AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 419

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Session 419: Architecture as Religious Culture in Pre-modern China

Organizer: Tracy G. Miller, Vanderbilt University, USA

Discussant: Wei-Cheng Lin, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA

The ritual environment of pre-modern China was filled with magnificent constructions, but to what extent was architecture a reflection of the religious beliefs, activities, or concepts of the time? This panel seeks to explore this question through three different types of structure: gardens, tombs, and temples. Although diverse architectures, each has a spiritual dimension which was part of China’s larger religious environment. Furthermore, each was a forum for both public display and private worship, and as such can be understood in terms of architectural intent on the part of designers and patrons. Close readings of pre-modern architectures can thus reveal much about the enduring symbolic associations of particular structures and the way in which they were employed to reflect specific cultural connections across space and time. The individual papers of this panel provide different examples of how architecture can be analyzed to enhance our understanding of the complex spiritual and cultural environment of pre-modern China. Walker’s study shows how different concepts of paradise were built into gardens to evoke ideas regarding the human condition. Zhang’s paper discussing the Duan family tombs near modern Linfen, Shanxi, describes a particular regional tomb style which consistently included a stage for eternal theatrical performance. Harrer’s paper on the fan bracket sets of Shanxi shows how this feature was used on temple buildings across sectarian divides but specific to North China. Finally, Miller maps a series of temple buildings across China to show how architecture could express cultural connections to sacred sites of distant regions.

Gardens of the Great Peace: Concepts of Paradise in the Peach Blossom Spring and the Islands of the Immortals
Nathaniel Walker, Brown University, USA

By the end of the Han Dynasty, there were in China at least two major concepts of Paradise, related but far from identical. Fixed beyond the mythological horizon were the elusive Isles of the Immortals, precipitous mountain peaks that rose out of the churning waves of the eastern sea and supported the wondrous and fantastically long lives of the adept: “realized people” (zhen ren) that had “transcended the polarity of opposites” through the pursuit of esoteric knowledge and the brewing of potions. Yu Ji’s Taipingjing, on the other hand, offered a very different concept of a life in happy harmony with the Dao, one that depended not so much on a specialized education or a propensity for magic as upon the exercise of common virtues. He lamented a lost Golden Age described as a time of peace, community, and closeness to nature, which had been lost due to human greed but could perhaps be achieved again. These visions both came to wield a remarkable influence upon garden design in subsequent periods—garden designs which are not only accessible to us due to surviving examples and records of real places, but also paintings and stories relating the legends of the Immortal Isles and Yu Ji’s Golden Age as Peace Blossom Spring, in which architecture and landscape are strategically deployed to explore and illustrate the complex relationships between the issues of place and the content of human character in a conflicted world longing for great peace.

Perfection and Simplicity in Shanxi Province: The Fan-shaped Bracket Sets of the Main Halls at Shuozhou Chongfusi and Xiaohuiling Erxianmiao
Alexandra Harrer, Tsinghua University, Austria

The Amitābha Hall (d. 1143 C.E.) of the Chongfu Monastery in Shuozhou is the pinnacle of medieval timber craftsmanship in the northern part of present-day Shanxi province. The desire for perfection is ubiquitous throughout the large, awe-inspiring Buddhist complex. The Temple of the Two Transcendents outside Xiaohui village in Lingchuan county, Jincheng prefecture, is a typical one-courtyard complex of popular folk religion in southeast Shanxi and embedded in the rugged, unspoiled countryside. The undated Main Hall looks humble and modest measuring only a fifth of the length and less than a third of the depth of the grand structure in Shuozhou. At first glance, the two buildings seem as different as night and day, both in terms of monastic design and history. However, closer inspection reveals a most astonishing similarity. Both structures use a special type of the eye-catching Chinese bracket set known as shanshi dougong, where bracket-arms stick out at a 45 degree angle to the wall plane. This paper is based on my comprehensive study on such fan-shaped bracket sets and their application in Shanxi, from the formative periods prior to the Yuan dynasty (1267-1368 C.E.) to their flourishing in late imperial China. Angular arrangements are one of the most typical features in Shanxi’s regional architecture, and it is hoped that this discussion will contribute to fostering interest in their thrilling mystery.

Theater Underground: Representation of Performance Space in Pingyang Tombs
Fan Jeremy Zhang, Florida State University, USA

Pingyang (modern Linfen, Shanxi) was a major theater center in North China during the Jin dynasty (1115-1234). Soon after the Jurchen army conquered the Chinese regime, zaju (variety plays) drama became an indispensable part of village theater and temple fairs in southern Shanxi. The popularity of drama led to thriving representations of theater in local tombs and temples in various forms such as brick reliefs of actors, miniature stages, and murals of drama scenes. Focusing on the finds from the Duan family tombs near Linfen, this paper examines how local people incorporated theatrical representations into pictorial and architectural programs of their tombs, as well as how the development of temple theater and sheltered stages made available new representational models for local mortuary art. If temples and shrines were places for villagers and townspeople to show human devotion to deities, then tombs were places for them to communicate with their ancestors. Local people created a ceremonial theater in a simulated courtyard complex in their tombs, as a means of appealing for ancestral blessings to maintain their families’ continuity and fortunes while living under foreign rule. Pingyang’s distinctive funerary and ritual cultures not only account for this new tradition but also suggest the importance of this region in formulating the visual culture of the time.

Region, Locale, and the Temple Architecture of Medieval China
Tracy G. Miller, Vanderbilt University, USA

In the modern study of temple architecture in Medieval China (ca. 900-1200), individual buildings have typically been categorized according to manufacture within certain dynastic boundaries or through comparison with the Northern Song court architectural manual the Yingzao fashi (1103). In this paper I examine a series of temples from northern Shanxi, Liaoning, Shandong, Hebei, and Zhejiang provinces to explore regional associations in religious architecture. By using GIS to map specific features of individual worship halls dating from the 10th through the 12th centuries, I show that the style of extant temple buildings was not constrained by the geographic boundaries of middle-period dynasties, nor were they prescribed by the Song Yingzao fashi. I suggest instead that architectural style, at least in these temple buildings, was transmitted by way of trade and pilgrimage routes, including the nautical networks of rivers and oceans. This examination of bracketing and certain construction techniques can help illuminate not only the way in which the upper and lower reaches of the Yellow and Yangzi rivers worked more as conduits between, rather than centers of, larger macroregions (adding further nuance to Skinner’s model), but also the way in which monks along China’s east coast transported the visual culture of particular sacred sites from north to south and back again, transcending the dynastic borders over which they traveled. In this way architecture in China can provide us with a more sophisticated understanding of the cultural identities associated with specific locales, rather than shifting polities, during the Medieval period.