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Nancy S. Steinhardt on traditional Chinese architecture

Author  :  CHU GUOFEI     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2023-03-03

Nancy S. Steinhardt

Nancy S. Steinhardt, a Professor of East Asian Art and Curator of Chinese Art at the University of Pennsylvania, has broad research interests in the art and architecture of China. In a recent interview with CSST, Prof. Steinhardt shared her research experiences and understanding of Chinese architecture.

CSST: Please share how you started your academic career. How did you become interested in Chinese architecture and art?

Nancy S. Steinhardt: There are a couple of things which I think are important. First of all, I began studying Chinese when I was 13 years old in high school. This was just towards the end of the Vietnam War. People realized that the United States had to know about China. Through my career, I met people who studied Chinese around when I did. Most of us stayed in Chinese studies, and it really did change my life.

By the time I got to college, I’d learned a lot of Chinese. I took survey of Western art during my freshman year of college. At that time, I thought I would be a Comp Lit major. And I took a survey of Asian Art as a sophomore. When I took Chinese art, it was actually Asian art, there was a lot of architecture in the class, China, Japan and India. Also just by chance, I was very lucky, there was a professor named Nelson Ikon Wu (1919–2002). This is kind of luck, maybe it’s fate.

Prof. Wu was himself an architect and taught courses on Chinese architecture, but there were only 2-3 students in the class. I didn’t realize how rare it was to study Chinese architecture in the 1970s. When he went on a three-week research trip, he handed me a book, History of Chinese Architecture. The author is Liu Zhiping (1909–1995), and it was written in 1957. He said, “Read as much of this as you can while I’m away.” I began to read it.

Then it comes to the next year, 1974, time for my senior thesis. I knew I wanted to do something with China. I don’t remember how exactly I got the topic, but I wrote my senior thesis on the tomb of Prince Yide [a grandson of Wu Zetian, the only female emperor of Imperial China]. So now think about what was going on in China around 1974, when Wenwu [Cultural Relics] had just started publishing again, and as an undergraduate, I was working in an area not too many people were working in, and it was real luck. So I read the excavation report. I wrote whatever I read, but I was poised to go to graduate school.

So then I started graduate school. I went to Harvard. At that time, Chinese painting was the main subject of research in Chinese art graduate programs in the US. Everybody around me was working on Chinese painting, whether you went to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton—any of the major graduate schools at that time. This is 1970s. I was looking at paintings on silk by people who were very literate, and who wrote poetry. I looked around me and the graduate students, and I could see my life as being translating poems and looking at paintings. But I wanted to know about China, and Chinese people. I felt that subject was too restricted for me. I was studying only the tiny percentage of artists who were highly literature. So I made my own way at that point. I am in graduate school, but I say, well, I want to work on architecture. So I chose to work on the Yonglegong [a Daoist temple in Shanxi Province] for my paper.

My first trip to China was in 1983. That was a general trip to major cities and just seeing major monuments. But I would say, from then on I’ve made at least forty trips, maybe fifty trips to China, and maybe fifteen trips to Japan, four to Korea, and two to Mongolia. But till this day, anytime I see for the first time, I feel it. There’s excitement for me about being in a building. I still have an impulse to be doing it, and art historians will say this, “You have some connection with your material.” My favorite building’s got to be the Forbidden City. I’ve been all over China, and I’ve seen all kinds of buildings, and there’s nothing like it, anywhere on earth. It’s perfect. It’s the perfect embodiment. It’s everything that Chinese architecture does best.

CSST: In your recent book, The Borders of Chinese Architecture, you explained why Chinese-style architecture has remained so consistent for two thousand years, no matter where it is built.

Nancy S. Steinhardt: One of my most vivid memories of my trips to China was my first day in China, Guangzhou. I flew to Hongkong, and took a train to Guangzhou. I was sitting in a hotel, I don’t remember the hotel, and I don’t remember the name of the person, but there was somebody sitting in the lobby. We started to talk, and I said “I’m here to study architecture,” and he was a political scientist, and he had been looking around Guangzhou. He said, “Can you tell me in five minutes, what should I realize what’s the most important about Chinese architecture?”

I don’t remember exactly what I said, and maybe I didn’t give him a very good answer in 1983. But what I realized is, what he was saying to me: why does it all looks so similar? That is one of the things I feel very strongly about, what the intellectual questions that drive in this field, why does it all look so similar? And I think it’s only when someone’s willing to say “Yeah, a lot of Chinese architecture looks like a lot of other Chinese architecture, and a lot of Chinese architecture also looks like Japanese architecture.” When you are willing to say that!

It was at that moment when I began to answer it, that I felt like I began to understand what I was trying to do with Chinese architecture. And that’s how this book, The Borders of Chinese Architecture, came about. Because, as I mentioned the Forbidden City, the power of Chinese architecture, the power of this building is such that it represents China more, in my opinion, than anything else. I mean maybe the Great Wall, that’s also architecture. But it represents China, in a way that people from the outside see architecture as they see China itself.

When I was trying to write The Borders, I began by having said: yes, Chinese architecture looks so similar, because it’s exportable, because you have Yingzao Fashi [A Song Dynasty encyclopedia of Chinese architecture], and you have manual. Until the 20th century, architecture in China usually was the work of craftsmen, not architects or designers. You can build anywhere, which means that China can have a presence anywhere. With this fairly straightforward wooden building, that’s really powerful. And it’s not always imperialist. China never conquers Japan—Japan, Korea, and Mongolia looked to China as a model how to build a civilization.

CSST: You mentioned that “sometimes one has to look outside China at what is taken from the Chinese tradition by another tradition, to understand what is most fundamental about the Chinese architectural tradition itself.”

Nancy S. Steinhardt: So when I was trying to do that in the book, I wanted to see how far beyond China could I find Chinese architecture, of course, under foreign rule, Liao, Jin, Yuan, and in the northern way, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, and Europe. If you want to have a presence of China, you build the pavilion, you build a pagoda. That’s the power. And to me, that’s why the system has endured, like it has for so long. It’s exportable. China can have a presence outside China. There’s no other system like that. Greek architecture? Yes, but maybe it’s Greek, maybe it’s Roman, maybe it’s Beaux-Arts. And Greece hasn’t endured for several thousand years. So this system has power, sometimes by looking outside, you see what is most Chinese about Chinese architecture, what’s exported.

So when I began Han Dynasty, I said, ok, how I’m going to write about Han? Well, let’s write about Han by looking in Liaoning and looking in Inner Mongolia. And I can find examples of Han architecture outside China. They told me as much about Chinese architecture as what I found inside China. So that’s where my thinking was when I tried to write The Borders.

CSST: What advice do you have for young scholars?

Nancy S. Steinhardt: First, I personally never know where my research will take me. Also, I have very broad interest. What that means is that if I’m standing somewhere, in China, or in a museum, or at a conference, I hear something, see something, I could end up doing research on it. I think the least successful research is when somebody says, ok, I’m going to write my dissertation on this, and I suspect at the end, this is what I’ll find. I’ll say, “I hope you don’t; I hope you find something completely different.”

This comes out all the time, and definitely comes up with Yuan Dynasty. If there’s anytime in the history of China when foreign architecture should have been a presence in China, it’s Yuan. And it’s not there! Chinese system, the adaptability, the flexibility, and the fact that you can use a building for so many purposes, means even if Yuan Dynasty—there was a white pagoda [a pagoda at the Miaoying Temple in Beijing]—it’s inside Chinese building plan. At a moment I got into this (as I mentioned I have very strong interest in Islamic architecture) and I thought, Yuan is the time I’m going to find non-China inside China, and I didn’t find it!

And similar, when I wrote the book, China’s Early Mosques, it’s at least fifteen years of research. The first mosque I saw was in Taipei in 1976. Then, probably it was in Guangzhou in 1983. When I looked at that mosque, I looked in it, and at the buildings around it, and then I began to read about the mosques. I have been in Xi’an, and have been to the Xi’an Mosque many times. It is Chinese architecture works, even for a mosque. So that’s kind of the power of the system.

Sometimes, if you go into something, thinking you know the conclusion, research shows you that you actually should conclude something very, very differently. So I guess the other methodology that’s always with me, is the object. I’m an art historian at the core, and the object always has to have the last word. I can read a hundred texts, but if the object shows something different, I have to believe the object. I never know where research will take me. Much of what I have written is the result of seeing things in China. I always learn something unexpected when I am in or in front of a building. The building in front of me has to be the final word. And certainly for art and architecture, for any art historian, the filed work is the most important thing. A photograph never tells you what it’s like to see it. The photograph is somebody’s picture. But you are not seeing everything. My best example of that is the Mogao Caves. I looked at pictures for years, and I taught it for years. When I stood in the caves, I realized some of the pictures that I’ve been teaching are just little tiny cards of the wall. [The wall painting] shows many other things. [Similar,] no matter what technology becomes available, I cannot imagine studying Chinese architecture without seeing what I am writing about.

Anybody who becomes an art historian feels her material is the most interest thing in the world. What can be more interesting? But as amazing as China, Chinese art, and architecture have been to me since the first day I saw it. It’s even more amazing. It’s even better than I can ever imagine it would be. The power of this field, how powerful this field has been in my life.

Editor: Ren Guanhong

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