The Leg­endary Lei Fam­ily of Im­pe­rial Ar­chi­tects

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS -

As ev­ery­one knows, Bei­jing is an an­cient cap­i­tal with a long his­tory, and im­pe­rial build­ings are im­por­tant cul­tural sites. How­ever, few peo­ple know that the im­pe­rial gardens at Bei­hai, Zhong­nan­hai and Jing­shan parks, the For­bid­den City, the Tem­ple of Heaven, the Old Sum­mer Palace ( Yuan­ming Yuan), and the Sum­mer Palace ( Yihe Yuan) in Bei­jing, as well as Chengde Moun­tain Re­sort and the East­ern and West­ern Qing Tombs out­side the city are all known as “Yang­shi Lei” ar­chi­tec­ture.

“Yang­shi Lei” is a lauda­tory name for the Lei fam­ily that presided over the de­sign of Qing Dy­nasty im­pe­rial build­ings for more than 200 years. The word yang­shi ac­tu­ally means “style,” so the name sim­ply means

“Lei style” ar­chi­tec­ture. Also, the de­part­ment in charge of the Qing im­pe­rial build­ings' de­sign was known as Yang­shi Fang (“house of style”), a term equiv­a­lent to a present- day ar­chi­tec­tural de­sign in­sti­tute.

“Yang­shi Lei” thus came to be known as the most leg­endary fam­ily of tal­ented ar­chi­tects and out­stand­ing ar­ti­sans in an­cient China. When you visit such build­ings, please keep in mind the say­ing, “the Lei fam­ily, in a sense, rep­re­sents half of China's ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory.”

A Fam­ily Craft

The Lei fam­ily's an­ces­tors came from Yongxiu County in Jiangxi Prov­ince and worked as car­pen­ters dur­ing the Ming Dy­nasty. The fam­ily craft was handed down to Lei Fada in the early Qing Dy­nasty. In 1683, to build im­pe­rial gardens, the Min­istry of Works re­cruited skilled ar­ti­sans from all over China.

Lei Fada, who was then in his 60s, was re­cruited and came to Bei­jing. In the re­con­struc­tion of the three halls of the For­bid­den City dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Kangxi (1662–1723), Lei Fada stood out from the other ar­ti­sans. When pre­sid­ing over the de­sign of the For­bid­den City's re­con­struc­tion, Lei was in­no­va­tive enough to main­tain sym­me­try of the build­ings on the Cen­tral Axis.

For those on both sides, they were re­quired to be roughly sym­met­ri­cal for gen­eral uni­for­mity and ar­chi­tec­tural dis­tinc­tive­ness. Such a model had a big in­flu­ence on Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­tural aes­thet­ics in the hun­dreds of years that fol­lowed.

Fam­ily Glory

It was Lei Jinyu, Lei Fada's son, who made the fam­ily more known. Af­ter his fa­ther brought him to Bei­jing, he stud­ied at the Im­pe­rial Col­lege. He later gave up his stud­ies to be­come an im­pe­rial ar­chi­tect. Af­ter his fa­ther passed away, Lei Jinyu stayed at the Min­istry of Works.

At that time, the Hall of Supreme Har­mony in the For­bid­den City was un­der ren­o­va­tion. When the con­struc­tion was com­pleted, Em­peror Kangxi at­tended the cer­e­mony. Un­for­tu­nately, when in­stalling the cross-beams, the builders failed to fit the slots and tabs that formed joints, which scared of­fi­cials of the Min­istry of Works. At such a crit­i­cal mo­ment, an of­fi­cial sent for Lei Jinyu to help.

With an axe in hand, Lei hit the beams a few times and man­aged to put them back in place. Em­peror Kangxi was so pleased to see this work done that he ap­pointed Lei on the spot as chief ar­chi­tect of the Im­pe­rial Works un­der the Im­pe­rial House­hold De­part­ment, a sev­enth-grade of­fi­cial re­ceiv­ing a salary.

The of­fi­cial post gave Lei Jinyu an op­por­tu­nity to dis­play his tal­ents. He im­proved the dougong (in­ter­lock­ing wooden brack­ets be­tween the top of a col­umn and cross-beams) that had been used since the Song Dy­nasty (AD 960– 1279) and cre­ated a new struc­ture called doukou (the slot cut into wood to fit the cor­re­spond­ing tab) based on the width of the tab to make the de­sign and con­struc­tion more sci­en­tific.

From then on, doukou be­came the ba­sic unit for cal­cu­lat­ing the thick­ness and height of col­umns and beams in con­struc­tion, and this tech­nique is still in use to­day. Af­ter that, Em­peror Kangxi or­dered the Gar­den of Ever­last­ing Spring to

be built. Dur­ing the con­struc­tion, Lei Jinyu be­came well known among his peers for his su­perb skill and bold in­no­va­tion in de­sign, mea­sure­ment and in­stal­la­tion.

Af­ter Em­peror Yongzheng (reign: 1723–1736) as­cended the throne, he or­dered the Old Sum­mer Palace to be built and ap­pointed Lei Jinyu, then in his 60s, chief ar­chi­tect of the project. This ush­ered in the era of the Yang­shi Lei style of ar­chi­tec­ture, which was used in the de­sign and con­struc­tion of Qing im­pe­rial build­ings.

The Three Lei Broth­ers

The Yang­shi Lei style con­tin­ued for four gen­er­a­tions of the Lei fam­ily, and the three broth­ers, Lei Ji­axi, Lei Ji­awei and Lei Jiarui, be­came known in ar­chi­tec­tural cir­cles as the “iron tri­an­gle” team. They lived dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Qian­long (1736–1795), which saw the large-scale con­struc­tion of im­pe­rial build­ings.

Em­peror Qian­long had pre­vi­ously trav­elled to re­gions south of the Yangtze River six times, and had been at­tracted by the lo­cal scenery and gardens. He wanted sim­i­lar land­scapes to be re­pro­duced in Bei­jing, so the “Three Hills and Five Gardens” started to be built in west­ern Bei­jing. Ac­cord­ingly, the three Lei broth­ers took on the most im­por­tant roles in man­ag­ing the project.

Be­ing the most out­stand­ing of the three broth­ers, Lei Ji­axi was ap­pointed the chief ar­chi­tect of the “Three Hills and Five Gardens” con­struc­tion. The Lei broth­ers, who were all good at over­all land­scape plan­ning, de­signed the gardens at Longevity Hill, Yuquan Coun­try Park and Fra­grant Hills Park.

They also worked on the ex­pan­sion of the Chengde Moun­tain Re­sort. The Sum­mer Palace was also rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Lei broth­ers' work. Con­struc­tion on the Sum­mer Palace started in 1750 as a gift from Em­peror Qian­long for his mother's 60th birth­day, and was orig­i­nally named Qingyi Yuan (Gar­den of Clear Rip­ples). In creat­ing the gardens at the Sum­mer Palace, tra­di­tional Chi­nese gar­den­ing tech­niques were used and fur­ther de­vel­oped.

Lei Ji­axi was the first in his fam­ily to de­sign a tomb for an em­peror, which was a new leap in the fam­ily craft. The Chang Mau­soleum for Em­peror Ji­aqing (reign: 1795–1821) be­came the first im­pe­rial tomb de­signed by the Lei fam­ily. The un­der­ground palace of the Chang Mau­soleum is large, and the four doors and nine vaults were made with fine crafts­man­ship. Build­ing the ceil­ings of the nine vaults brick by brick was dif­fi­cult, but Lei Ji­axi suc­ceeded.

Fam­ily Her­itage

Un­for­tu­nately, the fifth–gen­er­a­tion mem­ber of the Lei fam­ily, Lei Jingxiu, was hardly able to use his skills. He lived be­tween the reigns of Em­peror Daoguang (1821–1850) and Em­peror Xian­feng (1851–1861), when the na­tion was in de­cline and do­mes­tic and for­eign in­sta­bil­ity made it im­pos­si­ble to con­struct large-scale im­pe­rial build­ings.

Only when he was asked to de­sign the Ding Mau­soleum for Em­peror Xian­feng was Lei fi­nally able to put his skills to use. Be­cause of this, Lei Jingxiu had the time and en­ergy to be­come in­volved with an­other project: He started to sort out ar­chi­tec­tural de­signs and mod­els that he had in­her­ited and built three rooms in which to keep them.

When the Old Sum­mer Palace was burned by the Bri­tish and French, Lei trans­ferred all the de­signs and mod­els to his home so that they could be passed down to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. To­day, draw­ings and doc­u­ments handed down by the Lei fam­ily can be seen in the Na­tional Li­brary of China, the First His­tor­i­cal Ar­chives of China, the Palace Mu­seum and the School of Ar­chi­tec­ture at Ts­inghua Uni­ver­sity.

The Na­tional Li­brary of China alone has more than 20,000 draw­ings of fa­cades, ro­ta­tion di­a­grams and con­tour maps, with all the steps and mea­sure­ments recorded in the doc­u­ments. In ad­di­tion, “field con­struc­tion di­a­grams,” the di­a­grams made dur­ing the con­struc­tion process, were also passed on by the Lei fam­ily. Th­ese di­a­grams en­able one to see clearly the whole con­struc­tion process of the im­pe­rial mau­soleum, from site se­lec­tion to the un­der­ground palace build­ing and fi­nal com­ple­tion.

In 2007, the Yang­shi Lei Ar­chives were added by UNESCO to the Mem­ory of the World Reg­is­ter as China's fifth her­itage item. Pro­duc­ing “ironed mod­els” was an­other skill of the Lei fam­ily. Af­ter the de­sign of a build­ing was fin­ished, the Lei ar­chi­tect would make mod­els at the scale of 1/100 or 1/200. The mod­els of dif­fer­ent sizes were then pre­sented to the em­peror so that he could see their ideas in progress.

They were called “ironed mod­els” pre­cisely be­cause the mod­els, which were made of pa­per, stalks of grain and wood, were as­sem­bled us­ing scis­sors, wax pa­per and a hot iron. What made th­ese mod­els spe­cial is that all the com­po­nents could be dis­as­sem­bled. Af­ter open­ing the roof, one could see the beam struc­ture and dec­o­ra­tions, with size la­bels at­tached to the model.

Mau­soleum De­signer

When Lei Jingxiu died of ill­ness in 1866, his son Lei Siqi took over. Lei Siqi lived through the reigns of em­per­ors Daoguang, Tongzhi (1862–1874) and Guangxu (1875–1908) and presided over the con­struc­tion of the Ding Mau­soleum, the East Ding Mau­soleum, the Hui Mau­soleum, the West­ern Gar­den and many noble­men's man­sions, gardens and tombs. The Ding Mau­soleum was one of Lei Siqi's ac­com­plish­ments. The struc­tured con­struc­tion cre­ated a mag­nif­i­cent im­pe­rial style and Lei was pro­moted for his work in build­ing the Ding Mau­soleum.

Af­ter the Ding Mau­soleum was com­pleted, Em­press Dowa­ger Ci'an (re­gency: 1861–1881) and Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi (re­gency: 1861–1908) planned to have their own tombs built. Lei Siqi took on the job again. It took a long time for Lei to find two good places east of the Ding Mau­soleum for the con­struc­tion of the two ladies' tombs.

Af­ter Ci'an died, Cixi took con­trol and or­dered the in­te­rior of her own mau­soleum be re­built. Af­ter re­con­struc­tion, Cixi's tomb was far bet­ter in­side than Ci'an's in spite of the two look­ing ex­actly the same on the out­side. To sat­isfy Cixi, Lei Siqi had to re­vise his de­sign re­peat­edly dur­ing re­con­struc­tion process. He over­worked him­self so much that he fell ill.

In 1873, Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi planned to have the Old Sum­mer Palace re­built to cel­e­brate her 40th birth­day. Her plan first met op­po­si­tion from Em­peror Tongzhi. How­ever, un­der re­peated pres­sure from Cixi, the young em­peror had to agree.

As time was lim­ited, the em­peror de­manded that Lei Siqi fin­ish all the draw­ings and mod­els within a month. Lei and his team worked day and night and fi­nally fin­ished all the de­sign draw­ings be­fore the dead­line. How­ever, con­struc­tion stopped due to a short­age of funds.

Af­ter Lei Siqi died, his son Lei Tingchang took his post. The new chief ar­chi­tect presided over the re­con­struc­tion of the Hall of Prayer for Good Har­vests in the Tem­ple of Heaven, the Gate of Supreme Har­mony in the For­bid­den City, and a pavil­ion to cel­e­brate Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi's 60th birth­day.

The De­cline of the Lei Fam­ily

In 1897, Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi once more asked that the Old Sum­mer Palace be re­built. The new im­pe­rial ar­chi­tect dur­ing this pe­riod was Lei Xian­cai, the son of Lei Tingchang. Un­for­tu­nately, in 1900, the Al­lied Forces in­vaded Bei­jing and caused se­ri­ous dam­age to the im­pe­rial build­ings in­side and out­side of the city.

Af­ter that, Lei Tingchang and his son Lei Xian­cai were in charge of largescale re­pair and re­con­struc­tion work. In 1907, Lei Tingchang passed away. In the late Qing Dy­nasty, Lei Xian­cai presided over the con­struc­tion of ma­jor pro­jects like the Chong Mau­soleum and the re­gent's man­sion.

The Revo­lu­tion of 1911 put an end to the monar­chy in China and the im­pe­rial ar­chi­tec­tural in­sti­tute also stopped func­tion­ing. The Lei fam­ily craft, which had been passed down for eight gen­er­a­tions, came to an end.

On Septem­ber 9, 2007, the phys­i­cal draw­ings and doc­u­ments of “Yang­shi Lei” were put on dis­play at the Na­tional Li­brary of China. The Lei fam­ily of ar­chi­tects be­gan to be men­tioned again by mod­ern peo­ple. In the world of ar­chi­tec­ture, the Yang­shi Lei Ar­chives are known to be the most com­pletely pre­served ar­chi­tec­tural ar­chives, in­clud­ing phys­i­cal draw­ings, doc­u­ments, mod­els and the build­ings the Lei fam­ily de­signed. In spite of the fam­ily craft not be­ing con­tin­ued, peo­ple still have rea­son to be­lieve that the fam­ily leg­end will con­tinue.

One of “Yang­shi Lei” ar­chi­tec­tures: the For­bid­den City

A part of a paint­ing de­pict­ing one of the forty scenes of Yuan­mingyuan (the Old Sum­mer Palace)

The Lei fam­ily was one of the de­sign­ers of Yuan­mingyuan (the Old Sum­mer Palace). Pic­tured is the ru­ins of Dashuifa Site.

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