- Allegorical Architecture: Living Myth and Architectonics in Southern China
This is the first book I have seen in the English language that provides such a detailed and sophisticated study of architecture as imagined and lived by minority groups in South China. Throughout the book, Ruan looks primarily at Dong culture, one of China's fifty-six minority groups, and at times contrasts it with Han culture: Ruan clearly shows the overlaps and resistances. He argues for a lived, allegorical, and bodily understanding of architecture as opposed to simply a textual one. Ruan explains: "I realized that the conceptual frame is more important than the materials: I wanted to combine the study of the physical laws of the built forms, or the artifice so to speak, with their 'circulation' in social life" (p. ix). This book, though not without flaws, succeeds admirably.
Architecture for Ruan is a living force in which and through which human beings produce a meaningful space within which to live. Another way to put this would be to refer to such a human endeavor as the production of sacred space. I do not mean this as opposed to "profane" space, but rather to indicate the complex negotiation over the meaning of time and place in constructing a settlement or dwelling. Ruan does not use this language, but as a historian of religion, I feel it appropriate to label this process as such. I very much like the way he introduces several sections of the book by telling the reader a story or anecdote from Western architectural history. It is a compelling approach as it highlights the difficulties of looking at heretofore understudied groups in Chinese society. It also highlights the fact that a focus on a vernacular architecture is fast becoming an essential way of going beyond a textual understanding of human beings and the structures they build to define themselves. Ruan provides a brief overview of this task in the prologue, a critical piece of the book as it contains his theoretical position, his argument, and a detailed exposition of the issue at stake in looking at specific groups.
What is at stake are Southern Chinese minority groups who live in a Han-oriented cosmos, one that they resist through their own cultural identity as expressed via their architecture (of note, however, is how the Dong borrow deities such as tudigong and Guandi from the Han pantheon). Also, these are groups without a textual tradition. Ruan succeeds in "reading" into their world via a study of their architecture. As he puts it, "[a]llegorical architecture does not merely represent, or symbolize, something else, rather, it is a story about its makers and inhabitants" (p. 10). Ruan seeks to move beyond individual buildings, and to bring out the communal aspects of an arrangement of buildings. I am reminded of Durkheim's argument that social phenomena are not born with the individual but instead are born because of [End Page 527] and through the group. Ruan's approach is to provide a Geertzian "thick description" of spatial layout and structure, as well as the social life of the buildings and the ritual aspects of articulating a living sense of dwelling. Here Ruan could do more with the category of ritual, especially as understood from the history of religions point of view combined with Mary Douglas's work. Further, this would then need to be combined with a more sustained approach to the category of myth than he has taken. This is the only major argument I have with the book. For a study with the phrase "living myths" in its subtitle, there is surprisingly little done with the category. Ruan glosses over myth and ritual. He is well aware of the lived realities of Dong structures, yet, myth as a vital category in the study of religion needs to be expanded. In chapter 2 Ruan certainly does engage with the category of myth, but there is no sustained discussion of Mircea Eliade's...