by Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt. Princeton University Press, May 2019. 400 p. ill. ISBN 9780691169989 (h/c), $65.00.
Reviewed November 2019
Shira Atkinson, Reference Librarian, Canadian Centre for Architecture, firstname.lastname@example.org
Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt’s Chinese Architecture: A History is a survey of Chinese history from the sixth millennium BCE through the twentieth century. Through text and illustrations, Steinhardt, a professor of East Asian art and curator of Chinese art at the University of Pennsylvania, draws on her expansive knowledge of Chinese history and architecture to provide myriad examples of Chinese architecture from around the country, explaining their different functions, and shedding light on their varying levels of cultural importance. In so doing, Steinhardt provides a comprehensive survey of Chinese architecture and how it has evolved.
The author identifies the unique types of structures, complexes, and decorations that define Chinese architecture and provides numerous examples of Chinese architecture and how it has evolved over time, largely due to changing political dynasties and international contact. The book demonstrates how the impact of increasing globalization, arguably starting with the introduction of Buddhism, has had an integral impact on Chinese architecture. Since empires did not necessarily adhere to the same national borders that we recognize today, the author includes examples from other East Asian nations that also exemplify Chinese architecture.
Chinese Architecture clearly defines and illustrates different architectural elements and presents concepts without assuming previous knowledge of the subject. For instance, the text begins with a map of China that shows the different provinces as well as a timeline of the different Chinese dynasties. The illustrations - a mix of photographs, drawings, and plans - are particularly helpful. The use of endnotes, rather than footnotes, makes the text more readable. There are sufficient examples in the text to sate most readers, but the selected bibliography at the end provides numerous other sources to research should a reader want to dive deeper into a topic.
While a great deal has already been written on Chinese architecture, the breadth of Steinhardt’s scope and the manner in which she has presented the information about pre-modern Chinese architecture sets it apart and makes this a worthy addition to a library collection where there is interest in either the architecture or the history of East Asia. In particular, the clarity of Steinhardt’s writing, and the numerous illustrations, makes this text accessible to a wide audience and will broaden their knowledge of Chinese architecture beyond the most well-known example, the Forbidden City. This text is likely too dense for a casual reader, but academic readers would benefit from how the book contextualizes architecture in terms of Chinese history, including political, religious, and economic developments.