The Light of the Firefly

Mingyue Chen

I went to the oldest high school in my city. In junior high school, we studied on that old campus with its hundred years of history, the same campus where my grandparents went to high school. The academic building in the old city center is old and has a strong local style. But three years later, at the end of junior high, I moved to the new campus located in the new city center. Our campus is much larger than the original one. Even though the classroom looked clean and the building was made of brand-new glass and grey cement instead of bricks, I felt bored when I looked at those buildings. Many other buildings around our school were still under construction, and they looked the same as my school. When we went to the new city hall, the building style was the same. Even another school in a nearby city looked the same as my school. These buildings were designed by the China Architecture Design & Research Group in Fujian. Their repetitive box-style buildings did not compete well in this globalizing period that brought in foreign architectural firms. Foreign architects have designed all the landmarks in the big city, and the rest of the boxes have been handled by the local Architecture group charged by the government. What is wrong with our architecture development? Who is going to speak as the Chinese voice in architecture? I have wondered about this for a long time, and I finally found some clues from my research.

Architectural education in China can be traced back to the Ecole des Beaux-Art in Paris. According to Isabelle Gurney’s research, “over 400 Americans studied architecture in Paris between 1846 and 1892, and many more followed a French-inspired curriculum in the USA.” 1 The educational philosophy in the Ecole des Beaux-Art was rationalism. The curriculum included math, geometry, history, and drawing. The courses offered at the school paid a lot of focus on ancient European buildings. Students took a great time studying classical arts and architecture history during their semesters. The top-tier student would finally be selected to participate in the highly competitive Grand Prix de Rome. The award winner later went to Rome to study architecture and came back to design for public architecture in France. We can see that the architectural education in Paris was inherited and developed from the comprehensive study of Ancient Greek philosophy, Roman architecture, and the Renaissance. 2

What does this history have to do with Chinese architectural students? America was the place most influenced by French architectural education. Around 1920 and 1930, when the Beaux-art had rooted in the United States, the first group of Chinese students went to Pennsylvania university to study architecture. “Most of them struggled with the idea of how to be modern (usually equated with Western ideas) and still be Chinese. The idea persuaded many of the continuations of Chinese ‘form’ with modern Western’ content.’” 2 One of the most popular professors, Paul Cret, placed a  high value on Beaux-art and treated it as the foundation of his design. He thought it was important to interpret and understand the European architectural language dealing with proportion, rhythm, hierarchy, etc. The Chinese architect couple Lin and Liang later brought the concept back to China and became the most famous Chinese architects today. The couple dedicated themselves to finding and reconstructing the Chinese architectural language from ancient Chinese architecture. Liang and Lin rediscovered ninth-century Chinese temples with delicate wooden designs, and they tried to find the connections between Chinese architectural history and modern buildings. Liang also suggested the government protect the old buildings and the city wall in Beijing. However, his idea was too avant-garde by that time and was not adopted by the government. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), he has criticized as the model of “retro.” ll of his money and books were expropriated. He died of illness in poverty. 

According to Chinese researcher Gu Daqing, Chinese Beaux-arts education can be divided into three phases. The first phase is when students like Liang and Lin went abroad to study architecture. They came back and built the first architecture school in China. The education system there was consistent with that of Pennsylvania universities. After the establishment of the PRC, the Chinese government allied with the Soviet Union, and the architectural style from American or probably French Beaux-arts transformed into the Russian art style. The school canceled the design-oriented model-making studios at that time. From 1960 to 1980, Yang, Dong, and other graduate students from Pennsylvania University joined the Chinese Art Education, brought back the Beaux-arts teaching style, and unified it with the current pedagogy. They changed the foundation courses by adding Chinese calligraphic practices with Roman letters and traditional Chinese painting techniques for rendering a  building. During the Cultural Revolution period, the government stopped all the courses offered in the school. Later, the school syllabus was revised and accelerated more superficially. “Several rendering exercises focus[ed] on modern building with simple volume and form, rather than with Western or Chinese motifs. The exercises sequence also did not follow exactly the three-stage training method because the school shortened the time for the rendering exercise.” Gu Daqing also points out that “with increased enrollments, the once praised ’apprenticeship system’ became the target of criticism for its inefficiency in educating a large number of students in early 1980.” 4 Study-abroad students from all periods struggled to speak up to the Chinese voices in the local architecture. However, many potential factors hindered their progress, from commercialism and globalism to political movements and natural disasters. At the end of the book Chinese Architecture, the Beaux-arts, author Joseph Rykwert claims why Chinese architectural philosophers are pretty different from those in the West. “Perhaps an essential difference between the bilateral symmetry that was generally practiced in the West, and which depended on the crossing of two notional axes leaving the center unmarked, while monuments are disposed of in the quarters made by the axial division, and the Chinese plan, in which the crossing is of center lines rather than axes, which makes for a symmetrical disposition of ‘houses’ about a dominate center. Here a central building may form the focus of a rectangular or square –or even a circular—enclosure.”5 All the principles are based on Western philosophy, from Ecole de Beaux art to Pennsylvania University to China. Representation of China gradually became a style instead of the core of Chinese architecture.

In short, there has been an enormous struggle and difficulty for architectural development in China. Even today, architecture is listed as one of the most challenging majors and does not offer enough payoff as a profession. Today, the Chinese are content with their super fast-food delivery and the incredible efficiency of the Chinese factories. But, the weight on their shoulders to speak out about their culture is no less than it was in Liang and Lin’s period. I do not know how much time and resources the Chinese people should spend to achieve this goal, and I do know that today is the starting day for the Chinese to dig into their own culture and build their philosophy from their two thousand years of history.


Isabelle Gournay, “Beaux-Art Style,” from Grove Art Online, 2003

Richard Chafee, “The Teaching of Architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts”

Tony Atkin, Chinese Architecture Students at The University of Pennsylvania in the 1920s, Tradition, Exchange, and the Search for Modernity”, published on Chinese Architecture and the Beaux-Arts, 2011, University of Hawai’i Press 

Gu Daqing, “An Outline of Beaux-arts Education in China, Transplantation, Localization, and Entrenchment,” published on Chinese Architecture and the Beaux-Arts, 2011, University of Hawai’i Press 

Joseph Rykewert, “The Four and the Five,” published on Chinese Architecture and the Beaux-Arts, 2011, University of Hawai’i Press 


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