The Tang Architectural Icon and the Politics of Chinese Architectural History

By Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman | The Art Bulletin, June 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Tang Architectural Icon and the Politics of Chinese Architectural History


Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman, The Art Bulletin


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.

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