- Chinese Architecture
Chinese architectural history is a relatively new discipline. Major works have been published by Western and Japanese explorers, architects, and sinologists only since the beginning of the twentieth century. The first comprehensive Chinese architectural history in a Western language was Chinesische architektur (Berlin: Verlag Ernst Wasmuth A-G, 1925) by von Ernst Boerschmann (1873-1949). This was followed by a more analytical study by D. G. Mirams, A Brief History of Chinese Architecture (Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, 1940). Mirams' primary sources were works by Chinese researchers who had begun doing more systematic research on Chinese architecture in the late 1920s. Many, particularly Liang Sicheng and Liu Dunzhen, were key members of the Society for Research in Chinese Architecture and active between 1930 and 1945. They were instrumental in establishing Chinese architectural history as an objective, scientific discipline based on textual and material evidence interpreted through careful and rigorous scholarship.
The authors contributing to Chinese Architecture, edited by Nancy S. Steinhardt, are the most accomplished students of these Chinese pioneers. Together, they have presented a book containing a wealth of information about Chinese architecture never before attempted in the English language in its scope and detail. These same authors produced the even more extensive five-volume publication in Chinese, Zhongguo gudai jianzhushi (History of ancient Chinese architecture) (Beijing: China Architecture and Building Press, 2001-2004). The historiographical approach and architectural examples found in these volumes can also be seen in Chinese Architecture, where examples include many ancient buildings and archaeological sites that have been investigated over the last fifty years. Chinese Architecture draws on these latest resources and presents to English readers a comprehensive history of Chinese architecture that is based solidly on material evidence and supported by historical accounts. This level of effort is unprecedented, and the publication of the results in the English language is much welcomed.
Chinese Architecture begins with two introductions. The first, by Nancy Steinhardt, outlines the salient features of Chinese architecture, and the topics include the materials and forms of Chinese wooden buildings, the roles of the master craftsmen, and the design and construction of the buildings. This very useful introduction to Chinese architectural forms and practices is followed by discussions of the scope of Chinese architecture and of its historiography. Steinhardt notes that the authors have adopted an expansive and all-inclusive definition of architecture [End Page 77] that encompasses a broad range of building types. Most importantly, she states clearly the purpose of the book, which is "to present Chinese-style architectural history to the Western reader" (p. 3), and to this end she addresses succinctly the questions of the interpretative approach and the use of Western theory in the study of Chinese architecture. In addition to the use of contemporary research methods employed in the West, she argues that the engagement of archaeological evidence is the most appropriate tool in "a synthetic study of Chinese architecture" (p. 3), hence the approach employed in the book. This introduction prepares the reader well for the historical discussion that follows.
The other introduction, by Qiao Yun, deals with the spatial and structural characteristics of Chinese buildings. In contrast to Steinhardt's introduction, Qiao's brief piece is less focused. It attempts to describe briefly the historical development of Chinese architecture, Chinese architectural forms and the factors influencing these forms, and the essential features of various building types. But the treatment of these topics is not adequate. It would have been much better if Qiao had tried to bind the individual chapters together by offering a broad sweep of architectural development, in terms of the changes in form, structure, and ornamentation over the five thousand years covered in the book. This would have served to unify the subsequent chapters, which concentrate on definite periods.
The next seven chapters that comprise the book are organized chronologically, starting with the Neolithic period and ending with the Qing...