Buddhist monasteries, Chinese


Buddhist monasteries, Chinese
The last quarter of the twentieth century saw both increases in Buddhist monastic construction and changes in construction materials when compared to earlier periods. The adaptive nature of Buddhism architecture is demonstrated in the modern Asian setting as well as in the diaspora. The last quarter of the twentieth century well demonstrates progressive and conservative aspects within Chinese Buddhist architecture.
The pleasing style of Chinese monasteries during the Tang-Song dynasties that have become familiar through classical paintings, preserved structures in China (e.g. Fogong Si) and representations of these period pieces located in Japan, were gradually replaced by architectural innovations during the Ming and thereafter. The early classic period monasteries were constructed out of natural materials like stone, wattle-and-daub and wood. Joinery was employed in a timbered frame construction. Heavy tiled roofs with large overhangs were standard. Although brick was available it was seldom employed and stone structures were also known. The complex layout was divided on a north-south axis incorporating fengshui ideas, and included an enclosing roofed high wall. An example of pre-Chan layout can be found in Chengdu’s Wenshu Si. An example of a modern Tang Style complex is seen in the Chilin Si in Hong Kong.
In the late classic period, both building materials and style changed. The Ming dynasty saw increasing use of brick and mortar in many architectural projects. This began a slow process of replacing the timbered-framed construction in the monastic complexes. This slow replacement process was far from complete as ample evidence of timbered-framed complexes still existed in the early part of the twentieth century. These changes indicate the adaptive and progressive nature of Buddhist architecture.
Brick construction brought about stylistic changes. The elaborate wood roof bracketing and supports were no longer needed as outer brick walls allowed load bearing, and metal bracing and nails were employed. Although the new materials would allow the creation of very different structures in terms of style, wood construction features were imitated instead. Plaster was employed in imitation of the daub surfaces. These aspects demonstrate the conservative nature. One of the best examples of brick monastic complexes is the famed White Horse Monastery (Baima Si) located in Luoyang.
There was significant destruction of Buddhist sites during World War II, the establishing of the PRC and the Culture Revolution. However, in the last few years of the 1970s, changed government policies and the return of seized sites allowed a modern period of rebuilding. Various branches of the government even helped finance rebuilding. Buddhist architecture has changed significantly, beginning at this time, but there have only been radical departures from set standards in special situations.
Most modern monastery reconstruction in China employs bricks and mortar with the Chan ground plan. Local geographic conditions and settings may act as mitigating factors. Many of the reconstructed buildings are exact duplications of the structures that existed before the mid-century destruction. Some documented early twentieth-century timber-framed constructions have been replaced by brick construction. In construction techniques, materials and style, these complexes employ the patterns developed in the Ming dynasty. However, steel-reinforced concrete is the material of choice in the construction of foundations.
Some innovation has been brought about because of general technical improvements in China’s construction industries. Almost all buildings have made adjustments to allow for electricity and lighting. All complexes now have running water and many have installed modern toilets. Kitchen complexes generally employ gas stoves instead of wood or coal burners. However, these technical innovations have not altered the stylistic considerations in most cases.
Real adaptability and innovation have taken place in the larger cities and in the diaspora. With the increasing urbanization in Taipei, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc., and land at a premium, building traditional monasteries within the city became cost-prohibitive. In such locales it is common to find a large monastery consisting of several floors preferably at the top of an otherwise unremarkable multi-storied building housing secular facilities. Typically, a very large room will act as the main shrine hall with side rooms being dedicated to various Bodhisattvas, the Founder’s Hall, etc., incorporating many of the traditional features. Perhaps another floor will contain the Meditation Hall and even housing for the monks or nuns.
Architectural style and materials are the same as for modern high-rises in these countries and have to comply with building codes. These complexes can display interior traditional stylistic features or features appealing to contemporary aesthetic values—for example, using etched glass as partitioning walls or decorative lighting to create intended atmospheres.
As Chinese Buddhism became a world phenomenon, architecture reflected the diverse settings. Many Chinese Buddhist monasteries in North America are older pre-existing structures that now function as monasteries. Sometimes a larger house or an industrial structure was converted. An example of the later is the Huayen Si, located in Calgary, which was a camping supply outlet. Often older churches are converted to serve Buddhist purposes. An example of this is the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery in Berkeley, which was a Nazarene church.
An excellent example of both the progressive and the conservative aspects in Buddhist architecture can be found in Shilai Si, located in the Los Angeles area. The construction technique and materials are thoroughly modern. The complex is steel framed, employing reinforced concrete, etc., with a state-of-the-art cooling system and many energy-saving features. However, from the outside it appears as a very traditional Chinese monastery. The intricate roof bracketing and painted ceiling panels were reproduced in fibreglass sheets that were installed as decorative features applied to the underlying surface. What appears as marble work in fact is only a marble facade, and the exterior is wire-mesh-reinforced stucco. Although these same architectural features can be found in many other monasteries in and out of Asia, because of the demanding building codes in the Los Angles area the sophistication is higher at Shilai Si than at most locales.
Birnbaum, Raoul (2003). ‘Buddhist China at the Century’s Turn’. In Daniel Overmyer (ed.), Religion in China Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 122–44.
Prip-Moller, J. (1982). Chinese Buddhist Monasteries. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
A.W.BARBER

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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