Cultural riches of buildings
(WEN JIAO)/China Daily

How did the ancient Chinese erect a building without using a single nail?

How many diversified architecture styles are there in China?

What concept did the Chinese follow when planning a city in ancient times?

To answer these and many other questions and to illustrate the development of Chinese architecture and its civilization, six leading Chinese architectural historians co-authored a new book, "Chinese Architecture."

The book, jointly published in Chinese and English by New World Press in Beijing and Yale University Press in the United States, is a comprehensive and authoritative study of Chinese architecture from Neolithic times through the early 20th century, wrote Nancy S. Steinhardt in the introduction.

Steinhardt, a professor in the department of Asian and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Pennsylvania, was in charge of the English version of the book. She also expanded and edited the English text.

The authors and editors have been working for 12 years on the book, which is regarded as one of the first in-depth, collaborative works of Chinese architecture in more than 50 years.

Drawing on recent discoveries and current scholarly work inside China, the book organizes architectural developments chronologically by dynastic changes, recounts the story of China's architectural achievements and the historical, political, cultural and social factors that shaped them.

Each chapter includes sections on cities, palaces, religious architecture, tombs and gardens, as well as discussions about bridges, walls, fortifications, academies and architectural writings.

There are more than 300 colour photographs and exquisite drawings - many of which are reproduced for the first time. It also features maps, charts and an index with Chinese terms.

"The book will be an invaluable resource for scholars of China and everyone interested in one of the world's greatest architectural traditions," the foreword says.

Timber frame

The Chinese adapted their architecture to their particular environment with a wide array of styles and forms. And Chinese architecture has also been shaped by 56 distinct ethnic groups.

The earliest buildings in China can be traced back to about 7,000 years ago when Neolithic people came to learn how to use mortise and tenon - a method of joinery that employs notches and inserts - to build wood-beamed houses. The world's oldest examples were discovered at the Hemudu site in Yuyao in East China's Zhejiang Province.

The interlocking network of Chinese architecture is one of the key parts mentioned in the book.

In the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC), Chinese ancestors applied the structural system extensively, using wooden beams and columns. The system became much more complicated during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).

Pillars, beams, struts, brackets and roof frames were cut to interlock perfectly, without the use of fasteners or adhesives.

Two other features of Chinese architecture are the foundation platform and decorative roof. These three remain the core of any Chinese structure that uses wood.

All in all, Chinese architecture features a structural system based on gracefully wrought timber, meticulous and comprehensive city planning, a rich and resplendent use of colour and ornamentation on buildings, the poetic style of garden design in the fashion of natural landscapes and the arrangement and axial layout of buildings in conjunction with courtyards.

Confucianism proved most influential to China's architecture in the earliest periods in numerous ways, explained Qiao Yun, formerly associate editor-in-chief of the China Architectural Industry Publishing House, in his introduction to the book.

Confucius influence

Confucianism regarded rites as central to successful state administration and standards of personal behaviour and this produced and reinforced various styles and types of buildings, such as palatial halls, temples, altars and mausoleums.

Its emphasis on the imperial system of power and the centrality of the emperor as the Son of Heaven is evident in the ways the capital city placed the palace at its centre, symbolizing the supreme power of the emperor.

The square-shaped, symmetrical capital city, with houses located on both sides of a central axis, was designed to reinforce the vision of the imperial centre as the correct and moral ordering focus for society and daily life.

Filial obedience also entailed the construction of ancestral temples and tombs and the correct ordering of senior and junior, superior and interior, upper and lower, permeates architectural forms even in the smallest detail.

The width of rooms, style, colour and decorations on the roof were all strictly stipulated according to one's social status.

No one was allowed to break the rule.

For instance, the colours of red and yellow were reserved for imperials only. Ordinary people could use only grey bricks for their houses.

Culture series

The creativity of classical Chinese architecture is evident in its legacy of rich and varied forms, colours and ornamentation and its ordering of space. Beauty emerged out of the exquisite integration of artistry and function, materials and structure.

"Chinese Architecture" is part of the Culture and Civilization of China project, which was initiated by a number of Chinese and American celebrities in 1990, like Rong Yiren, former vice-president of the People's Republic of China (1993-1998), Huang Hua, former Chinese foreign minister, George Bush, former US president and Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state.

Another book of the series entitled "Chinese Painting in 3,000 Years" was published by the Beijing-based Foreign Languages Press and Yale University Press in 1997.

"One of our goals is to illustrate the cultural riches of China," said James Peck, executive director of Culture and Civilization of China, at a press conference in Beijing. "We want to make Chinese scholars known in the English world."

"Chinese Architecture," jointly published by New World Press and Yale University Press in 2002 in both Chinese and English versions - 366 pages. 360 yuan in China or US$65 via www.