Water sprites and ancestor spirits: reading the architecture of Jinci.

Author:Miller, Tracy G.

Jinci, or the Memorial Shrine of Jin, perhaps the most unconventional shrine complex in China, occupies a verdant site near the remains of ancient Jinyang, a capital city of the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1100-221 B.C.E.) Jin State, eleven miles southwest of the modern capital of Shanxi Province, Taiyuan. (1) According to standard histories and geographic texts dating back more than a millennium, the shrine was dedicated to a historical figure, Shu Yu of Tang, the founder of the Jin State. (2) Nonetheless, the architecture of the complex tells another story, one that points to more local concerns. Whereas shrines and temples in China are typically arranged as rectilinear courtyard compounds with a strong central axis leading up to a main offering hall, Jinci is distinctive in that the temple buildings are distributed in a seemingly random manner. But all are focused on the fountainhead of the Jin River--a canal flowing through the site filled by (originally) three springs, the centermost of which lies before the eleventh-century Sage Mother Hall (Figs. 1, 2). In 1934, when the first trained Chinese architectural historians, Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin, visited the complex, they responded immediately to the unusual layout of Jinci, with its temple buildings placed around the springs and canals. (3) Although common in larger sacred sites in China, such as Mt. Wutai in the more northern reaches of Shanxi Province or Mt. Song in Henan Province, the plan of Jinci surprised Liang and Lin because Jinci, unlike the sacred mountains, is nominally a single memorial shrine and is physically contained by a wall with a formal gatehouse. For those familiar with the vocabulary of Chinese ritual architecture, the lack of a formal, rectilinear courtyard structure within the gatehouse of a walled temple or shrine complex is quite unexpected.

For much of the complex's history, the identity of Jinci's main deity, the deity to whom the name refers, was important to people living near and traveling to the shrine and, at the same time, ambiguous. A "memorial shrine of Jin" at the site of the Jin Springs could be dedicated either to a state ancestor, the historical Shu Yu of Tang, or a water sprite, the Spirit of the Jin Springs, but not both equally. The history of the site prior to the eleventh century rests on textual sources alone, and these sources focus on Shu Yu of Tang, reflecting the interests of the educated elite who wrote and read them. The largest, grandest, and oldest building on the site, the Sage Mother Hall (ca. 1038-87 C.E., Fig. 2) is dedicated to the Spirit of the Jin Springs, a divinity that is not overtly identified in the earlier texts. The position of the Sage Mother Hall reflects not only her identity as a water spirit but also her significance to the community, which depended on the springs for annual irrigation water and maintained the timber-frame structure for more than nine hundred years. (4) From at least the thirteenth century, the physical dominance of the building over the compound implied that the Sage Mother was the dominant deity at the site, contradicting the standard historical sources. By the sixteenth century, competing groups of patrons at Jinci, including the literati elite, royal landlords, and local farmers, all sought to align the Sage Mother with their own interests. They asserted their claims to her favor through temple building, an activity that, by the beginning of the seventeenth century, made possible a "Confucianized" interpretation that rectified the inconsistencies: the Sage Mother was transformed from a local water sprite to the mother of Shu Yu of Tang, the first true queen of the Zhou dynasty, Yi Jiang. Although most modern art historical scholarship on the Sage Mother Hall and the larger site of Jinci has followed this tradition, (5) it is actually the view of a literate elite that considered Zhou dynasty ancestor spirits to be more significant than local deities.

Previous studies of Jinci have typically either examined the whole of the site historically or focused on the Sage Mother Hall in exclusion to its relation to the springs and the later, less architecturally significant buildings. My work differs in that I focus on the way in which the shrine complex and the deities worshiped within it were used to act out the political and social history of the region across time and how competing patronage groups used temple architecture to serve their specific interests. Most twentieth-century historical studies of Jinci provide textual evidence for specific extant features of the site without relating them to the larger social, political, or religious history of China. (6) Architectural historians, art historians, and archaeologists tend to concentrate on the date and style of the Sage Mother Hall and the sculpture within it. (7) The Sage Mother Hall is significant to the study of Chinese art and architecture because it is the second-largest building of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127 C.E.) extant in China and the oldest timber-frame hall of this scale not associated with Buddhism or Daoism. (8) The size and style of the bracketing, the reduction of interior columniation (particularly in the front veranda), the shape and inward inclination of the columns, and the increased height of the columns toward the corners, which gives its double eaves their dramatic curvature, are all characteristic features of palatial-style halls from this period. Many of these features are also described in the first extant official manual of building standards in China, Yingzao fashi (1103), making the Sage Mother Hall a key monument for understanding this text. (9) Since the hall contains forty-three unfired clay sculptures of the Sage Mother and her attendants, Jinci is also important for understanding Northern Song sculpture. (10) With few exceptions, scholars studying Jinci both historically and art historically have followed the seventeenth-century interpretation of the site, which begins with Shu Yu of Tang and identifies the Sage Mother as his mother, Yi Jiang. (11)


Reading the early architectural history of Jinci in conjunction with its textual history reveals a contested site, one in which different interpretations of the identity of the main deities were not simply "superscribed" onto each other but remained separate in order for certain patrons to assert dominance over the site and, particularly in later periods, its important natural resource. (12) By including the evidence of the site itself, I shall show not only that Jinci was significant for early rulers and later Confucian elites because of its association with the state founder, but also that it was vital for the local people because it was the source of the Jin River, which they depended on for their crops. The unique combination at Jinci of an extensive textual and architectural record relating to different types of deities--male and female, ancestor and nature spirit, elite and common--allows us to see how competing ideas about divinity identity were self-consciously communicated through the activity of temple building in late imperial China. In this article I shall show that the different patronage groups at Jinci actively employed the means most available to them, both history writing and temple building, to communicate an understanding of the site that would benefit them. To do this I will first describe the modern condition of the site and compare it with an example of a large-scale temple complex to establish how the walled site of Jinci is unexpectedly different from other temple complexes. I will then look at the historical development of Jinci and the cults of the two deities of Jin through the beginning of the sixteenth century. Finally, I will discuss how the building programs of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries relating to those divinities served to align them with competing interest groups, ultimately creating an environment whereby the Sage Mother could be interpreted as an ancestral mother of the Jin State rather than as merely a local water sprite.


The Site of Jinci

The surprise experienced by Liang and Lin at Jinci's appearance was not limited to twentieth-century visitors. Zhou Zaijun was following in the footsteps of many fellow literati when, in 1665, he went to Jinci. There he found the situation of the buildings in the complex not as he expected:

Having previously heard of the scenic beauty of Jinci, I traveled there ... . I entered the shrine [complex], but the only deity being sacrificed to was the Sage Mother of Manifest Aid. I asked about the shrine [complex] of Shu Yu of Tang. A Daoist priest pointed to the several bays of a dilapidated wayside building and said, "That is it ... ." (13) From as early as the sixth century C.E., the famous first ruler of the Zhou dynasty state of Jin, Shu Yu of Tang, was the figure to whom emperors, officials, and literati traveling through the area of Jin's ancient capital Taiyuan came to pay tribute. When he arrived at Jinci in 1665, Zhou Zaijun had a clear expectation that the primary focus of worship would be Shu Yu of Tang. However, the built environment contradicted this. The site was clearly dedicated to the Sage Mother of Manifest Aid, also known as the Spirit of the Jin Springs. From the end of the eleventh century until today, the Sage Mother has dominated the site of Jinci, a site that by all textual accounts should have been dedicated to the famous first ancestor of the region, Shu Yu of Tang.


The distribution of buildings and complexes at Jinci is atypical for large-scale ritual and religious complexes in China. The main halls of such complexes are usually organized in a rectilinear courtyard-complex format. (14) The temple complex of the Goddess of Earth at Fenyin (modern Wanrong County), Shanxi Province (Fig. 3), a major imperially patronized temple dedicated to a...

To continue reading