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Published: 17:00, November 28, 2023 | Updated: 17:24, November 28, 2023
Carving out a legacy
By Fang Aiqing
Published:17:00, November 28, 2023 Updated:17:24, November 28, 2023 By Fang Aiqing

Editor's note: There are 43 items inscribed on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage lists that not only bear witness to the past glories of Chinese civilization, but also continue to shine today. China Daily looks at the protection and inheritance of some of these cultural legacies. In this installment, we find out how China's architects and artisans continue to build on tradition, seeking new ways to implement ancient techniques and natural materials.

Wood, artisans, and exquisite craftsmanship passed down for thousands of years. These constitute the key elements of traditional timber-framed structures, such as those that form magnificent royal palaces like the Forbidden City in Beijing and contribute to the elegant and imaginatively laid out classic gardens of Suzhou, Jiangsu province.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony of the Forbidden City is a prime example of the traditional timber-framed structures that have withstood the test of time. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

It also allowed ordinary people to reside in neat and simple traditional quadrangle dwellings in Beijing, or Huizhou-style houses with white walls and black-tiled roofs in Anhui, Zhejiang and Jiangxi provinces.

In 2009, Chinese traditional architectural craftsmanship for timber-framed structures was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO

Usually, a traditional Chinese wooden building uses large components, such as columns, beams, purlins and dougong (interlocking brackets), to frame the structure, and sunmao (mortise and tenon joinery) structures to tightly join together the components.

The projecting part, sun (tenon), and the concave part, mao (mortise), seem to bite each other, with each being supported while contained, making the structure stable but flexible, strong and pliable enough to withstand earthquakes.

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In 2009, Chinese traditional architectural craftsmanship for timber-framed structures was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Yet, while traditional craftsmanship retains, and emanates, a romance that seems to bring us closer to nature, it is bordering on the impractical in the modern world, where reinforced glass skyscrapers and utilitarian, concrete city blocks are dominant.

A model of dougong (interlocking brackets) on display at the National Museum of China. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

At a time when the trend toward taller, larger and stronger buildings seems ubiquitous, there is a group of people determined to keep wood relevant.

What does wood, they ask, as an architectural material, and the artisanship that has been cherished for generations mean for today's world?

Historic glory

Born to a carpenter's family in Suzhou in 1949, Lu Yaozu started to learn woodwork from his father at the age of 16.

Drawing lines on wood and using a set of more than 100 tools, he started with the basics — chopping, sawing and chiseling.

In a career spanning nearly six decades, the craftsman has not only devoted to design and construction, as well as restoration of ancient architecture, but he has also helped "export" the city's classic gardens 

In a career spanning nearly six decades, the craftsman has not only devoted to design and construction, as well as restoration of ancient architecture, but he has also helped "export" the city's classic gardens through projects like the Ming Xuan, the Astor Chinese Garden Court of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon, the United States, as well as other projects in France, Japan and Singapore.

Lu is the fifth-generation inheritor of his family's expertise, belonging to the "Xiangshan group" of carpenters, named after the area in Suzhou.

The Xiangshan carpenters use materials sparingly, avoid redundant decorations and encourage innovation through shape and structure, says Meng Lin, associate professor at the School of Art, Soochow University, and author of a monograph on the Xiangshan carpenters.

Their technique is one of the four schools of the craft recognized by the UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2009.

The other three skill sets, mainly used in building residential structures, stem from Beijing, ancient Huizhou (part of Anhui and Jiangxi provinces) and southern Fujian province.

One noted name among the Xiangshan carpenters is Kuai Xiang of the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), who is attributed as being one of the key figures behind the design and construction of the Forbidden City.

The roof of the hall is decorated with figurines at the end of its diagonal ridges. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

His name is particularly associated with today's Tian'anmen Rostrum, which used to serve as the front gate of the royal palace, and the three main halls, including Taihe Dian (Hall of Supreme Harmony), where major imperial ceremonies were held.

The Taihe Dian is noted for its grandeur, with its double-eaved, hip roof covered with more than 80,000 golden glazed tiles, supported by an intricate beam structure and 72 columns.

Nestled beneath the eaves and the roof, connecting the beam structure and the columns and transferring the weight of the roof evenly to the columns, are 650 sets of dougong, each with layers of crisscrossed, upside-down small arches (gong) and blocks (dou) to hold the arches, among other modular parts. This forms the shape of an inverted triangle.

The Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The roof is, notably, decorated with figurines of an immortal and 10 monsters at the end of its diagonal ridges, the one and only example in ancient Chinese architecture, indicating it was the highest-level palatial construction in the royal palace.

Back in Suzhou, however, this same carpentry was applied in pursuit of a delicate Jiangnan (south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River) temperament that is synonymous for the elegant and uncluttered lifestyle favored by ancient literati.

Here, the overhanging eaves have a feeling of lightness, making this "magic" of turning heavy, straight logs into curved, delightful shapes a challenge to any master of carpentry, according to Xu Jifan, Lu's nephew and the sixth-generation inheritor of the family tradition.

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Lu says architecture built with their traditional carpentry makes perfect sense when being analyzed by modern physics.

They are solid and beautiful in a way that some joints and supporting structures look like decorations, and some are cleverly hidden.

And his ancestors were themselves intellectuals, capable of designing an architectural complex of diverse construction, featuring waterscapes and greenery, as well as a combination of complicated wooden structures. They were also able to partake in manual work as well as manage the whole project.

Yet Lu, modestly, says he always thinks his skill is no match for that of his father, who, in his lifetime, had taken part in the restoration of the renowned Fengqiao ancient town and the Hanshan Temple in Suzhou.

The handicraft paper museum in Tengchong, Yunnan province. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Contemporary conversion

Lu admits that the industry is experiencing a difficult time, with a relatively low income and lack of social recognition that steers people away from a career that demands knowledge, wisdom and physical strength.

According to Meng, the scholar, despite the systematic accounts in Yingzao Fayuan, a bible for Suzhou-style architecture written by Yao Chengzu (1866-1938), carpenters today inhabit a different environment from their predecessors.

The younger generation would rather imitate than invent, she says.

The 74-year-old Lu has been teaching apprentices since the 1970s.

Hua (Architect Hua Li) says a contemporary architect can draw inspiration from the ideas and aesthetics of traditional Chinese architecture

In recent years, Xu, who has been learning carpentry from Lu for the past 43 years, teaches part-time at local vocational colleges.

Both believe three to five years is adequate time to cultivate a carpentry skill set, but when, or whether, there will be a next-generation master of Xiangshan carpentry, who can draft, carry out the labor and direct, remains a question.

Architect Hua Li, a practitioner of modern architectural theory and practice, has completed several wooden structure projects over the years and has been reflecting on the potential of the traditional materials and the intellectual legacy widely applied in residential dwellings throughout the country.

Although wooden architecture has certain limits in terms of scale and fire protection and is therefore not in mainstream use, he recognizes wood as being nonpolluting and bringing a feeling of nature, intimacy and warmth.

In 2008, Hua's Trace Architecture Office designed a handicraft paper museum in rural Tengchong, Yunnan province, deep in Gaoligong Mountain.

One of the two projects showcases architect Hua Li's attempts in injecting new life into traditional craftsmanship of timber-framed structures. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The contemporary-style design, a complex of small cabins of different sizes and heights, was built simply with traditional beams, columns and sunmao structures, by a group of experienced local carpenters.

"It has extended the usage of traditional woodcraft, as it was seldom applied to an irregular shape," Hua says, adding that this attempt indicates traditional timber-framed structures can be more diversely used and promoted in a wider range of applications.

In 2017, in Taxia village of Nanjing county, Fujian province, Hua led a project that involved renovating five old buildings into a commercial resort, the Tsingpu Tulou Retreat. Three of them were rectangular tulou (earthen buildings) constructed in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

According to Hua, the challenge was keeping the original wooden structures and earthen walls while upgrading the thermal and sound insulation, lighting, waterproofing and fire protection facilities to meet the need of a high-end hotel room.

These changes should be made as imperceptible or disguised as much as possible, so as not to interrupt the overall atmosphere of a bygone era.

Hua says a contemporary architect can draw inspiration from the ideas and aesthetics of traditional Chinese architecture.

One of the two projects showcases architect Hua Li's attempts to modernize the traditional craftsmanship of timber-framed structures. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Another project in Fujian, a branch of the bookstore chain Librairie Avant-Garde in Xiadi village of Pingnan county, saw the architect lay a concrete-and-steel structure in the shell of a traditional house with three surviving rammed-earth walls.

A steel column at the center of the building supports a double-sloped roof, the position and shape of which reminds people of its previous appearance that was reminiscent of the region, and the overall design enables a relatively large-span space to hold theatrical and cultural activities.

"I'm suggesting a method that seeks to link the tradition by using current construction methods and materials," Hua says.

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He calls for updates in national technical specifications both for traditional timber-framed structures and an industrial system that applies laminated wood, prefabricated units and on-site assembly.

He says he wants to integrate such craftsmanship in suitable designs to facilitate its inheritance, because "a carpenter cannot enhance skill without frequent practice, and the handicraft will diminish without a carrier".

Contact the writer at fangaiqing@chinadaily.com.cn

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