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What Represents Chinese National Identity? —From the Viewpoint of Architecture as a Composition of Tiny Elements—

There are far-reaching differences between Japan and China. This was my first impression during our field trip to China. Before going there, I was sure that Japan and China were similar in many aspects—just like cousins.


What causes the differences and where are they felt? In other words, what are Chinese national traits? This issue became the focus of my interest in China, even though I realized that it is too big and too complex for me to work on independently.


If you imagine that you are in a city of China today, what sights would you catch? You could see many tourists from other cities and other countries, or a busy road crowded with cars and motorcycles. How about architecture—the view of the city? You will see buildings easily behind the crowd, perhaps unconsciously. In my case, buildings would come into view first. I was fascinated by Chinese architecture, especially decorations that contribute to overall harmony.


In Dang Jia (党家) village in Shaanxi (陝西) province, for example, there are many preserved courtyard houses from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Commerce flourished in this village during those periods, and these courtyard houses were mainly used for business purposes. When we visited the village, we found very narrow streets and houses that appeared to have been annexed as one long house. We also found many decorative sculptures, including lettering and reliefs. Each has a positive meaning, such as happiness and fortune, that is reinforced by using the same shaped sculptures repeatedly. They were reconstructed by combining sculptures with different meanings. What was interesting to me is that some fortune reliefs faced toward the interior, not the exterior, of the house. For example, there was a brick relief showing a deer with a medical herb in its mouth, the symbol of a long life. It stood on various treasures implying wealth and also on grasses indicating a person’s morality. Big trees stretched over the deer with monkeys and a beehive, and two bats were depicted over the deer: they are all symbols of happiness. Moreover, this masterpiece of relief was visible inside the house only; therefore, it could be said that it was made for the family and should have been designated as a family treasure.


Roof decorations of Chinese architecture were also fascinating. In the Temple of Heaven Park (天壇公園) in Beijing, we saw interesting decorations on the ridge of the roof: running animals and a wizard. They are all covered with glass of a single color, except for the wizard painted using multiple colors and looking like an actual human. Using different colors for roof tiles makes buildings gorgeous and powerful.


Compared to Chinese architecture, Japanese architecture is less decorative and less colorful. Japanese wooden architecture in temples and shrines is usually plain, never heavily ornate. It has triggered fear and respect toward nature. Japanese people have been threatened by natural disasters from ancient times, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and typhoons. On the other hand, for the Chinese, I suspect that invasions of outer ethnic groups into China were more threatening than natural disasters. Architecture in China has played an important role in representing power against foreign enemies.


The architecture with gorgeous and colorful decorations in China has many charms, which are barely seen in Japanese architecture. I sometimes had a strange feeling about Chinese architecture: once stepping into a building, emotions of people who used to be there overwhelmed me. Through this field trip, I realized that my personal impression of the differences between China and Japan was associated primarily with the decorative elements that create harmony for each architectural type. Decorative, luxurious, and colorful Chinese architecture is powerful. (N. A.)

Overview of Dang Jia Village
Roof decoration of the Temple of Heaven Park