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Greco-Roman vs. Han Chinese Extant Architecture

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  Quote Gun Powder Ma Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Topic: Greco-Roman vs. Han Chinese Extant Architecture
    Posted: 09-Oct-2006 at 19:32
Thanks, Preo. I was especially looking forward to pics of Pingyao. From these it looks like that even as late as Ming and Qing, one to two story houses were the norm. That is IMO still a far cry from the Roman appartment blocks (20m height restriction by the state, up to 7 stories) which very much anticipate the modern look.
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  Quote flyingzone Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09-Oct-2006 at 20:29
Originally posted by Gun Powder Ma

    Ancient Chinese cities never developed the kind of complex infrastructure without which Western or Islamic cities are unthinkable.
 
The duality of Emperor and citizen - with nothing in between - was also reflected in the meek infrastructure of Chinese cities. No citizens and no concept of citizenship or self-government meant in terms of urban architecture lesser public buildings, less crystallisation points for urban living. Add to that the perishability of traditional wood based East Asian architecture and we know why Chinese cities - as far as architecture is concerned, not people! - do not have the same aura as Indian, Muslim or Western cities.
 
 
Your idea of a so-called complex "infrastructure" seems to be defined exclusively by public buildings (i.e. "crystallisation points for urban living"). However, I think such definition of "infrastructure" is too narrow in two related senses. First, it is narrow in terms of what really constitutes a good "infrastructure"; good infrastruture includes so much more than having some grandiose public buildings or cathedrals or a public square. It should also include rational and efficient city planning, including the construction of city walls, roads, canals, and bridges. Second, the idea of a spectacular town hall or a civic square is a distinctively "Western" concept, and of course we all know it's dangerous to view anything "non-Western" from an entirely Western perspective. For instance, instead of "town halls", gardens were an extremely important element of Chinese urban living. Song garden architects were famous for their ability to incorporate natural and artificial environmental elements into their designs. Kaifeng, the Song capital, might not have as many spectacular buildings as Chang'an, the Tang capital, but considering the fact that cities such as Chang'an and Keifeng were the largest metropoles on earth at their times (and probably boasting the highest per capita GDP too), it's simply unimaginable that those cities' "infrastructure" (in a less narrowly-defined way) was nothing but spectacularly world-class. By the way, it was during the Song dynasty that the "Yingzao Fashi" was written. "Yingzao Fashi" was a definitive book about architectural design and construction. The book demonstrates how engineering techniques and construction management had developed at that time. 
 
I think it is very important to remember that architecture is not simply about the height and the building material of a structure. In other words, architecture is not simply about engineering and technology. Otherwise architects would not be called architects. Architecture is as much about aesthetics. And I think it is really hard, if not dangerous, to pass a definitive judgement on aesthetics from any specific cultural perspective.  
  
The following is the famous painting Qingming Scroll which is believed by some to portray daily life in Kaifeng.
 
 


Edited by flyingzone - 09-Oct-2006 at 20:29
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  Quote Hrothgar Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09-Oct-2006 at 20:53
save for the several pagodas, those pictures are very underwhelming and crude compared to say the details found in Mosques or Cathedrals, or even some select water fountains in the city of Rome.

I like the theory that central government was a factor in quelling creativity and competition.
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  Quote Hrothgar Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09-Oct-2006 at 20:54
hmm, another silk print.  great.
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  Quote Omnipotence Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09-Oct-2006 at 20:57
What's up with all this superiority complex on Euopean architecture > Chinese architecture? If that's the only reason one's here, he or she might as well just say it.
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  Quote Gun Powder Ma Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09-Oct-2006 at 21:27
Originally posted by flyingzone

I think it is very important to remember that architecture is not simply about the height and the building material of a structure. In other words, architecture is not simply about engineering and technology. Otherwise architects would not be called architects. Architecture is as much about aesthetics. And I think it is really hard, if not dangerous, to pass a definitive judgement on aesthetics from any specific cultural perspective.


That's why this thread is mainly concerned with architecture as engineering and building construction. The silk scroll which is very beautiful shows by the way again that traditional Chinese houses were of the one story type.

Whether the buildings of Kaifeng or Chang'an were "spectacularly world-class" we just do not know for sure in the marked absence of sufficient building fabric. Yes, there are other former world cities from which today there is hardly a trace left (Baghdad for one), but we should not take a priori considerations too far.

Ancient Cairo, Constantinople and Rome must be considered once true world cities because any visitor can see this at a glance even today. But in Kaifeng, Chang'an and Luoyang we do not see at all much traces of their former glory, that's why we should be cautious to call them such in the first place. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but certainly a strong argument pointing in that direction when it comes so forcefully in this case.
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  Quote flyingzone Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09-Oct-2006 at 21:28
Hrothqar, I am not an expert in architecture, Western or Asian, so obviously I wasn't able to come up with spectacular pictures like those Eric and Gun Powder Ma have provided. I am just expressing my humble opinion on a topic that I find interesting.
 
I find your tone extremely unpleasant. Unlike Gun Powder Ma who is obvsioulsy knowledgeable and smart and has raised many excellent points, and unlike even me who has at least tried to make a real effort to join in the discussion, all you have done is to throw in your little useless remarks that even a 9-year-old can write, only with an unhealthy addition of childish sarcasm (e.g. "Go European barbarians!"). Aren't you ashamed of yourself?
 
In Gun Powder Ma's posts, I find a healthy dose of learned skepticism. But in your posts (not just this one), all I find is narrow-minded Eurocentrism with a huge dose of ignorance. Not cool.  


Edited by flyingzone - 09-Oct-2006 at 23:17
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  Quote Gun Powder Ma Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09-Oct-2006 at 21:31
Originally posted by flyingzone

 
Your idea of a so-called complex "infrastructure" seems to be defined exclusively by public buildings (i.e. "crystallisation points for urban living").


No, I think we agree on our definition of infrastructure. That's why I posted a such a wide array of buildings and techniques of all kinds in my starting post. I just wanted to make it short with my "crystallisation points" which can indeed define a city sufficiently when you add the concept of lifelines.

Lifelines + crystallisations points = essence of a city
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  Quote flyingzone Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09-Oct-2006 at 21:38

Actually, some remnants of the Song-Kaifeng architectural style (e.g. the main hall and the hanging hirders) can still be seen in Taiyuan, in northern China's Shangxi province. Examples of brick and stone structures from the same era can also be found in the Lingyin Temple Tower in Zhejiang Hangzhou, the Fanta Tower in Henan Kaifeng city, and the Yongtong Bridge in Hebei Zhao Town.

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  Quote Omnipotence Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09-Oct-2006 at 22:56
Did anyone notice that the clay reconstructions of Han buildings have smaller roofs than Song-Qing buildings? Heck, the roof of the main building in the Forbidden City is bigger than the building itself. Not so with Han dynasty buildings. I guess Chinese architecture evolved into buildings with more roof.

Edited by Omnipotence - 09-Oct-2006 at 22:57
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  Quote Kids Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09-Oct-2006 at 23:50
I really dislike to talk or to engage into the discussions like whose cutlure is superior or not. Afterall, its unfair to compare the Native Americans and Greeks in terms of contributions to the science and technology


Edited by Kids - 09-Oct-2006 at 23:51
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  Quote flyingzone Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 10-Oct-2006 at 08:43
Let me start by this: Some archaeologists have dug up metal cutlery and coins from the yesteryears of an ancient civilization X, and since they resemble modern cutlery and modern coins, they conclude that this civilization is technologically very advanced. For civilization Y, no artifacts of metal cutlery or coins have ever been found, so archaeologists argue that that civilization must have lagged behind in technology (except that that civilization actually used lacquerated bamboo chopsticks and paper currency).  
 
Now I am not a student of architecture, so what I am going to say may seem laughable in the eyes of Gun Powder Ma and Eric. Please feel free to correct any flaws in my arguments.
 
The first question that I would like to ask is that, did ancient Chinese possess the actual technological skills and know-how to build buildings similar in size and scale to those we see in the Graeco-Roman period? (After all, this is one of Gun's premises, i.e. the Chinese lagged behind their European counterparts in engineering and architectural technologies.) However, my hunch is that they probably did given the size and scale of other civil engineering projects (canals, dams, fortified walls, towers, etc.) that they embarked on. Then the question is, why didn't they apply the same technology to build impressive buildings and "high-rises" as the ancient Greeks and Romans did? Tough question to answer. Gun wisely evoked the different nature of the government and the sociopolitical structure of the two societies as an explanation (which, however, actually does not help to support his point that Chinese technologies lagged behind those of their European counterparts'). I think that's a plausible and even good explanation. However, I would like to propose another.
 
As I mentioned earlier in another post, architecture includes more than technologies. It is also about aesthetics. Just look at those ancient Chinese civil engineering projects. I think there's one thing in common among them - they are all just not that aesthetically pleasing. Yes, the Great Wall of China is extremely impressive. But is it beautiful? Hell no. Those are just frigging walls!!! Are the Grand Canals impressive? Of course. But are they beautiful? Hell no - again.
 
So my argument is that a civilization's traditional aesthetic taste may have dictated how to build something and what to build. I personally think the Greek parthenon is one of the most beautiful ancient buildings of the entire world. However, given its very masculine structure and shape with its multiple high pillars, if it had been erected in the middle of "downtown" Chang'an, it would have been frowned upon as a monstrosity. I have visited many European castles, and unlike ancient Greco-Roman architecture, I am much less impressed by them aesthetically. They're all impressive and solid. But they appear pretty ugly to me, not unlike the Great Wall of China. Are there many remains of those castles today for us to marvel at? Yes. Did one need technologies to build those castles? Yes.
 
So let's go back to my point. If we think that Han, T'ang, or Song Chinese did possess the technologies and wealth to build solid structures and high-rises, why didn't they do it? My answer is - aesthetics. Maybe somehow they felt that using other materials, such as wood, could enable them to reach the aesthetic ideal that their culture (Confucianist, Taoist, and Buddhist) dictated. The Japanese, for instance, even used rice paper as their building material. Had they not mastered how to use bricks and stones? Absolutely not. So why didn't they do that?
 
To argue that ancient Romans lived in dwelling 7 stories high as a reflection of the superiority of Roman architectural and engineering technology reminds me of a rather funny comparison. I have, for many years, lived in Chicago where there were (and still are) many housing projects (including the notorious Cabrini Green). On the University of Chicago campus, I also walked past a classic Frank Lloyd Wright building daily. 500 years from now, structurally speaking a Frank Lloyd Wright building may not survive but a Cabrini Green building might (that is if it had not already been completely dismantled by explosives). I don't think I need to say no more as I am sure you have got my point already.
 
So let's get back to my chopstick and paper currency example. We Westerners are trained to use what we see as hard evidence for our constructed reality. However, our over-reliance on such way of reasoning may render us neglect the importance of what we do not see. The photos that Gun provides us are very impressive, and I do get his points. On the other hand, what's being depicted in those humble silk paintings (that Hrothqar is so contemptuous of, especially with its typical Chinese way of representing depth and three-dimensionality (which can be another topic of discussion) is obviously much less impressive. But do we also get the point despite its quiet aestheticism and humble appearance?        
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  Quote Preobrazhenskoe Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 10-Oct-2006 at 23:44
I believe some of what you say has merit, especially aesthetics in architectural design. If they had the drive to, the Chinese, with the amount of manpower available, could easily have achieved many of the architectural feats of the ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance West. This also being backed up by the strong intellectual core of Chinese science and mathematics applied to engineering, from such great Chinese mathematicians, inventors, and scientists in ancient and medieval history as Shi Shen, Gan De, Shi Shenfu, Geng Shou-chang, Luo-xia Hong, Zhang Heng, Liu Hui, Qin Jiushao, Zhu Shijie, Zu Chongzhi, Guo Shoujin, etc., and of course, Li Chun, who used sound engineering in creating the architectural design of the Anji Bridge (also known as the Zhaozhou Bridge), completed in 605 AD during the Sui Dynasty:
 
Anji Qiao (Zhaozhou Qiao), Hebei, China<br>
 2002 Peter Neville-Hadley http://www.neville-hadley.com</a> 
 
Eric


Edited by Preobrazhenskoe - 10-Oct-2006 at 23:55
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  Quote Hrothgar Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11-Oct-2006 at 00:08
Originally posted by Kids

I really dislike to talk or to engage into the discussions like whose cutlure is superior or not. Afterall, its unfair to compare the Native Americans and Greeks in terms of contributions to the science and technology
maybe we should have an 'objectivity' warning when one enters these threads?
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  Quote Gun Powder Ma Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11-Oct-2006 at 00:09
Originally posted by Preobrazhenskoe

If they had the drive to, the Chinese, with the amount of manpower available, could easily have achieved many of the architectural feats of the ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance West.


Manpower has nothing to do with it. You do not need a million men to construct a groin vault, what you need is know-how. Why had the Chinese not the drive?
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  Quote Hrothgar Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11-Oct-2006 at 00:10
"If they had the drive to, the Chinese, with the amount of manpower available, could easily have achieved many of the architectural feats of the ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance West."


I bet they could probably easily recreate the pyramids if they wanted to and pioneer modern science as well.  Too bad that didn't have such inclinations.

so much for giving credit where its due.

And I'm the one with a 'superiority complex'? lol


Edited by Hrothgar - 11-Oct-2006 at 00:12
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  Quote BigL Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11-Oct-2006 at 03:52

They did have pyramids..Wink

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  Quote Omnipotence Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11-Oct-2006 at 10:38
To judge architecture simply by saying that higher buildings and harder materials are better is really simplistic. No, architectural achievements can only be measured by the region. A building made out of stone or marble will be ridiculous in a region with frequent earthquakes, a building made out of wood and lumber will be extremely inadequate in a region with frequent fires, a building of that aims to the sky will be extremely unsuitable in regions with frequent high winds, while a short building would be extremely... wet in a region with many flash floods. Add that with the cultural desires of the populace in that region and you got a worty opinion of building x in THAT region.
 

 


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  Quote flyingzone Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11-Oct-2006 at 11:27
Originally posted by Gun Powder Ma


Why had the Chinese not the drive?
 
I think I tried to provide avery tentative explanation for that in my post - Chinese aesthetics.
 
The same reasoning can be applied to the different musical styles of various cultures (not just East vs. West). Did the Chinese and Japanese not possess the "know-how" to make music based on the Western diatonic scales? I doubt it. But why did their traditional music (together with those of quite a few other cultures', including traditional Celtic, Appalachian, and Hungarian music) based on the pentatonic scale? It's their sense of aesthetics, not technology, that dictates what they made and how they made it, and in this case, it is music instead of architecture. 
 
What I am trying to get at is actually quite simple, a point that has been made by some other forumers already. The comparison that Gun tries to make may actually not be as meaningful as he intended to be even though, to be fair, he did try to inject some "objectivity" to the comparison by urging participants in this discussion to provide hard "evidence" (in the form of photos). However, the problem is whether one can provide photos of magnificient buildings or not. The real issue is, is such comparison meaningful in the first place. I would say "no".
 
It has, however, been a very interesting and eye-opening discussion.


Edited by flyingzone - 11-Oct-2006 at 11:28
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  Quote Gun Powder Ma Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11-Oct-2006 at 11:49
You have not even begun to explain why and what traditional Chinese aesthetics inhibited the adoption of fundamental architectural techniques like arches, domes and vaults?

I thought it goes without saying that the subsequent history of architecture had shown that each of these basic structural and constructional methods has an immense aesthetical potential on which whole civilisations (Roman, Christian, Islamic) have drawn inspiration for millenia.

So why did the ancient Chinese did not adopt such basic innovations? It would have been most certainly an enrichment to their own architecture, wouldn't it? But right now, you have been just shifting the case from 'ancient Chinese construction was too backward to adopt these techniques' to 'ancient Chinese mentality was too conservative or stagnant to adopt these techniques'...


Edited by Gun Powder Ma - 11-Oct-2006 at 11:59
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