If there’s one thing that conjures up the – rightly contested – idea of a ‘civilisation’, it is grand palatial or religious buildings, and many such structures are foremost in how China is imagined throughout the world. But as Nancy S. Steinhardt
notes in Chinese Architecture: A History
(Princeton University Press, 2019), many iconic edifices such Beijing’s Forbidden City or Shanxi’s temples share features in common with the humblest ordinary dwellings which people in what we now call China have inhabited for centuries.
Steinhardt here draws on decades of exhaustive reading and tireless fieldwork to tell the story of Chinese building practices, principles and techniques across space and time, from the earliest archaeological traces of construction right up to the present day. Both highly accessible and richly illustrated with hundreds of colour photographs, as well as intricate technical diagrams, this extraordinary treasure trove of a book is much more than an architectural compendium. The countless insights Steinhardt offers into the wider worlds of art and urban planning, and the political, economic and religious contexts in which Chinese buildings have been built for thousands of years, will serve as an engrossing and materially-rooted account of Chinese ‘civilisation’ for anyone with even a fleeting interest in the country.
Ed Pulford is a postdoctoral researcher at the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center, Hokkaido University. His research focuses on friendships and histories between the Chinese, Korean and Russian worlds, and northeast Asian indigenous groups.