Project Wellspring

Di Luo's Teaching Portfolio

Session 21. Architecture in Miniature

The 21st session of the survey course East Asian Architecture: From Prehistoric to the Late Imperial Period, it focuses on the curious phenomenon of miniature-making in East Asian architecture.


  • Technological advancement in wooden construction since the 10th century
  • Development of “small-scale carpentry” as a special woodworking category separate from the “large-scale carpentry”
  • High standardization of timber units, scale, dimension, and design as prescribed in the Northern Song official building code, the Yingzao fashi (published 1103)
  • An increasing interest in interior design and ornamentation
  • The thriving of the schools of Mahayana Buddhism, such as Huayan and Pure Land, which emphasized meditation and visualization–a practice facilitated by the imaginative world of miniature architecture
  • Promulgation of sumptuary laws that restricted large-scale architecture but not small ones

Key Examples

Tamamushi Shrine

Horyuji, Nara, 7th century

The Tamamushi shrine perhaps preceded any surviving wooden structures in East Asia. It faithfully reflected the strength and simple beauty of the Tang “international” style. As Buddhism entered Japan from China, associated architectural styles also became imported and fervently studied. Now, with the general absence of remaining Tang structures in China, this miniature has been an invaluable witness to the glory of the past.

1.8 Tamamushi Shrine (Wiki commons)

Hip-and-gable roof of the Tamamushi Shrine

Revolving Sutra Case

Sutra Library of the Longxing Temple, Zhengding, Hebei, 11th century

The sutra case is a miniaturized wooden octagonal pavilion, about 1/5 to 1/4 of the normal size. It is fixed by a pivot on the ground level of the Sutra Library.

The case was designed to contain the Buddhist Tripitaka–the complete collection of all essential writings on Buddhism including scriptures, monastic principles, and interpretive works. The case could be turned as if the turning of the “Wheel of Dharma,” which is symbolic of the continuation and propagation of Buddhist teachings. Meanwhile, the rotation of the case enables the ritual of “circumambulation” (circling around the central object of worship–in this case the Tripitaka–in a clockwise direction as a way of veneration). In the 11th century, worshipers to the monasteries had to pay a handsome amount of money for such cases to be turned so that they could receive blessings.

This particular case might have also enshrined Buddhist statues as seen from a photograph shot in the 1920s. In 1933, however, all the contents were gone, and the inner framework of the case has been exposed ever since. Repair to the roof and brackets was made in the 1950s, but the case was never restored to its original state.

Sutra Cabinets

Sutra Library of the Huayan Temple, Datong, Shanxi, 11th century

Similar to the revolving sutra case, these cabinets are receptacles of the Buddhist Tripitaka. But the difference is that they are built along the side walls and cannot be moved or turned.

The scale of the cabinets is similar to that of the revolving sutra case–a 1/5 to 1/4 miniature of the normal size. However, because it spans a much longer elevation, it contains more varied forms. While the majority part of the cabinets is a continuous series of double-storied wooden pavilions and corner towers supported by multiple types of bracket-sets, there is also a suspended, arching bridge as the climax of the entire complex.

Built around the altar of the Sutra Library, the cabinets become an excellent backdrop of the vivid religious icons in the center.

“Heavenly Palace” in the Ceiling

Pure Land Monastery, Yingxian, Shanxi, 1124

One of the most peculiar ceilings of all Chinese wooden buildings is found at the Pure Land Monastery, where four miniature golden halls are arranged in the central coffer directly above the main Buddha.

The golden halls are about 1/10 of the normal size. They each occupy the north, south, east, and west side of the square coffer, and are connected by continuous galleries, balustrades and corner towers–all made of wood, beautifully painted, and built to scale.

Supporting the halls and galleries are densely arrayed bracket-sets; inside the miniature buildings, Buddhist images are painted on the surface, as if to indicate a heavenly realm inhabited by these deities. This type of ceiling design is aptly termed tiangong louge–“heavenly palace towers and pavilions.”

The murals on the side walls are also “sheltered” by miniature roofs and columnless galleries. Each projected, baldachin-like roof corresponds to a Buddha painted below. There are a total of eight pairs of such Buddhas and baldachin roofs.

Model Pavilion

Thousand Buddha Pavilion of the Chongfu Temple, Shuoxian, Shanxi, c. 14th century

This three-storied wooden pavilion is based on a 1/10 scale. It is believed to be modeled on the original Tang sutra library (now lost) at the same monastery. Unlike all previous examples, it does not host any images or scriptures inside, but stands as a pure demonstration of its own architecture and becomes an object of worship.



This entry was posted on April 10, 2016 by in session and tagged , , , , , .
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