For the architectural scholar Xing
an understanding of the Chinese courtyard is “an effective tool to unlock the Chinese state of mind, and the meaning of things Chinese.” This is a bold assertion, but Ruan, who teaches architectural theory at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, was confident enough to base an entire book off it.
Confucius’ Courtyard: Architecture, Philosophy and the Good Life in China, published this month by Bloomsbury, is less a book on architecture than a work of philosophy. Penned in English for a Western audience, it is also a “comparative study,” says Ruan, contrasting Chinese cultural traditions with European ones.
Ruan, 56, is a prime candidate to undertake such a study. Born in Kunming, the capital of the southwestern Yunnan province, the gregarious professor spent nearly three decades abroad, in New Zealand and Australia. Before relocating to Shanghai in 2018, he taught architecture at the University of New South Wales. Confucius’ Courtyard was completed in both places over these two pandemic years; he spent over a month in combined hotel quarantines while traveling between China and Australia (in his
hotel, where he spent two weeks, he was not even able to open a window.)
“Before I left China, as a young man, I thought I knew the country,” says Ruan on his motivation to write the book. “But after being gone for so many years, I realized that China was such an enigma. I just wanted to get to the bottom of it. So I use architecture as a vehicle to explore Chineseness.”
Recently, Penta reached him in Shanghai to learn more about what courtyards can tell us about China’s essence, past, and present.
PENTA: What is the Confucian concept of zhongyong and how does it relate to Chinese architecture?
Xing Ruan: It means “the middle way,” something like the “golden mean,” to be more poetic. In the West, “the middle” often is seen with some negative connotation, as a compromise. But in the Chinese mind, it is regarded as a supreme art because it is something that is beautifully balanced. Instead of being compromised, it is propriety.
Architecturally speaking, the courtyard for the Chinese is not just a physical template to accommodate activities, it is also a metaphor for a way of living where the middle is readily accessible. It’s a void, surrounded by four buildings, where you are not distracted by the external world. And I think it’s important to understand that the Chinese never see that as a compromise. It is something that you need to pursue constantly, you need to perfect your art, hence it is virtuous.
In the book, you explore the ‘idea’ of a Chinese courtyard? What is that?
Well, the courtyard was not unique to the Chinese. If you look at the ancient world, the Greeks and the Romans also built courtyards. There are many similarities between the Chinese and Mediterranean ones in antiquity, but there are some subtle differences. The Chinese courtyard, in a symbolic sense, is more confined, open only to the sky. But a Roman courtyard, or the atrium, is at the same time open to the street, to the civic space. Those who come from lower classes could queue there to wait for their turn to ask for favors from a lawyer or from a magistrate. So the courtyard was designed to be splendid, like a public lobby, and anyone could walk in. There’s always this connection to the civic world, to the outside world.
In the Chinese courtyard, they always build a screen in front of the gate. It’s not so easy for you to walk in. It is more confined. The relationship between Chinese heaven and the earthly life continued in this fashion. But in Western civilization, there formed this curious conflict between heaven and the distractions of the civic world, and the heavenly verticality was gradually turned to worldly concerns. The Chinese courtyard would, on the contrary, give you an opportunity to resolve the conflict between heaven and earth in a singular way.
Did you grow up with a courtyard?
No, I grew up in an urban apartment in Kunming. My parents and I shared one dormitory room for many years before we had a decent apartment. Though the courtyard existed for over 3,000 years, many in China actually never lived with a courtyard, such as the impoverished or many in rural areas. But it has been a consistent idea. If you look at many Chinese cities and villages, they are knitted together by courtyards. Until the middle of the 20th century, Beijing was a vast sea of courtyards. Suzhou was exactly the same, and many other places. That interests me, why the Chinese have kept the same idea for such a long period of time.
An ancient Roman town was the same: a tapestry of courtyards. But it disappeared. When courtyards appeared in later periods, in urban palazzos during the Renaissance, it only served the function of letting in light and air. The kind of activities where you could find in an ancient Roman atrium–ancestors worship, ceremonies–that would be gone in later periods.
What are some activities in a Chinese courtyard?
It’s a combination of rituals such as ancestor commemoration and everyday activities. A Chinese courtyard determines a regulation of how one behaves. It’s a material representation of a certain decorum. You know your place, the family hierarchy, and the gender segregation. You know where the guests are, where the servants are. It’s organized in a harmonious relationship.
But there are always other things that are attached to it, such as a garden (also confined within four walls as a courtyard), where you can sneak out, away from the more decorous Confucian axis in the main courtyard, through a side door. There you can undertake all sorts of often pleasurable and artistic activities, such as drinking wine or admiring flowers, parallel, but beyond the Confucian world of the courtyard.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.