A Pictorial Almanac of China’s Lost Heritage
An 18th-century French manuscript brings traditional Chinese architecture to life.
After Marco Polo established a bond with China in the 13th century, European Jesuits strengthened that connection centuries later. For hundreds of years, this select order of the Catholic church has sent missionaries who brought not only their scriptures, but also knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, calendar-making, and geography to China while bringing back Chinese linguistics, philosophy, science, and art.
A Spanish priest, Francis Xavier, was the first Jesuit who travelled to China, though he never quite made it to the mainland. He died on an island south of Guangdong in 1552, but he opened the door for over 900 of his brothers to follow.
In the 18th century, during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, a French Jesuit joined those ranks and left behind an illustrated manuscript titled Essai sur l’Architecture des Chinois. His book remains an invaluable study on a cultural heritage that has been all but lost.
Three hundred years later, the French National Library released this pictorial almanac of Chinese architecture to the world for the first time. And though we don’t know the author’s name, we can, through his work, get a glimpse of this French missionary. He was a trained artist, spoke Chinese, gained access to protected spaces such as the royal garden in Beijing, and had a keen interest in the relationship between architectural styles and social hierarchy.
Fortunately for us, he was also enthusiastic about bringing his knowledge back to France.
Through his meticulous observations, the Jesuit offers insight into the living environments and the social intricacies of China’s upper echelon as well as its average citizens in the 18th century.
“As soon as one leaves the low and shabby civilian dwelling, the shape of Chinese architecture completely changes,” he writes. “After close study, one finds that what’s changed is the scale, façade, and decoration, all of which are determined by laws. These laws apply to all government officials, noblemen, and royal families, as well as public buildings.”
The book contains 188 illustrations and paintings that display a detailed understanding of the scale, size, and degree of decoration of Chinese dwellings. The scale of a Chinese house was determined by the level of authority of its owner. This was written into law and was strictly followed.
The government even published a book to provide specific rules and guidelines on the cost, structure, as well as the maintenance of each type of building. The law even specified the number of bricks and the cost of bricks that were permitted for people with different status.
The author states that a Chinese millionaire could only erect a grand piece of architecture in his innermost courtyard so it wouldn’t be discovered. But the façade or the entrance of his house publicly announced his social status, which was separate from his wealth. He says that a Chinese millionaire wouldn’t dare build a façade beyond the allowed scale and size of his social status.
“But the law cannot be altered. He can spend as much money as he can within the guidelines of the law, driven by his vanity,” he says.
“In Paris, we see many great colonnades that are far superior to the royal colonnades or those of Dukes. But no matter how grand they are, social hierarchy won’t be affected because the king always emphasizes he is the sovereign. The super rich also do their best to show off their wealth.”
Columns were particularly important in class delineation.
“Low-ranking officials can only have three-columned galleries. Average officials can have five columns. Royal princes can have seven, and only the emperor can have nine. The height, width, and depth of the structure, as well as height, width, and depth of the structures on the side are also different for them.”
The author took a Western view and didn’t seem to agree with the hierarchical approach to Chinese regulation. He argues from the perspective of practicality that although these regulations made construction expenses more clearly tracked, they seemed to be a waste of time because “such an affluent and enormous country doesn’t need to focus on these matters.”
For thousands of years, Chinese have lived with traditional hierarchical systems at home and in society. According to Confucius, hierarchies in a family create respect and harmony. The responsibility of those in superior and subordinate roles in a family are clearly defined. Confucianism views a nation as an extended family, and therefore the same hierarchical system is extended at a national level.
In an ideal Confucius society, hierarchy doesn’t divide or separate, rather it maintains order and lets people manage themselves based on common values and accepted codes of conduct.
Additionally, the fact that a Chinese millionaire built an elaborate structure in the interior courtyard while maintaining an ordinary-looking entrance is more of a cultural taste than a legal compliance matter. Even if the law allowed him to build ostentatiously, Chinese are not accustomed to showing their substances on the outside. They want to be as homogenous as possible so they can blend in, and they’re more at ease with decorating and indulging on the inside.
Chinese culture puts great emphasis on inner meanings and inner substances. This is also one of the major differences between the cultures of East and West.
The paintings in this old book, from magnificent glazed tiles and vermilion pillars to delicately trimmed trees and interweaving window panes, bring 18th-century China back to life. Not only have most of the scenes depicted in the book vanished in China, so has the essence of traditional Chinese society, which was suffocated under communist rule. Fortunately, the French Jesuit’s unique insight and scrupulous observation have brought back a piece of that lost tradition.