The Architect Who Revived China’s Love for Its Ancient Buildings
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2017-08-26 00:49:37

This article is the third in a series about Liang Sicheng, one of China’s most well-known architects. Parts one and two can be found here.

Jizhou is a far-flung suburb under the administrative jurisdiction of the northern Chinese city of Tianjin. On one autumn day in 2015, I traveled through the bustling new city with several acquaintances who shared my passion for ancient architecture. Not long after reaching West Wuding Street in the cramped old town, we found ourselves at the famous Dule Temple.

Nowadays, Dule Temple is a tourist destination, with entry tickets costing 40 yuan (around $6). However, the site does not see many visitors. It is home to China’s oldest surviving temple gate, known as Shanmen, or “Mountain Gate.” The gate is blocked off by a separate enclosure overlooking the street; visitors can only experience its simple but powerful grandeur at point-blank distance. With long eaves extending from its hipped roof, the gate’s style was traditionally reserved for royal palaces and temples. Although it was constructed during the Liao Dynasty (916-1125), it serves as a continuation of the architectural style of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Past the temple gate is the Guanyin Pavilion, a wooden structure standing 23 meters high. From the outside, the pavilion appears to contain two floors; on the inside, however, it actually holds three. Inside, a Liao Dynasty statue of Guanyin as an 11-headed bodhisattva — a Buddhist deity who has achieved enlightenment but chooses to stay in the mortal realm — towers a staggering 16 meters high.

The history of Dule Temple can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty; the temple was named after a saying by the famous Tang general An Lushan: “Ponder joys on your own” — du le in Chinese — “rather than sharing in the same joys as the common people.” Although researchers have recently used carbon dating to trace several wooden components inside the temple’s Guanyin Pavilion back to the Tang era, most people generally agree with an earlier assessment of the pavilion made by Liang Sicheng, one of China’s late, great modern architects. Liang maintained that Dule was a Liao-era structure, based on fieldwork he conducted outside Beiping (now known as Beijing) after returning from the United States in 1928.

Liang joined the Society for Research in Chinese Architecture (SRCA) not long after returning from the U.S. Unlike the dry, old-fashioned scholarship of ancient academics, Liang’s approach greatly stressed the importance of architectural inspection and surveying. He planned to build a complete history of Chinese architecture through large-scale on-site surveys and data collection.

The veneration of classical Chinese architecture that Liang incorporated into his design influenced many of the architects that followed.

The Japanese scholars Sekino Tadashi and Takeshima Takuichi visited the society in the spring of 1931. In their discussions, they mentioned the status of Dule Temple, then located in Ji County in the province of Hebei. Later on, Yang Tingbao, a fellow architect and schoolmate of Liang’s in the United States, spotted a photograph of an ancient temple on an exhibition board in the Beiping Library. The picture showed a splendid pavilion with extended eaves and massive dougong, the traditional interlocking wooden brackets between the tops of columns and crossbeams. Below the photograph was a note stating that it had been taken at Dule Temple in Jixian. Based on this picture, Liang determined that this was a rare kind of ancient structure.

As Jixian was not far from Beiping, Liang decided to visit as soon as possible to investigate. Little did he know that shortly before he made this decision, a group of Chinese collaborators with the Japanese had staged a riot in Tianjin. The riot cut off transportation to the city and threw the region into disorder. As a result, the first field study that the SRCA organized outside Beiping was postponed until April of the following year.

The field study proved extremely successful. Liang discovered that the Guanyin Pavilion had not only been built during the Liao Dynasty, but that it was also the oldest known wooden structure in China. “The temple carries on the tradition of Tang architecture while also drawing on the style of the Song Dynasty. It truly is an important example to reference in the study of the transformation of Chinese architecture,” Liang wrote in praise of the temple.

In June 1932, Liang’s report, titled “Two Liao Structures of Tu-lo Ssu,” was published in the third volume of the Society for Research in Chinese Architecture’s official journal. The article’s natural, graceful writing and impeccable presentation of research greatly added to Liang’s fame and the reputation of the society as a whole.

In a sense, Liang also revived this kind of architecture. In 1933, Chinese educator Cai Yuanpei founded the National Central Museum in Nanjing. Two years later, the museum held a competition soliciting submissions of architectural plans for the museum’s main building. Due to the Society for the Study of Chinese Architecture’s strong reputation, Liang was selected for the competition’s panel of five judges. After the judges had gone over all 12 submissions, however, none of the plans were deemed to have met the competition’s standards.

A view of Dule Temple in Tianjin, Jan. 4, 2013. Ma Jian/IC

A view of Dule Temple in Tianjin, Jan. 4, 2013. Ma Jian/IC

In the end, the judging panel decided to appoint one of the candidates, Xu Jingzhi, as the head architect for the museum project, simultaneously hiring Liang as a special committee member. Liang advised Xu to alter his plan — which originally included Qing Dynasty-style palatial architecture — to the Liao-era style of Dule Temple’s Shanmen. Although the new building made use of modern reinforced concrete, all the other architectural details strictly adhered to the design of Shanmen.

The National Central Museum held an elaborate cornerstone-laying ceremony in November 1936. However, due to the sudden outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the museum project’s first stage was not completed until 1948. This magnificent structure, built in the traditional style of a Chinese palace, has served as a major Nanjing landmark for the past seven decades.

In 2009, the museum — now known as the Nanjing Museum — began an expansion project. Cheng Taining, the managing architect for the project, had previously been awarded the highest honor in Chinese architecture: the Liang Sicheng Architecture Prize. As part of the project, the entire main hall of the museum was raised a full 3 meters — a massive feat of engineering.

The museum reopened on Nov. 6, 2013, to streams of visitors. “I have always had great respect for Liang Sicheng,” Cheng said, “and it is my hope that the works of Mr. Liang and other architects of past generations may shine anew.” While the old museum building was unique among a movement of 20th-century architects exploring national architectural forms, the veneration of classical Chinese architecture that Liang incorporated into his design influenced many of the architects that followed.

Translator: Zachary Haluza; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A view of the main building of the Nanjing Museum after the expansion project in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Nov. 6, 2013. Gu Changwang/VCG)