The Tang architectural icon and the politics of Chinese architectural history.

Author:Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman
Position:Critical Essay

The discovery in June 1937 of a wooden building, the east hall of Foguang Monastery, reliably dated to the year 857 by two inscriptions, one on the building itself and the other on a small, octagonal, commemorative pillar with Buddhist imagery, was unquestionably the crowning moment in the modern search for China's ancient architecture (Fig. 1). It was made by China's premier architect and architectural historian, Liang Sicheng (1901-1972), his wife and research partner, Lin Huiyin (1904-1955), and two other architects and architectural historians, Mo Zongjiang (1916-1999) and Ji Yutang (1902-ca. 1960s), all sponsored by the Beijing-based Society (later renamed Institute) for Research in Chinese Architecture. The final twelve-mile ascent on mule to the lower reaches of the sacred Buddhist mountain Wutai, in Shanxi Province, where the monastery was found, in the seventh and last year of the society's quest for old buildings (conditions of war made it impossible to continue their search except in small, demilitarized pockets of China after 1937), is recorded in moving detail in Liang's personal notes from the journey. (1) The research notes and drawings made during the seven days at the site were printed in handwritten form in the society's last volume, distributed when Beijing was under Japanese attack and China's major universities and research institutes had moved to Sichuan and Hunan Provinces. The formal publication appeared in 1953 and has been reprinted in Liang Sicheng's collected works. (2)

The drama of the moment and the times has escaped no one who knows the history of the study of Chinese architecture or the man who, between the late 1920s and his death in 1972, was almost entirely responsible for transforming it from a discipline grounded in careful reading and explication of classical texts that referred to buildings and described idealized structures to the study of buildings themselves. The chief proponent of this transformation, Liang Sicheng, was the eldest son of one of China's most outspoken intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Liang Qichao (1873-1929). (3) Sicheng's birthright accorded him the best of classical Chinese and contemporary Western education, culminating in a Master's Degree in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1927. He went on to found several of China's premier departments of architecture; write thousands of pages of Chinese architectural history, most accompanied by his own drawings; train the first generation of China-educated modern architects and architectural historians; and represent China on international design commissions and task forces, including the design for the United Nations Plaza. Liang Sicheng came under strong attack for his traditionalist views during the last years of his life, dying a disgraced citizen of the People's Republic in 1972, just as the Cultural Revolution was drawing to a close. Restoration of his reputation began almost immediately afterward, eventually resulting in his elevation to near demigod status. (4)

During his six years of searching, Liang "discovered" dozens of China's pre-fifteenth-century buildings, several of them arguably as pivotal in understanding Chinese architecture as the hall at Foguang Monastery. (5) The latter's aura was in part due to its date: when found, the east hall (Fig. 1) was the only known wooden building of the Tang dynasty (618-907), predating the Guanyin Pavilion at Dule Monastery, found by Liang in 1931, by 127 years. Yet within a year of publication of the complete article and photographs of Foguangsi (Monastery), a building three-quarters of a century older was discovered on the other side of the same mountain range, at Nanchan Monastery (Fig. 2). (6) In Liang Sicheng's lifetime, two more Tang wooden buildings, at Tiantai Hermitage and Five Dragons Temple, were discovered in the same province by men who had searched with Liang during the years when the Society for Research in Chinese Architecture had been active (Figs. 3, 4). (7) By the beginning of the twenty-first century, two additional buildings and parts of two others had been dated to the Tang period. (8)

Why a building discovered sixty-seven years ago that is neither the only Tang wooden building nor even the oldest continues to captivate Chinese and Western attention is just one of the issues addressed here. The impact of this exclusive and unchallenged focus on Foguangsi East Hall is also explored. It will be argued that the spotlight on Foguangsi East Hall and the resulting limited discussion of other Tang buildings is due to the fact that it was found by Liang Sicheng and that it was precisely the kind of building he hoped to find. Almost immediately after its discovery it became, it will be suggested, an architectural icon, a sacrosanct structure whose constituent parts and total image had been anticipated by pictures of Buddhist buildings of the Tang period, by classical writings, (9) and by a building in Japan at a time when architecture earlier than the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) was little known in China and essentially unknown to those who aspired to write China's architectural history. Finally, the symbolic status of the east hall will be shown to be so interwoven with the man who found it that even today scholars cling to the myth of Foguangsi East Hall almost as exclusively as did Liang Sicheng.

Chinese Architectural History before the Discovery of Foguangsi

In 1932, Liang Sicheng published his first modern study of early Chinese architecture, an article entitled "Buddhist Monasteries and Palaces of the Tang Period We Know at This Time." (10) Much of the evidence was drawn from paintings of Buddhist paradises that had been made known to the West and to the Chinese scholarly community only several decades earlier through intrepid missions to (some might say raids of) Buddhist caves near the modern town of Dunhuang by Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943), Paul Pelliot (1878-1945), and others. (11) Then as now, these paintings were dated to the Tang period (Fig. 5). In 1932, they were the most tangible links to Tang architecture.



Until Liang and his colleagues organized, fieldwork was rarely conducted at Chinese buildings. Nearly two millennia of scholars had spent their research lives at major urban institutions, the most prestigious in the capital, for the previous five centuries, Beijing, and its secondary counterpart, Nanjing. The all-pervasive image of Chinese architecture consisted of buildings of the Forbidden City. Those who had ventured outside Beijing knew that the models for its imperial architecture lay in fourteenth-century imperial palaces, altars, and tombs in Nanjing and that Beijing's fifteenth-century imperial architecture had been cloned in seventeenth-century palatial, sacrificial, and funerary architecture in capitals of the last dynasty, Qing (1644-1911), in Shenyang (Mukden), Liaoning Province, and Chengde (Jehol), Hebei Province. In addition, it was assumed that the palace style preserved in Beijing and the other capitals was little changed from what one would have seen in the eleventh-century Song capital in the city today called Kaifeng or the eighth-century Tang capital Chang'an (today Xi'an). (12) The few nonimperial buildings outside the capitals known to scholars, such as the Confucian temples in Qufu, Shandong Province, were of the same architectural style as the Ming and Qing palaces. (13) Other buildings were largely unknown to the educated Chinese community because Chinese literati of imperial times had considered it a hardship to be stationed anywhere less urbane than a provincial capital, and intelligentsia of the early twentieth century, Liang's father included, believed it foolhardy and beneath one's dignity to ride mules through the countryside, sleep in barns, and seek information from peasants in pursuit of old buildings. (14)

Three-quarters of a century of study has passed since the establishment of the Society for Research in Chinese Architecture, but long-standing notions of Chinese architecture--that it is in essence ahistorical and that it is a codified, formulaic system of iconic archetypes--have not faded. These notions are consistent with a perennial cultural construct of Chinese civilization as one with supreme reverence for its past and that defines itself according to descriptions in classical writings. (15)



Painting and artifacts have fit into this construct. Paintings of court ladies in the manner of Zhang Xuan (act. 714-42) and Zhou Fang (ca. 730-ca. 800) and horse painting of the Tang dynasty, the period in which Foguangsi East Hall was constructed, experienced revivals in each subsequent Chinese dynasty and in Japan, Central Asia, and sometimes even West Asia. (16) An inscription on the back of the earliest Chinese site plan, a bronze plate dated 323-315 B.C.E. excavated in Hebei Province in the mid-1970s, informs us that two identical designs were cast, one for burial in the tomb of King Cuo and the second to be preserved in the palace so that future generations would know how to construct a royal necropolis. (17) This kind of inscription not only reinforces the idea that later architecture follows earlier models, it also encourages Chinese scholars to reconstruct the architectural past based on pictures when other physical evidence does not exist.

Supported by these kinds of examples and, of course, the literary record, archaeology also has been used to further perceptions that Chinese architecture changes little over time. Excavation in 1976 of a site near Fengchu, Shaanxi Province, dated to the last centuries of the second millennium B.C.E., for example, yielded a pillar-supported building complex, each of whose main structures was elevated on a pounded-earth platform (Fig. 6). (18) It is impossible to miss the similarities between this complex...

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