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Aesthetics of ancient Chinese architecture explained from three dimensions of space, structure, field

Author  :  Wang Yun     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2018-04-02

If the ancient Chinese architecture could be defined by one particular shape, it would be a ripple. With multiple attributes, a ripple is able to integrate the invisible into the visible. The result is that the visible is blurred, deformed, stylized, diffused, derived and proliferated. 

A ripple also accepts everything while engulfing everything: It is both disturbed by all things and merged with all things. The convergence with other things gives it depth. Moreover, it seems to be centric in texture but non-centric in appearance, which decides that it can be overlapping, concealed, alterable or illusory.

What is the way to explain the ancient Chinese architecture from the perspective of aesthetics if it is described as a ripple? It can be divided into three dimensions—from the center to the margin—space, structure and field. 

The space here particularly refers to the interior space of the architecture. What makes the architecture is its form as the entity which artificially and “deliberately” divides its exteriors and interiors by means of space.

The essence of a building is the ability of moulding, the ultimate goal of which is to further distinguish and separate itself from the external world. The process and result of moulding are both indispensable. The building of an animal can be a sparrow’s nest and an ant’s burrow. But for a man who takes the sky as the canopy and the earth as the mattress, it is hard to say whether the sky and the earth could constitute his building. 

In the case of a pavilion, its hollowness in structure—without a wall surrounding it and dividing it from the outer space—makes it difficult to discern which is its exterior and which is its interior.

Imagine such a situation: “Am I waiting for the snow inside the pavilion? Or is the snow waiting for me?” It is hard to say because the strong poetic flavor and sentiment of the scene have already immersed, disassembled and decomposed the “invisible wall” that is imaginably able to separate the inner and outer spaces of the pavilion. 

So why is the pavilion chosen as a suitable place to wait for the snow? Why not switch to other places that are without roofs, beam-columns and frames, stand there and wait for the snow to come? Isn’t it more poetic in sentiment and atmosphere?

Despite the fact that a pavilion has no wall, it has columns which prop up its roof, and perhaps layers of rammed earth, driftwood or masonry at its base. Also, there are probably handrails, backrests, and armrests between the pillars. People could stand, sit down and lie down, waiting for the snow at his disposition. 

Essentially, the pavilion is open in that its inner space is not stiff, closed or isolated as a tightly sealed box is. The communication between its inner and outer spaces is definitely a must, which constitutes the core of its aesthetic culture.

For the ancient Chinese architecture, the structure can be regarded as a theoretical term derived from the space since the latter is, in its nature, a result of being shaped by the former. What the structure reflects is the architectural culture—the Chinese and Western architecture have their own respective distinctive structures. 

From the perspective of external forms, the structural uniqueness of the ancient Chinese architecture is that it has a roof on the top, a row of columns with regular intervals between each other in the middle, and a platform as the base. It is the synthesis of materials, including bricks, tiles, earth and timber instead of being singularly structured in terms of its fabric. Furthermore, it is usually composed of beam-columns and decorated with bracket sets, the sequence of which is well assembled. The assembling of bracket sets further provides the premise for the configuration of wood joints.

From the perspective of internal forms, the structural uniqueness of the ancient Chinese architecture is that in it, the front and the rear, the left and the right, the top and the bottom, the superordinate and the subordinate, the concave and the convex, the yin and the yang, the proximity and the distance are demarcated. 

The field of architecture denotes the overall notions and motifs embodied in it. Chinese architecture has not existed in a single form since ancient times. A cluster of buildings usually forms a courtyard, which is surrounded by an architectural compound. Such a compound is not simply an array of houses of different sizes packed together but rather the assembly of them in a certain way. And such a composition alters as factors of geography, time, power and people’s dispositions change. In fact, the existence of architecture must be experiential. It is a complex of all sorts of desires, including the instinct for survival, sense of being, the will for power, intuition for aesthetics and free will.

Space, structure and field—they make up the three dimensions of the aesthetics of the ancient Chinese architecture. Paralleled and coexistent with each other, the three dimensions are inclined to be either internalized or expanded. With complicated convergence with and deviation from each other, they together constitute the world of the ancient Chinese architectural aesthetics. 


Wang Yun is from the School of Literature at Soochou (Suzhou) University.





(Edited and translated by BAI LE)









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