Architectural Encounters with Essence and Form in Modern China

Architectural Encounters with Essence and Form in Modern China

By Seng Kuan and Peter G. Rowe

A study of traditional and modernist attitudes toward architecture in China from the 1840s to the present.





A study of traditional and modernist attitudes toward architecture in China from the 1840s to the present.

Built around snatches of discussion overheard in a Beijing design studio, this book explores attitudes toward architecture in China since the opening of the Treaty Ports in the 1840s. Central to the discussion are the concepts of ti and yong, or "essence" and "form," Chinese characters that are used to define the proper arrangement of what should be considered modern and essentially Chinese. Ti and yong have gone through various transformations—for example, from "Chinese learning for essential principles and Western learning for practical application" to "socialist essence and cultural form" and an almost complete reversal to "modern essence and Chinese form."

The book opens with a discussion of cultural developments in China in response to the forced opening to the West in the mid-nineteenth century, efforts to reform the Qing dynasty, and the Nationalist and Communist regimes. It then considers the return of overseas-educated Chinese architects and foreign influences on Chinese architecture, four architectural orientations toward tradition and modernity in the 1920s and 1930s, and the controversy over the use of "big roofs" and other sinicizing aspects of Chinese architecture in the 1950s. The book then moves to the hard economic conditions of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, when architecture was almost abandoned, and the beginning of reform and opening up to the outside world in the late 1970s and 1980s. Finally, it looks at the present socialist market economy and Chinese architecture during the still incomplete process of modernization. It closes with a prognosis for the future.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262182195 304 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 75 illus.


$24.00 T ISBN: 9780262681513 304 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 75 illus.


  • Modern China—whether we think of it as a place, a state, or a culture—has been formed by the dynamic interaction between indigenous and international forms. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the country's modern architecture and urban planning. This wonderful book recaptures much of what was planned, and the best of what was built, in China, by native and foreign engineers and architects over the course of the 20th century, from the neoclassical, Wilhelmine structures of German Qingdao (1904-14), to Xing Tonghe's daringly sculptural Shanghai Museum (1995). Deeply learned and beautifully illustrated, Architectural Encounters is a work of artistic, intellectual, and political history that should be read by any serious student of modern China, indeed by anyone who has walked the streets of Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, and other great Chinese cities.

    William C. Kirby

    Geisinger Professor of History and Director, Asia Center, Harvard University

  • Modern Chinese history is the paradox of the demands of past and future—of the struggle of resolving the difficulties involved in moving a country towards modernity while retaining valuable elements of its cultural heritage. Although western scholarship has offered numerous profound insights into issues relating to Chinese modernization, I know of few published works that directly engage the modernization of Chinese architecture. Analyzing historical movements within the dynamic between 'essence' (ti) and 'form' (yong)—a constant theme running through the modern transformations of Chinese politics and culture—Peter Rowe and Seng Kuan persuasively present us with a magnificent panorama of one and a half centuries of Chinese architecture, in which Chinese architects have tenaciously pursued a culturally informed modernity.

    Delin Lai

    Ph.D., former faculty member, School of Architecture, Tsinghua University, and current graduate student in art history, University of Chicago

  • Rowe and Kuan show a rare talent for getting into the hearts and minds of designers. They bring into clear focus some of the central dilemmas of contemporary Chinese architecture!

    Timothy C. Geisler

    Architect, Urban Design Group