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Chinese Architecture - Influences

( Originally Published 1921 )

I. Geographical.—The Chinese Empire, comprising China proper, Tibet, and Mongolia, covers a larger area than the whole of Europe. It is for the most part mountainous, but has four great trading rivers which facilitate internal commerce, while there is a network of canals for irrigation and navigation in the low-lying provinces, and canals and navigable rivers together form the principal highways of China. The " Grand Canal," for example, extending from Tientsin to Hangchow, is 600 miles long. Excellent harbours promoted that intercourse with India and Assyria which influenced architectural forms ; for the Chinese pagoda probably came direct from an Indian prototype (pp. 801, 804) or was derived from the pyramidal, many-storeyed buildings of lower Chaldaea.

II. Geological.—Abundance of minerals, including coal, salt, iron, and copper, always made China one of the richest of countries ; while, as in India, timber from the vast forests of bamboo and pine, which existed in ancient times, was employed for building, and whole villages of cave dwellings were excavated out of the friable " loess " soil in the north. Brick-making was probably introduced from the west of Asia on the pattern of bricks found in the ruins in Mesopotamia, as the clay of Chinese river plains provided suitable material for this purpose. In city walls the bricks were usually about i8 ins. long, and for buildings small grey-coloured bricks were often used. Large beds of porcelain clay are found in the province of Cheh-Kiang and elsewhere, and out of this was made the beautiful old blue china of Nankin which is famous throughout the world. Tiles, plain, glazed, and coloured, were generally used for roofs, and yellow was the Imperial colour. The red sandstone and limestone in the south were used for bridges, gateways, and public works generally, and there was marble balustrading around tombs and important buildings.

III. Climatic.—The mountains, which run east and west, direct the sea winds which moderate the temperature. North China has a short but sharp frosty winter and a warm and rainy summer, and during the monsoons very heavy rains occur, which influenced the design of such features as the widely-projecting roof with steep surfaces to throw off rain-water. Roofs are turned up at the eaves to admit light, while excluding heat and glare (pp. 813, 814). Fires are principally used for cooking purposes and not for comfort, and chimneys are therefore unimportant and seldom provided, as the charcoal or wood fire is allowed to discharge its fumes into the apartment.

IV. Religious.—The two main religious and ethical influences in China are Confucianism (Confucius B.C. 551–475) and Buddhism, introduced from India about A.D. 90. Confucianism was founded rather on an ethical code of moral doctrines and golden rules of conduct than on any definite religious belief. This is chiefly responsible for the absence of a dominant priesthood and also for that lack of important religious buildings which has so much astonished travellers, inasmuch as the Chinese were probably civilised as early as the Egyptians, who, mainly owing to their strong religious beliefs, erected temples and tombs unequalled in grandeur. Buddhism, which first combated and partly absorbed the older Taoism, is said to have taken root among the people by the fourth century of our era. Temples and shrines erected to Buddha or Confucius, though numerous, are unimportant, and thus form a marked contrast to the monumental temples of Egypt ; while in the pagoda alone do we see any trace of religious imagination and aspiration, which is such a controlling factor of Mediaeval art in Western Europe. The poor family has, however, its altar and household gods and the wealthy family its ancestral hall of worship. Chinese belief in life after death was expressed by means of sacrifices to the spirits of the departed, and indeed ancestor worship led to such veneration for graves that the Chinese will plough around them for generations rather than be guilty of the sacrilege of disturbing them.

V. Social.—The prehistoric period in China, with successive " heavenly," terrestrial," and " human emperors " is but dimly shadowed in legend. The Chinese point to Fu-hi (B.C. 2800) as the first emperor who evolved social order out of chaos ; while to his immediate successors are ascribed the development of agriculture, the invention of hieroglyphs, the building of temples and planning of cities. A succession of these mythical emperors was followed by the first historic, or " Chou " dynasty, and the first certain data in this dynasty is fixed by an eclipse of the sun in B.C. 776. After this dynasty, emperors became less powerful and feudal vassals waxed stronger, till in the Tsin Dynasty, Shi-Hwang-Ti (B.C. 246-210), " the first Universal Emperor," became strong enough to abolish the feudal system. He also divided the country into provinces, built roads, canals, public buildings, and a great royal palace. Succeeding dynasties are referred to under historical influences, in so far as they brought China into contact with the world outside her borders. Chinese government was always until our day despotic under an Emperor, as head of State and Church, and the different provinces are governed by mandarins, appointed from time immemorial by competitive examination.

Society was based on the family with the idea of absolute obedience to parental authority, and this is linked up with reverence for ancestors. There was no aristocracy, as we understand it, no hereditary nobility, but an enormous bureaucracy and army of retired officials who became landowners, and besides these there were the literary, agricultural, trading, and artisan classes. In such a community it was natural that property should not be hereditary, and it was equally divided amongst the family, conditions which were not conducive to the erection of great castles and mansions. Domestic architecture was subject to regulations as to the form and size of the houses intended for the different classes of the community. China has been termed the country of the middle classes—" literati," small proprietors and merchants—whose buildings indicate special regard for utility. There was an absence of the social conditions of Egypt and Assyria, where supreme monarchs controlled unlimited slave labour, for the erection of monumental structures to their own glorification. The " guilds," into which the trades and crafts were formed, date from about A.D. 600, and much resembled the guilds of Mediaeval Europe.

It is true of Chinese social customs generally that as they were in the beginning, so have they continued through the long ages during which the Chinese have ever been girt about by the Great Wall, and so sheltered from external intercourse. Even in our day the Republic has done little to alter their unchanging customs or their peculiar architecture.

VI. Historical.—The early history of China is indistinguishable from the legends of Emperors, who were identified with various progressive steps in civilisation. The Chou Dynasty is said to have waged war in the tenth century B.C. against the Barbarians or Huns on the north. During the Tsin Dynasty (B.C. 249—210) Shi-Hwang-Ti, " the first Universal Emperor " (B.C. 246—210), built the " Great Wall " (B.C. 214) against barbarian inroads. The Han Dynasty (B.C. 206—A.D. 23) sent Chinese ambassadors to Western Asia, discovered India, and made Eastern Turkestan a Chinese colony. In the time of the Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D. 23–220) Emperor Ming Te extended the Chinese Empire and Buddhism was introduced from India. During the reign of Sze-Ma-Yen of the Western Tsin Dynasty (A.D. 265–590), the Emperor Diocletian sent ambassadors to China (A.D. 284). Taitsung (A.D. 627–649) of the Thang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907) purchased the alliance of the Turks, just as the Emperor Justinian had done in A.D. 558, and regained Eastern Persia up to the Caspian Sea. Ambassadors from Persia and Constantinople went in A.D. 645 on a mission to the Emperor. During the Sung Dynasty (A.D. 960–1280) China was engaged in war with the Mongols. In the tenth century the Chinese Emperor invaded Chaldaea, penetrated to the Mediterranean, and maintained a protectorate in Mesopotamia for more than sixty years. This expedition may have suggested Chaldaean temples as prototypes of Chinese structures and of pagodas in receding stages, and some authorities date from this period the art of enamelled brickwork in China. Under the Emperor Kublai (A.D. 1280–94) of the Mongol or Yuen Dynasty (A.D. 128o–1368), China reached her greatest extent, and with the exception of Hindustan, Arabia, and Western Asia, all the Mongol princes as far as the Dnieper were her tributaries. It was during this period that Marco Polo visited China. The Emperor undertook public works and patronised literature, and Persian workmen introduced the art of making blue and white porcelain. Hung-Wu, the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1368–1644), conquered the Mongols and established his capital at Nankin, but his successor removed it to Pekin, the present capital. Intercourse with Europe was suspended till the arrival of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, and in the following century the first English merchants visited China. The Manchu-Tartar Dynasty, which lasted from A.D. 1644 up to the establishment of the Republic (A.D. 1913), introduced the shaved head and pigtail of the Chinese as emblems of Tartar sovereignty. At the beginning of the seventeenth century German Jesuits influenced the studies of the Emperors. Kang-He (A.D. 1661–1721) added Tibet to the Empire and published the Dictionary of the Chinese language. Kien-Lung (A.D. 1735–95) invaded Burmah, Cochin-China, and Nepaul, and crushed the Mahometan rebellion. He received Lord Macartney as first ambassador of George III. In A.D. 1840 war was declared by England against China, and this marks the beginning of European intervention. In A.D. 1873 foreign ministers obtained the right of audience with the Emperor, but innovations have done little to alter the unchanging character of Chinese architecture. In A.D. 1913 the newly introduced Chinese Republic adopted the calendar of Western Europe.

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