it for the LRB: <a href=”http://www.lrb.co.uk/v22/n15/jon-cannon/diary”>http://www.lrb.co.uk/v22/n15/jon-cannon/diary</a&gt;. Thirty smokestacks, not a single one emitting any smoke. An abandoned riverside park with a big wheel. A few isolated figures moving around slowly. Hulk-like fishing boats draw up, doubling up as some kind of public transport, their decks so rammed with standing people that if someone scratched an itch half would fall off. Tourists in speedboats from the Chinese side still strafe their waterfront with spray; every restaurant (and many private homes) keeps a little telescope to spy on the drabness, a cheap peak at someone else’s misery. Sometimes, now,  a rather retro-looking boat comes over from the other side for a gawp, its decks full of North Koreans in upmarket suits, each with their little red badge of the Leader, each smiling and waving enthusiastically as sweet music plays. A handful of small buildings have gone up over there in the last five years or so, too, keeping up with the Jones’s; most appear to be offices, restaurants or guesthouses, one-or-two storey things with reflective windows; one is a warehouse of some kind,conspicious for being four stories high. That’s it: the rest looks like 50s concrete. There are no other buildings above two stories; here 20 or more is the norm and everything is neon. During the day, over there, open unpolluted countryside and low mountains spread around Sinuiju; at night it is utter blackness. Not a bedside light or guttering candle can be seen anywhere: when its dark, people must simply go to bed, a thousand familys chattering in the blackness. With two exceptions: that pool of light is the statue of the Great Leader in the main square. Those thin neon strips pick out the edges of one of the new riverfront buildings, though there never seem to be lights on inside it. The whole thing is a theme park of China’s past, but also a kind of vast unmentioned subconscious to its present,  an unconsciousness that And the Welder is always there, labouring day and night among the hulks on the riverbank, perhaps paid by some black-humoured tourist authority to look suitably industrious and Cold War bleak. One day I’ll cross that border and shake his hand.

China IV: hunting elephants

April 10, 2011 Leave a comment

This morning the city’s hotels and restaurants sprouted blow-up red and rainbow arches, each to frame the entrance of a wedding couple. Motorcades of various length and grandeur snake the city, some with girls in flouncy creations of bronze, red or torquise standing open from the roof of the car, like Onassis or Peron, for the benefit of the wedding video man. But the latest thing is blow-up elephants: giant beasts in red and gold, paired next to every air-filled plastic archway, shining where the spring sunlight shafts downwards between tall buildings. I know the drill: groom goes to bride’s house, bride is picked up from house with a series of ‘rituals’ performed in the spirit of a wild game, bride and groom tour a series of pre-set photo-ops, bride and groom host banquet with speeches and MC. Not a moment of solemnity or vowing will take place: this is family bonding, with all the fierce sociability and passionate sentimentality China can muster. I go out elephant-hunting with my camera, and remember some of the photo-ops: the palonquin with traditional band by the riverfront, in which bride sits on grooms lap and is bounced up and down ferociously while everyone cheers larily; the flock of doves kept atop the mountain in the city’s main park for the sole purpose of being run through by delirious bride and groom, so as to create album pictures of happy couple scattering white birds as they spontaneously chase each other through some luxurious parkland. But the elephants have gone: deflated as rapidly as they went up,  herded by a man-and-a-lorry to their next appointment on this reasonably beneficient sunday to get married on. In the streets around me, a thousand firecrackers let fly, and another couple start a new life together.

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China III: hunting temples

April 10, 2011 Leave a comment

I am expecting Dandong’s sole remaining oasis of silence, beauty and the past. But the taxi to the temple drops us at a building site. It seems this oasis is itself Under Construction. An enormous new temple of fresh concrete rears up behind the remains of the old, columns poured and hard awaiting a coat of red lacquer, golden plastic-sheathed buddhas await some ritual unwrapping and installation. Taped chanting encourages the leaving of a donation; a lone nun smiles beatifically beneath a parched hillside park I’ve never seen before.

Here, two years ago were the only surviving lanes of Old Dandong. They are gone. New towerblocks rear up around us, leaving only a single Danish-built villa and an abandoned hospital, also built by the Danes, caught in a vice between local campaigners and developers, quietly decaying. The Lutheran church nearby is spruce and neat, packed out on Sundays; the gothic Catholic church is now approached across a junction of dual carriageway and underpass that has appeared from nowhere, aged, and become decrepit, all within 18 months of speeded-up Chinese time.

Then I spot the curved eaves and brightly coloured brackets of a large traditional building: how could I have missed that in 20 years of exploration? We make our way through a building site, half completed skyscrapers and squatter’s huts with smoke rising stubbornly from chimneys. This ancient-looking temple, it turns out, is even newer than the buildings that surround it; there are fresh-as-yesterday mural paintings and more plastic-wrapped statues, this time of bearded dieties: this, it turns out, will be a great Taoist prayer-vat for the rich and wannabe rich of the city.

Not for the first time, I experience the disorientation of a country in which time often seems to run forwards so rapidly that it turns tail and runs back on itself.

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China II: Qing Ming

April 6, 2011 Leave a comment

The cemetery occupies a series of hilltops at the edge of the city. Normally it is an empty, bleak place: serried ranks of tombstones marching over hills to the horizon; no presence but the dead. In the distance, the city is a haze of white blocks, everything apparently built yesterday, everything flashy, though closer inspection reveals the hulks of abandoned factories and sudden patches of unimproved housing where conditions look spare in the extreme. The river a distant grey strip.

But today is the day after QingMing, the tomb-washing festival, and it seems yesterday the entire city descended on this place, forming endless tailbacks of traffic up the winding road that, past the brown countryside where dry trees lead to hills topped with tors of shattered granite.

So today, the cemetery has some colour in her cheeks. Each of the thousands of tombstones here has a garland of plastic flowers sellotaped to it, and the remains of a small bonfire at its feet. The archaeology of what has now joined the dead as an unseen presence in the air is discernible in these little ash-piles: an offered meal (dumplings, fruit, some breads, say); paper money specially printed for such occasions. Mostly this looks like money from old china, inscribed with jokey messages such as ‘hell bank note’, but occasionally there is modern money and even US dollars, always with some conspicuous misprint of message to demonstrate its function. They will have washed the tombs, and painted in the names of those who died recently, and each members of each family group will have genuflected a few times before leaving. The atmosphere will have been sober, but not religieuse: people are happy to take mobile phone calls, or to chat quietly while they do all this. It’s a tradition kept alive by family feeling, a way of marking those who have passed who mattered and are missed, rather than an active belief in an afterlife. Nevertheless, people have tied red rags to the dry bushes that line the way out of the cemetery in an attempt to keep ghosts within rather than without its bounds. They peter out at the bottom of the hill, where a few stallholders eke out a living from plastic flowers and tissue paper money, a business with a one-day annual season.

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