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  • China's Living Houses: Folk Beliefs, Symbols, and Household Ornamentation
  • Heather Bohannan (bio)
Ronald G. Knapp . China's Living Houses: Folk Beliefs, Symbols, and Household Ornamentation. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999. ix, 171 pp. Hardcover $62.00, ISBN 0-8248-1998-5. Paperback $34.95, ISBN 0-8248-2079-7.

This book expands Ronald G. Knapp's already important contributions to the study of Chinese vernacular architecture and is a fascinating multidisciplinary look at syncretic, popular religion through household ornamentation. His previous books on related topics—Chinese Traditional Rural Architecture, China's Vernacular Architecture, Chinese Landscapes: The Village as Place, and The Chinese House—have necessarily touched on the themes developed in this book, but have focused primarily on issues of structure, space, and related social patterns. Belief and tradition have been relegated to separate chapters or subsumed under aesthetic and social issues. Here Knapp has shifted from depicting physical spaces and their attendant social functions to documenting the philosophical and cosmological beliefs that underpin the location, construction, and surface embellishments of Chinese dwellings. The title accurately reflects an impressive attempt at an integrated, holistic view of houses as a backdrop for folklife processes.

The book is meticulously researched and lavishly illustrated. The detail alone is impressive. Scholars will appreciate the translations in both the text and the bibliography, with pinyin and Chinese characters given for all Chinese terms in the text and Chinese bibliographic sources also given in English. Numerous diagrams and black-and-white photographs with informative captions accompany the text (some have appeared in Knapp's previous books). The text is divided into two parts, with chapter 1 as a general introduction to the themes of the text and chapter 9, the final chapter, as a summary review and link to the present. The titles of parts 1 and 2, "In Quest of Harmony" and "In Pursuit of Good Fortune," intentionally belie the solidity and fixity of buildings by referring to interactional processes. Both titles emphasize the agency of builders and occupants in attempts to influence unseen forces. The actual chapters are arranged sequentially from building orientation to surface embellishment.

Part 1, "In Quest of Harmony," quite literally lays the foundation for part 2 by focusing on the underlying principles and logistics of house structure in relation to cosmological beliefs, particularly those having to do with "avoiding calamities and expelling evil." Chapter 2 covers the house as a social "template." Traditional, prosperous Chinese houses both mirrored and shaped the relationships of the occupants. Systems of courtyards and sidehalls spatially replicated the hierarchical, gendered order of family relations—the Confucian ideal of ranked, ordered harmony. Cooking, sleeping, and ritual spaces were carefully prescribed [End Page 477] within these ideals, and family altars were accorded important locations within household design. Chapter 3 deals with the siting of a building through fengshui, the "set of spatial beliefs and practices concerning the facts that human modifications of landscapes... create conditions that influence, and even control, the fortunes of those who occupy the sites thus modified." Chapter 4 discusses actual building practices designed to protect occupants and to maximize beneficial influences, such as elaborate ridgepole rituals, while chapter 5 covers the rationale and positioning of building sorcery and defensive measures, such as protective amulets over doorways, roof-tile generals, protective screen walls (yinbi), and gate guardians (menshen).

Part 2 is devoted to the pursuit of good fortune, the predominant theme in Chinese household ornamentation. It is impossible to travel in China or in Chinese diasporic communities without becoming aware of the rich iconographic display. For anyone who has ever been curious about the significance of this "pictorial vocabulary," the explanations of Chinese visual symbolism in this section will alone be worth the price of the book. Intricate wordplays, homonyms, visual punning, and rebuses are clearly decoded and illustrated. Chapter 6 is a guide to auspicious elements and emblems, from household altars to Zaojun, the stove god, to New Year's pictures and couplets (duilian, chunlian, and menlian) pasted on either side of entryways. Duilian are also pasted up "to commemorate weddings, funerals, birthdays, the opening of shops, and even moving into new homes." Guajian, or hanging papers that...


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