Campbell Explores Power Behind Ming Dynasty Architecture

Encompassing 180 acres in central Beijing, the Forbidden City, or a complex of nearly a thousand red palaces, towers, and gardens, pays homage to the reign of one of China’s most powerful rulers—Emperor Zhu Di of the Ming Dynasty, or the “Yongle Emperor.”

In a virtual event on Tuesday, Asian art history professor Aurelia Campbell explored the complex symbolism behind the high architectural standards set during the reign of the Yongle Emperor. The dynasty sought to legitimize power through art and left a legacy of grandeur that profoundly impacted the dynastic rulers that followed.  

The focus of her discussion was her first book, What the Emperor Built: Architecture and Empire in the Early Ming, and its main subject, Di , known for moving the Chinese capital to Beijing after his violent usurpation of the throne from his nephew.

Di often chose to illustrate his power through architecture, according to Campbell, notably erecting a complex of palaces known as the Forbidden City from which he would rule his empire. Di also went on to sponsor a number of architectural projects throughout East Asia and present-day Eastern Russia.  

“Taken as a whole, these sites reveal the massive scope of Yongle’s architectural ambitions and demonstrate how his sense of empire, his approach to emperorship, and his imperial legacy took shape in built space,” Campbell said.  

The architecture in Di’s capital served as a metaphor for the emperor himself, Campbell said. 

“The architectural style in which the buildings of the new capital were constructed possessed an overarching sense of order and uniformity that communicated the message of a strong, centralized power controlled by a capable and moral ruler,” she said. 

To construct and improve the buildings in the Forbidden City, Di employed the use of massive trees, called nanmu, which were revered not only for their size but also the incredible beauty of their wood. 

These trees, similar in size to California Redwoods, were used as pillars in halls and were incredibly difficult to transport, according to Campbell. Like any other natural resource, nanmu was limited, and even Di’s successors went to great lengths to obtain it.

“Their actions speak to the perceived importance of nanmu not only as an ideal construction material, but also as a symbol of imperial power, and an established practice that had to be followed, even though constructing large-scale buildings in nanmu had only begun in the Yongle reign,” Campbell said.  

In addition to creating imposing architectural structures, the emperor sought to connect himself to the divine. Di sponsored a series of temples dedicated to Zhenwu, a Daoist deity, on Mount Wudang as a way to thank the deity for his supposed help in usurping the throne. 

The temple’s accompanying sculptures of Zhenwu also seem to have a strong resemblance to the emperor himself, according to Campbell.

“This legend is important because it demonstrates that in the centuries after Yongle’s death, people believed that the Yongle emperor and statues of Zhenwu looked alike,” Campbell said. “From this it is possible to infer that Yongle and the real Zhenwu were thought to possess other shared traits, and it would be not too much of a stretch to say that in the minds of many people, the two were somehow interchangeable.” 

Featured Image by Saad Akhtar / Wikimedia Commons

October 4, 2020