Aurelia Campbell's What the Emperor Built is not only a sophisticated study of the larger architectural projects of Zhu Di, the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) Yongle emperor (r. 1402–24), but also a cultural history describing the materiality of important ritual spaces as understood in relation to empire building in China during the early fifteenth century. The work is organized around some of the most famous buildings in Chinese architectural history and shows Yongle's desire to display the support he enjoyed from the most powerful divinities overseeing his empire. Campbell's interest in the roles of individuals in the narrative, from the emperor himself to officials tasked with procuring exotic building materials, makes the book useful to historians of global architecture as well as to those interested in the art and material culture of China.
The topical organization of the chapters allows each to stand alone in support of a larger narrative. Chapter 1, “Perfecting the Past,” addresses the construction of Yongle's imperial city, beginning with the first Ming emperor's (Zhu Yuanzhang, r. 1368–98) selection of Nanjing as his primary capital and continuing through Yongle's usurpation of the throne from his nephew and his decision to move the capital to Beijing. The emphasis here is on the use of architectural precedents from the Zhou (1045–256 BCE) canon (simplified to “Confucian”; 24) for imperial buildings, and on departures from those precedents. This is arguably the most technical of the chapters, detailing the materials and labor costs of these projects. Chapter 2, “Great Pillars of State,” focuses on Yongle's desire to construct his palaces from the rare nanmu hardwood, which grew in the empire's southern and western periphery. Here the author's description of court memorials for the multitude of people who served and died in the nanmu procurement process brings a compelling human element to the story. Chapter 3, “Becoming Zhenwu,” focuses on the imperial rebuilding of temple complexes dedicated to Zhenwu/Xuanwu, God of the North, at Mount Wudang. Here we not only learn of earlier efforts to commemorate an indigenous spirit who had been canonized as a Daoist divinity, but we also read of Yongle's attempts to advertise his rebuilding of Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1260–1368) monuments through illustrated official records and the records of pilgrims, which, in turn, inspired later replication. Chapter 4, “From Mandala to Palace,” turns to Yongle's extensive patronage of Buddhism. In her introduction and conclusion, Campbell contextualizes the overarching theme of the book: that architecture was central to Yongle's unique imperial vision.
This work makes three significant contributions to the field. First, it clearly articulates the differences between Ming architecture and that of both the Song and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties, as defined by the two extant court architectural manuals in China, the twelfth-century Yingzao fashi and the eighteenth-century Gongcheng zuofa. Too often all monumental buildings from the Ming and Qing are lumped together to be understood through the lens of the Qing manual. By bringing into focus the building program of the Yongle emperor, Campbell successfully argues that the standardization of architectural elements, and ultimately less structural dependence on complex bracketing to support eaves, was necessary for the completion of imperial-style construction at a uniquely massive scale.
The second major contribution made by this work is in the area of building materials. As the art historians Craig Clunas and Jonathan Hay have noted, the Ming dynasty is known for a rise in interest in the materiality of things.1 Campbell's work broadens the scope of this inquiry to suggest that the interest in materiality began at the highest levels of Ming society. Throughout the book we learn not only which specific materials were used but also where and how they were produced: where stone was quarried and how it was transported, where bricks and roof tiles were fired and how different kilns were selected for different types, why nanmu timber was important and the resources the emperor was willing to expend to procure excellent specimens. This bold approach necessitates a reevaluation of premodern Chinese palatial spaces, which are often understood (much to their detriment in the rhetoric of twentieth-century academe) as focusing primarily on bright color and surface decoration. Campbell's book shows instead how the Ming imperial aesthetic reflected, and potentially helped to define, the preferences for wood grain seen in the furniture found within Ming domestic architecture. This is a paradigm-shifting departure.
Finally, in its third contribution to the field, this work provides further evidence of Yongle's multicultural imperial vision, evidence critical for a twenty-first-century reevaluation of Chinese history as well as Chinese art. Contrary to James T. C. Liu's famous description of China as “turning inward” under the weight of neo-Confucian ideology from the Song dynasty to the fall of the Qing, the evidence presented here highlights Yongle's interest in gaining support across intellectual traditions, from “Confucian” imperial court rituals to indigenous divinities supported by Daoist communities to participation in an international cult of Buddhist relics.2 Campbell should be commended especially for her in-depth discussion of architecture on the periphery of the Ming empire, in which she highlights the significance to Yongle of Himalayan Buddhism as well as other forms of Buddhism. Her book thus offers a powerful reevaluation of the impact of Ming statecraft in early modern East Asia, a reconsideration that is increasingly important in light of the current political situation.
I have little to quibble about with this work, except that it would have been nice to have had more of it. More could have been said about Yongle's awareness of architectural precedent in the building of empire. For example, Campbell notes that Yongle's use of stela inscriptions connected him with earlier empire builders such as India's renowned Buddhist king Asoka and China's “first emperor” Qin Shihuangdi (r. 221–210 BCE). Given Yongle's concerns about legitimacy in both spiritual and mundane realms, he was likely well aware of these precedents, and potentially others from China's Tang (618–907) and Song dynasties. Campbell addresses this in her introduction, but she could have emphasized it more within individual chapters.
I would also have appreciated a self-conscious discussion contrasting areas of vital importance to the narrative of modernist/Western architectural history (technological solutions to building problems, standardization for increased efficiency, and a preference for quality materials over surface decoration) with Sinitic and preindustrial symbols of power (demonstrating a shift in the “mandate of heaven” and the large-scale organization of labor).3 Although locating Chinese “modernity” through architecture is not Campbell's primary concern (nor should it necessarily be), discussing architectural change as driven by a desire for technological advancement raises the issue, whether acknowledged or not. For example, the use of glazed building tiles, while technologically sophisticated, had well-known earlier precedents. Already in the Tang dynasty, glazed roof tiles were considered characteristic of Sinitic imperial construction as far east as Japan.4 In 1049 the Song court began construction on the monumental Iron Pagoda, still standing in modern Kaifeng (formerly the Song capital Bianliang); its walls were constructed using glazed ceramic in a manner similar to that seen in the Porcelain Pagoda of Nanjing initiated by Yongle (16–17). Is it sufficient, then, to reduce Yongle's expanded use of glazed roof tiles to a “form following function” concern for enhanced water resistance (45)? Campbell rightly discusses how Song dynasty building regulations were already employed to maximize efficiency and minimize waste, yet, as Jiren Feng notes, Song reform efforts that facilitated the standardization of building materials took place well before the Mongol conquest in 1279.5 Was Yongle's “perfection of the past” an improvement on what had gone before, or did the emperor more explicitly aim to supersede the Mongol imperial project? As Steinhardt argued long ago, the Mongol empire, while proclaiming the support of divine forces well beyond the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, also projected a perfected version of the Song dynasty imperium.6
Additions such as those suggested above might simply have distracted from the compelling story that Campbell tells, however. Indeed, one of her book's greatest strengths lies in the clarity of both the argument and the handsomely reproduced illustrations presented in its pages. I will enjoy rereading these chapters with my students—the story of magnificent buildings and the millions involved in their construction is sure to inspire lively discussions about the profound impact of Yongle's architectural vision on global architectural history and global history as a whole.
Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991); Jonathan Hay, Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2010).
James T. C. Liu, China Turning Inward: Intellectual-Political Changes in the Early Twelfth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1988).
Lothar Ledderose, Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000).
Fu Xinian et al., eds., Zhongguo gudai jianzhushi, di er juan: San Guo, Liang Jin, Nan-Bei chao, Sui-Tang, Wu Dai jianzhu, 2nd ed. (Beijing: Zhongguo Jianzhu Gongye Chubanshe, 2009), 602; William H. Coaldrake, Architecture and Authority in Japan (London: Routledge, 1996), 64–66.
Jiren Feng, Chinese Architecture and Metaphor: Song Culture in the Yingzao Fashi Building Manual (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2012), 98–99.
Nancy Steinhardt, “Why Were Chang'an and Beijing So Different?,” JSAH 45, no. 4 (Dec. 1986), 339–57.