01 January 2012

Timberframing in China

Yangzhou is a tourist destination within a day's journey from Nanjing. I had an opportunity to spend a few days in the city last October, 2010. I had wanted to travel there for several reasons, yet it was only by happenstance that I was able to come across some examples of modern Chinese timberframing and am now finally able to post the images that I was able to collect.
There are many very old buildings in Yangzhou, and remnants of old buildings. The difficulty as with much of China is distinguishing the old from the made to look old upgrades. There are to be sure some impressive, extant examples of Yangzhou's past. Ge Yuan is one notable site. This streetscene typifies much of what charm Yangzhou offers.
The paved streets and walls of grey brick give some indication as to the amount of wealth that flowed into Yangzhou at one times. The salt trade, rather the collection of taxes, on the salt trade accounts for most of the wealth that flowed into this once worldly city. From what I saw there is no reminder of this commodity's importance.

The city even had its own perimeter defensive wall yet only this one remaining gate is a testament to that.  Further developments make it impossible to see the extent of the original defenses. The gate has been beautified and rebuilt so much that it is a pale representation of Chinese military architecture.

And because even the oldest parts of Yangzhou are still a very much inhabited, it is possible to walk down its many narrow alleyways and find sights such as this, modern construction pressed up against the old with a mixture of modern amenities and destructive alterations. In all cases of historical relics, it is happenstance in what determines what is preserved and what is lost.

One is just as likely a beautiful gem of detail as a modern metal door as its replacement. This motif does not appear to be Chinese, but I have no experience is such matters and it is doubtful that the present residents can offer much accurate interpretation either.

Within close proximity of the above, one can find examples of much lower quality and preservation. And yet I argue that this architectural example reveals as much history of the place even though its interpretation is equally problematic. It's a mystery that it even remain standing. There is something almost intentionally sloppy with the mortar repairs and even though some attempt was made to afford a decorative elements to the upper corners of the entryway, the mason used a segmented lintel against all sense of utility.
I cannot say for certain whether these two doorways are contemporary, but they exemplify how appearances and methods can vary across time and between craftsmen.

Here is an exposed example of the timberwork of an older building near where much new construction is underway. The roof structure is simple yet elegant. The bottom chord rests on the posts in open mortises, tying the opposing walls together. Two queen posts support a straining beam with a mortice that accepts a king post, which is in turn morticed in a ridge beam. Purlins carry closely spaced splitsawn timbers as rafters. The whole assembly carries interlocking fired tiles set in mortar.
Not far from this original historic building is this structure that attempts to recreate, at least in appearance, what was probably demolished to make room for it construction. It will be used to extend the amount of retail space for the sale of trinkets and travel souvenirs, which line most of the pedestrian venues in old Yangzhou.

Here is a closeup of the modern interpretation of Chinese timberframing. It features the use of rounded timbers and some of the same joinery. There are, however, some changes. While the purlins are carried on the king and queen posts, they do not appear to involve any joinery. As can be seen, the purlins are simply cut flush at the ends and butted together atop the posts. I can only guess that they are toenailed or will be connected with some sort of other metal fasteners.

In this image, it is possible to see a wider gap between the purlins. It is difficult to ascertain what is happening at the ridge line.  The kingpost does not seem to be engaged into the ridgebeam, but instead it is attached to sawn lumber pieces upon which a round ridgebeam rests. This kind of connection seems to not rely on traditional joinery, perhaps as a concession to modern building codes or simple expediency. It is rather high up and out of eyesight.

As another example of expediency, there is this shim where a mortise was cut too deeply into the top of a post for accepting a tiebeam. Every good craftsman knows how to correct his mistakes and this might be evidence of a relearning curve. The timberyard is just a stonesthrow away.

In another concession to modernity these men use an electric chainsaw to cut a raw log flush at one end. Behind them is a stack of partially worked and unfinished timbers.

In the next step, a workman lays out the dimensions of the timber, using a template and ink. Afterwards he uses a single beveled hatchet and planes to smooth the timbers to their final rounded dimensions.

A pile of finished timbers await assembly. A few are marked with a general description of where they are to be placed. 中栋东 means nothing more than "Middle Support East" The bases show the centers marked in ink where an anchor pin will be used to secure them to pedestals. It is possible to see the two interlocking mortises properly cut on the tops of the posts, the deeper one accepting the lower chord onto which the tie beams are placed.
These are the handmade tools used by the man above doing the layout, lying on some raw logs. The horizontal handles seem to be a feature of Chinese planes. Cheaply made planes of bamboo and Vanadium alloy blades of similar design can be bought in retail stores. This plane body was built of a dense tropical wood and had the heft of bronze.
A workman uses a similarly handled plane with one hand holding the near end of his stock and the other end against a backstop. I cannot say whether this awkward stance is considered best practices by the other timber framers. I can say that on most construction sites that I have visited, the workbenches are flimsy pieces fabricated from scrap lumber and constructed to last no longer than the present job. Unsurprisingly, I, therefore, saw no benches on this worksite other than some crudely built brakes and horses.

Back at the new construction site posts rest on their pedestals, not of stone but brick piers with a cement overcoating. This seems like an odd manner of cutting costs since the piers are so close to eye level and the fact that stone is widely used in China and so is readily available and with many workmen who can fabricate it into more traditional pedestals. A stainless steel pin is anchored into the concrete upon which the posts is dropped down.
This historic structure managed to survive demolition.  It is hard to ascertain its original function with many of its surrounding buildings removed and the clear evidence of many alterations. It does though stand as a remarkable survivor, an example of the refinement and craftsmanship of Yangzhou traditional architecture. 

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