Taoist Buildings

Submitted by Komjathy on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:24
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TAOIST BUILDINGS. By Qiao Yun. Translated by Zhou Wenzheng. Wien, Austria: Springer-Verlag Wien New York, 2001. Pp. 181; 157 illustrations; appendices; maps; glossary. Cloth, €100 (approx. $120.00), ISBN 3-211-83010-3.


Originally published in Chinese as Daojiao jianzhu (Daoist Architecture), this book is a volume in the Ancient Chinese Architecture series published in English by Springer-Verlag. Other volumes in the ten-volume series include Palace Architecture, Imperial Mausoleums and Tombs, Imperial Gardens, Private Gardens, Vernacular Buildings, Buddhist Buildings, Islamic Buildings, Ritual and Ceremonious Buildings, and Defense Structures. 


Qiao Yun’s book consists primarily of large color photographs of contemporary Daoist temples and monasteries, with special attention to northern, northeastern, and central China. No Daoist sacred sites from southern or southeastern China are covered. Taoist Buildings in turn divides into two parts. 


Part one (11-116) contains eighty “figures,” which are beautifully detailed color photographs of Daoist art and architecture. Here one finds photographs of a high professional caliber, representing some of the most important contemporary Daoist sacred sites. Divided into three geographical regions (northern, northeastern, and central), these photographs provide visual documentation of such preeminent Daoist places as Baiyun guan (White Cloud Monastery; Beijing), Taishan (Mount Tai; Taian, Shandong), Songshan (Mount Song; Dengfeng, Henan), Yongle gong (Palace of Eternal Joy; Ruicheng, Shanxi), Huashan (Mount Hua; Huayin, Shaanxi), Louguan tai (Lookout Tower Monastery; Zhouzhi, Shaanxi), Baxian gong (Palace of Eight Immortals; Xi’an, Shaanxi), Maoshan (Mount Mao; Jurong, Jiangsu), Wudang shan (Mount Wudang; Junxian, Hubei), Qingyang gong (Azure Ram Palace; Chengdu, Sichuan), and Qingcheng shan (Azure Wall Mountain; Guanxian, Sichuan), among others. The majority of the photographs (54 of 80) cover “northern China,” under which Qiao Yun includes Beijing, Shandong, Henan, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Ningxia. Still, Qiao Yun’s selection gives one a representative and significant sampling of Daoist architecture. This section of the book contains no textual material. 


The textual matter appears in part two (119-40), which consists of three chapters. In “The Beginnings of Taoism in China and Its Essence,” the author discusses the “origins and evolution” of Daoism, the faith and theology of Daoism, the system of deities and immortals in Daoism, as well as Daoist functional potency and miraculous arts. This chapter seems to have been intended as a concise history of the Daoist tradition with emphasis placed on the formative phases. Chapter two, “Outline of Taoist Architecture,” is by far the most interesting and important of the three chapters. This chapter provides excellent information on “Daoist architecture,” by which the author clearly means the architecture of Daoist sacred sites (monasteries, temples, etc.). Here Qiao Yun gives a brief history of Daoist buildings, architectural designs and norms, site selection and deployment, architectural layout, structure and construction, and architecture in general. Qiao Yun argues that there are traditionally three different classes of Daoist buildings: (1) Palatial city style (highest); (2) Palatial monastery style; and (3) Courtyard style. The latter also falls within four subcategories, including buildings on mountain summits, buildings overlooking the sea, buildings in garden or park style, and buildings in a “grotto haven” (dongtian) style. According to Qiao Yun, Daoist architectural layout may be categorized as formal or liberal, while structure and construction involved brick and timber, stone, and/or bronze. Here Qiao Yun also makes an interesting point concerning Daoist utilization of traditional Chinese architectural design: “Compared to other architecture, that of Taoism displayed innovation in its use, for example, of statues, murals, sculpture, inscriptions and in the arrangement of buildings and the use of pavilions” (129). Chapter three, “The Grotto Haven, Blessed Sanctuary and Taoist Monastery,” is an interesting attempt at organizing a more detailed discussion of the sacred sites documented in the photographs. Here the Daoist notion of “cavern heavens” or “grotto havens” (dongtian) is employed to discuss the sites, by which the author is referring to a Daoist system of ten major grotto havens, thirty-six minor grotto havens, and seventy-two blessed sanctuaries (126). However, the reader is left wondering about the specifics of these grotto havens; only the fifth (Qingcheng shan) and the eighth (Maoshan) are discussed. Here a complete list of the so-called grotto havens including the corresponding geographical locations would have been helpful. 


These three chapters are followed by eleven appendices, including plans and sketches for the architectural layouts of Baiyun guan, Yongle gong, Louguan tai, Wudang shan, and Qingcheng shan. This is followed by paragraph-long notes on each of the eighty photographs, complete with reduced blank and white photographs. Finally, one finds two maps and a chronology of major events in the history of Chinese architecture. 


Taoist Buildings cannot but be considered groundbreaking; it is the first English language book-length presentation of Daoist architecture. As expected, any such endeavor also must be taken as preliminary and partial. In addition, the work contains a number of minor deficiencies that need to be addressed. First, one would have appreciated a more systematic history of Daoist buildings and sacred sites. Most of the extant Daoist buildings date from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and later, with Yongle gong (Palace of Eternal Joy) containing the earliest surviving structures dating from the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). That is, the study of “Daoist architecture” as preserved in contemporary Daoist sacred sites is predominantly the study of Qing and more contemporary forms of Chinese architecture. On a different note, the book contains no Chinese characters, very few romanized names, and non-standard English renderings of Daoist place names. For example, the author continually refers the “Palace of the Blue Goat,” “Mount of the Verdant Land,” and “Gazebo Terrace,” renderings of Qingyang gong, Qingcheng shan, and Louguan tai, respectively. Such confusion could have been avoided by providing the names in Pinyin romanization, especially since these are Chinese places. Similarly, one finds references to Chen Bo and Zhang Borui, who are more commonly known as Chen Tuan and Zhang Boduan, respectively. The book also lacks a bibliography and an index. 


Nonetheless, used in combination with Stephen Little’s Taoism and the Arts of China (2000), Taoist Buildings will prove invaluable for gaining a deeper appreciation of the material culture of the Daoist tradition. The price of the book, DM 198 (approx. $120), is prohibitive enough to preclude all but the most committed collector. For those with the financial means, the book is highly recommended. Taoist Buildings is the most complete photographic account of contemporary Daoist sacred sites available. All scholars of Daoism and Chinese architecture will want this book. Research libraries should also obtain copies. 


Louis Komjathy

Boston University

Date Posted: April 7, 2004