Steinhardt is author or coeditor of Chinese Traditional Architecture (1984), Chinese Imperial City Planning (1990), Liao Architecture (1997), Chinese Architecture (2003), Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture (2005), Chinese Architecture and the Beaux-Arts (2011), Chinese Architecture in an Age of Turmoil, 200-600 (in press), The Chinese Mosque (under contract), Chinese Architecture: Ten Lectures (under contract) and more than 70 articles
Architecture is without doubt one of the most distinctive elements of Chinese civilization. Its characteristic features – roofs, gables, columns, bracket sets – mean that everyone can recognize a Chinese building when they see one. That these and other features remained so remarkably consistent over time may lead us to conclude that Chinese architecture was a closed system, a building tradition that resisted influences from outside and in which continuities in timber-frame construction and roof decoration can be straightforwardly traced over millennia. Through the centuries, however, the highly recognizable Chinese style in building has been adopted and adapted near and far, from Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia to England and the United States. How can an architectural tradition apparently so hidebound be so elastic?
These three lectures by the leading American historian of Chinese monumental architecture take up this question by examining developments from a time when Inner Asian regimes, and not Chinese dynasties, governed in the Central Plains. The Northern Wei state of the Xianbei, the Liao state of the Khitans, and the Yuan state of the Mongols, all represent periods of alien rule when challenges were posed to established systems of building in China. In a magisterial overview of Chinese architectural history set broadly in a Eurasian context, Professor Steinhardt demonstrates that, although it might seem that architecture changed little during those periods, buildings constructed under the patronage of non-Chinese rulers in fact stretched the building system beyond anything previously erected in China, and that what we think of as “Chinese” architecture can be thought of as constituting an early “internationalism” in building and space.