Witness | Chu Zu-an, the Paragon for Official Architectural Standards in Ancient China

Speaking of Songshan Mountain, people will definitely think of Shaolin Temple; and when talking about Shaolin Temple, Songshan Mountain may not come to their mind. In fact, when you look at Songshan Mountain, you see the time beaten view; and when you set foot on Songshan Mountain, the profound history is also right in front of you. Shaolin Temple is not the only treasure hiding in the great Songshan Mountain. There are still many amazing stories about this place worthy of spreading, and many cultural landscapes worthy of admiration!
Two kilometers away from Changzhu Yard, the Northwest part of the main complex of Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng City, Henan Province, there is a group of quaint buildings stand on the hill of Wuru Peak, which is called the Chu Zu-an. As the name suggests, this complex was built in honor of the Bodhidharma, the origin of Zen Buddhism. It is said that Bodhidharma had studied the Zen method for nine years in a stone cave at Wuru Peak on the west foot of Songshan Mountain, and thus initiated the Chinese Zen. Thus, Chu Zu-an was built up at the place where Bodhidharma faced to the wall and meditated on Zen in order to commemorate. As stated in Infinite Merits Memorial for Establishing Chu Zu-an, which was created in Wanli 33rd year during the Ming Dynasty (1605), “Chu Zu-an, the place where Bodhidharma faced to the wall and meditated”. Therefore, Chu Zu-an is also known as Mian Bi-an (meaning a place one faces the wall and meditates). In addition, Chu Zu-an has a far-reaching significance in the history of Chinese architecture.
In the Chongning 2nd year during the reign of Emperor Huizong in the Northern Song Dynasty (1103), an official architectural book of inter-epoch significance was officially published by the Northern Song government. The book is called Ying Zao Fa Shi (Construction Standards) authored by Li Jie who was a grassroots official serving for Jiang Zuo Jian (Directorate for the Palace Buildings) as the deputy for 13 years in the Northern Song Dynasty.

So what makes this book especially important? It is the first official Chinese book that discusses architectural engineering practices in detail, and formulates strict regulations for the construction systems at all levels in the country. The creation of Ying Zao Fa Shi was not accidental. At that time, the field of civil construction was flourishing, but there were no detailed regulations on the construction, structure, materials, and decoration of various buildings. Waste was caused because of improper management. Furthermore, many construction principal and officials at all levels preferred luxurious decoration and were committed to corruption deeds. In view of this, the imperial court of the Northern Song Dynasty decided to standardize the architecture system by publishing an official book so as to prevent fraud in the construction project. This is why the book was created.

In fact, as early as the Xining period of the Emperor Shenzong of the Song Dynasty (1068-1077), Wang Anshi implemented a new law and proposed that “a book about annual expenditure and worship ritual of the royal family shall be compiled to form a standard.” Therefore, the corresponding department of the imperial court was organized to edit various “Standards”, among which Jiang Zuo Jian was responsible for compiling the construction-related Ying Zao Fa Shi. However, the original book was of poor quality. Later, Li Jie was assigned to re-edit the book under the command of the Emperor.  Li Jie said in his report on Ying Zao Fa Shi to the imperial court that, “the original version contained only the construction materials, and there were no regulations on constructing and the use of materials. Moreover, too many materials were mentioned so that the book neglected the systematic ruling”, which means that this book was not about solving problems of construction management, but an infeasible book with no concrete knowledge; in order to combine theories and practices, the new version was created at the Yuanfu 3rd year during the reign of Emperor Zhezong (1100) after “taking reference from all kinds of classics and recording the experience of some skilled craftsmen.” Three years later, this book was published.

However, its significance goes far beyond that after its publication. This book has a milestone meaning in the history of Chinese architecture, and is a must-read masterpiece for later generations studying in architecture. It inherits the essence of the buildings, especially those built during the Sui and Tang Dynasties, and it accurately reflects the architectural style of the Song Dynasty, which has profoundly influenced the architecture created then.
Ying Zao Fa Shi authored by Li Jie emphasizes “there is a certain standard but no regulated form,” which shifts the focus from the concrete building structure to various aspects such as component shape, combination rule, change principle, and technical processing points, so that the craftsmen can “create within the limitation” during the practice by combining the standards with flexibility in a smart way. The material category system mentioned in the book is similar to the modular system nowadays: according to the size of the cross-section of the building materials, it is divided into eight grades. “Timber is the main construction material used and it is divided into right grades. People can use different grades according to the size of the building”; also, “The material is divided into fifteen sections in length and ten sections in thickness. The height and depth of buildings, the length of all kinds of objects, the pattern how it constructs, construction rules and construction materials were all graded to form a system”, which means that the material in every grade is divided into fifteen sections in height and ten sections in width. In this way, the standardization of building materials may well be achieved, which facilitates both construction and management. Similar to this, Ying Zao Fa Shi specifies the arches, beams and even decorative paintings in detail. It is no wonder that Mr. Liang Sicheng, a master architect, called it a “fundamental textbook” of Chinese architecture.

After its publication, various versions of the book have been handed down to later generations, which not only standardized the basic paradigm of various buildings in the Song Dynasty, but also spread more widely to the Chinese cultural circle, profoundly influencing the styles of many architectures in East Asia. However, there are very few buildings from the Song Dynasty that have been passed down to date. Among them, the building that had been built during the time when the book was published and could reflect the national standards at that time is something we can’t ask for. Fortunately, Chu Zu-an in Shaolin Temple is exactly a perfect paragon for this kind of building.
Chu Zu-an complex still maintains its original appearance built in the Song Dynasty, although it has been repaired for several times. Three buildings stand along the central axis from south to north, namely the mountain gate, the great hall and the Buddhist Pavilion. Meanwhile, two buildings stand on two sides of the axis respectively, namely Wall-Facing Pavilion and Holy Couple Pavilion. The great hall was built in the Xuanhe 7th year during the reign of Emperor Huizong in the Song Dynasty (1125), which was only 20 years later than the completion of Ying Zao Fa Shi. So far, among all extant wooden buildings in China, Chu Zu-an is the one that was built close to the completion and publication of the Ying Zao Fa Shi; viewing from the area, the great hall of Chu Zu-an at the west side of Songshan Mountain was also closely related to the political center of the Northern Song Dynasty, Kaifeng. As the official building standard, the building system stipulated in Ying Zao Fa Shi is deeply reflected in the great hall, especially the technical practices in wood structure and stone carving, which can be regarded as rarity. It can be said that the great hall of Chu Zu-an was a unique and important physical specimen among the wooden buildings of the Northern Song Dynasty, which conformed to the Ying Zao Fa Shi and has irreplaceable historical value.
Although it has been repaired over the ages, the main structure in the great hall of Chu Zu-an maintains its original specifications as described in Ying Zao Fa Shi, and the exquisite stone pillars, stone walls, and the reliefs surrounding the platform were all made in the Song Dynasty. Ying Zao Fa Shi has strict rules on the hierarchy of buildings. Among them, the ancestral hall, like the great hall of Chu Zu-an, is of the highest level. Among the eight-grade system specified in the book, the timber with the highest two levels can be used. The great hall has three rooms in the front, and its beam structure and arch ratio are mostly consistent with the three-hall building code described in Ying Zao Fa Shi.
Bracket arch is the most unique structural design in traditional Chinese architecture, and it can even be called the symbol of ancient Chinese architecture. The regulations on bracket arch are a very representative part of the book, which also makes the bracket arch in the Song Dynasty architecture a very distinctive of that time. The bracket arch in the great hall is a typical example reflecting related regulations in Ying Zao Fa Shi. In the book, the bucket arch is called Puzuo, and according to its different placement positions, it is divided into Zhutou Puzuo (pillar head bucket arch), Bujian Puzuo (pillar bucket arch), Zhuanjiao Puzuo (corner bucket arch) and others. Ying Zao Fa Shi has detailed regulations: “If the pillar head adopts the round bucket arch, Bujian Puzuo shall adopt edgeless bucket arch.” The bucket mentioned here is also called Ludou, which refers to the lowest load-bearing part of the bucket arch, of which it is mainly divided into square, round, and edgeless buckets. Among them, the shape of the edgeless bucket is similar to the square and round bucket, which can be seen as the shape after the four corners of the square bucket have been rounded. The system stipulated in Ying Zao Fa Shi indicates that as for Ludou of the bracket arch, round bracket is used as the pillar head of bracket arch while edgeless bracket is used for pillar bracket arch. This regulation is clearly reflected in the great hall. Now it still retains the characteristics of the original structure with combination of round Ludou and edgeless bracket. It is the only example that adheres to the regulations described in Ying Zao Fa Shi. The bucket arches are also distributed and arranged according to Ying Zao Fa Shi. In addition, the structure and size of the great hall are similar to Ying Zao Fa Shi in many aspects. The carving theme, the content, shape and technique of the pattern are all faithful to the book.
Chu Zu-an was built according to Ying Zao Fa Shi, which in turn became an extremely important physical testimony that reflects the construction regulation in this book. Therefore, Chu Zu-an is not only the outstanding representatives of wood architectures in the Song Dynasty, but also the paragon and existing specimens of architectural design and construction technique at that time. No matter it is for Chinese history and the modern world, Chu Zu-an in Shaolin Temple is of same significance as Shaolin Zen and Shaolin martial arts.


Copyright by Zhengzhou Municipal Tourism Administration