February 04: Song Dynasty

2012/02/04 § Leave a comment

On this day in 960 the coronation of Emperor Taizu took place.

Initiating the Song Dynasty of China, Taizu expanded and solidified the empire, instituted administrative reforms, created academies, and lay the groundwork for advance in the arts and sciences.  During the following three centuries of Song rule, architecture would flourish, along with landscape painting, calligraphy, poetry and ceramics.

Although many of its buildings, built primarily of wood and other ephemeral materials, have been lost to fire and general decay, their memory is recorded in paintings like the one above: beautiful renderings of apparently delicate pavilions–their eaves as elegant as the wings and necks of the cranes that waft through the air above–that were actually very heavy and complex structures.  (For eighty-five high-resolution scans of paintings in the collection of the exquisite Freer Gallery, click here.)

Architectural form and structure were codified in building manuals that rose in significance to emphasize the symbolic importance of architecture to the empire.  Most notable among these is the Yingzao Fashi (“Treatise on State Building Standards”) by Li Jie (1065–1110), director of the construction administration in the mid-Song Dynasty.  Not a treatise in the sense of the theoretical works that would flourish in Renaissance Italy, the Yingzao Fashi was more like the practical parts of Vitruvius, laying down expectations for methods and costs, recipes for mortar and glaze, careful directions for devising timber and stone details.  Importantly, it not only codified building practices but regularized them throughout the Empire to serve political ends as the Académie royale d’architecture would do starting about six centuries later.

Some of the great works that do survive from the Song Dynasty reveal the two great reaches with which builders striving for monumentality must contend: height and span.  The Song builders soared into the heavens with lofty pagodas that commonly reached 150 feet (Pizhi Pagoda, 960-1127; Huqiu Tower, 961 ) and leapt over rivers with bridges that could span seventy feet at one jump (Four Lakes Bridge, 10th c.; Rainbow Bridge, 12th c.).  These are the monuments of the empire founded by Taizu.  They form a startling contrast with contemporary developments in Europe, where medieval Christians were hunkering down and fearing for the end of the world, or once in a while building a big stony mass to house leftover parts of dead saints.

Image: detail of painting by Zhao Ji, collection of Liaoning Provincial Museum (from this source)

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