The Legendary Lei Family of Imperial Architects
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.
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.
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.
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.