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A Rare Glimpse Into Lost Chinese Architecture

An 18th-century French manuscript brings traditional Chinese architecture to life

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In the 18th century, during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, a French Jesuit left behind an illustrated manuscript titled Essai sur l’Architecture des Chinois. His book remains an invaluable study on a cultural heritage of Chinese architecture that has been all but lost.

Three hundred years later, the French National Library released this rare manuscript 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.

Rare Manuscripts of Chinese Architecture

Traditional Chinese architecture: a 13-story pagoda
Left: This 13-story pagoda is quite similar to Beijing’s oldest pagoda, Tianning Temple Pagoda. This pavilion-style tower originates from a traditional Chinese pavilion design, known for its long history and large size. The Buddhist pagodas in the Ming and Qing dynasties were mostly octagonal and hexagonal. For fire protection reasons, they used a masonry structure instead of wood. The beautiful sound of the wind chimes hanging under the eaves are used to support the “Three Treasures” in Buddhism. Some wind chimes are also engraved with mantras and scriptures for saving sentient beings. Right: In ancient China, to show respect to the divine or the emperor, temples and royal palaces were often built on a raised platform. Initially, the platform was built on rammed earth. Later, it was built of stone with beautifully carved stairs and railing.

“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 of Chinese architecture that displays 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 law even specified the number of bricks and the cost of bricks that were permitted for people with different status.

Traditional Chinese architecture: an elegant civilian dwelling
This is an elegant civilian dwelling. According to the author, the owner is an intellectual. The rockery designs and the flower trees next to the house speak volumes of the owner’s sophisticated taste. The roof is a simple ingot-ridge without a crossbeam. The geometric window pattern is one of the most common traditional Chinese patterns, whose continuous repetitiveness signifies “continuous wealth.”

Columns were particularly important in class delineation in Chinese architecture.

“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.”

Traditional Chinese architecture: lobby of a wealthy family
The front hall of a wealthy family. The rockery design and swaying bamboo in the courtyard complement well the crack-ice wall panels. The flower arrangement in the vase, bonsai trees on the two sides, as well as the landscape paintings on the walls reflect the owners’ traditional taste of expressing their worldviews through flowers and trees. Pine and cypress symbolize perseverance and strength; the lotus symbolizes purity and innocence; the orchid symbolizes nobleness and integrity; green bamboo symbolizes honesty and humility.

Hierarchical Systems In Traditional Chinese Architecture

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.

Traditional Chinese architecture: main hall of an imperial palace
This is the main hall of an imperial palace. It has a hip roof with a main ridge and four diagonal ridges, which could be used only in the noblest buildings in China. In Qing Dynasty palaces, the ridge beasts sitting on the diagonal ridges were set in odd numbers. The greater the number of beasts, the higher the palace’s status. The ridge beasts include dragon, phoenix, lion, qilin, pegasus, seahorse, fish, cow, and others. The dragon is the symbol of the emperor; the phoenix and qilin are beasts symbolizing auspiciousness; the lion is the guardian of the Dharma in the Buddha school, symbolizing bravery and majesty; pegasus and seahorse symbolize the royal families having the mighty power to reach heaven and ocean; fish and cow symbolize good weather.

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 Chinese architecture 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.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 103

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