Ming Dynasty Stone Bridge: Ancient Architecture as Art

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Photograph of the Precious Belt Bridge, near the city of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China. The picture was taken on July 25 2004 by Rolf Müller. The direction of view is towards the Grand Canal of China.

Photograph of the Precious Belt Bridge, near the city of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China. The direction of view is towards the Grand Canal of China. Photo by Rolf Müller.

A bridge as a work of art? Architecture as art? What is it that defines a work of art? Is it the actual act of creating? Or, is it the act of interaction with humans, the result of what happens when the work is created and appreciated?

Perhaps a Ming Dynasty bridge wasn’t built to be aesthetically pleasing and appreciated for its artistry. But one wonders with the overwhelming interest in the recent discovery of such a bridge. Functional? No longer. A work of art? Isn’t that our job as human beings to decide?

China’s largest freshwater lake, Poyang Lake in the central province of Jiangxi, has dried up. The lake, once as large as 4,500 square kilometres, has been drying up for years due to drought and the nearby Three Gorges Dam. The remaining lake bed, kilometres of very dry sand, has revealed a remarkable structure that is almost 400 years old. A stone bridge from the Ming Dynasty, made entirely of granite, lay long forgotten on the lakebed. What once provided a means to cross the large lake is now settled in clumps that resemble the route it once followed. People lined up to walk along the remains of this bridge, an architectural wonder for its time that lay buried in the lake for centuries.

Ming Dynasty

In the late thirteenth-, early fourteenth-century, there was a peasant uprising against the Mongols. Zhu Yuanzhang, a local peasant from Haozhou (currently Fengyang in Anhui Province) joined the army. He rose in power and eventually took control of the army, planning to take over control of all of China. In 1356, Zhu established his military base in the city of Jiqing (currently Nanjing in Jiangsu Province), which he renamed Yingtian. Zhu’s control over China increased and, in 1368, he officially proclaimed himself emperor in Yingtian, founding the Ming Dynasty.

Zhu and his descendents created a powerful dynasty. They improved the living conditions of the working peasant and promoted excellence in the arts, in architecture and in science. This was the dynasty that saw the building of many monumental structures including the Badaling Great Wall in Yanqing County, 70 kilometres north of Beijing, and The Forbidden City in Beijing. Was it all built only to be functional? When one admires the existing structures, like the Badaling Great Wall and The Forbidden City, it is hard to imagine that the creators had only functionality in mind. These architecture feats of wonder are truly works of art.

Bridge as Art

Art is about the making, the creating of an object to be seen, and, particularly in the case of architecture (which included bridges), used and experienced. “Art was knowledge of the rules for making things,” writes David Blockley in Bridges, “but also the capacity for making something – a power of the practical intellect.” Since art is so elusive, it’s impossible to define a bridge, or anything else for that matter, as a work of art. Art is, after all, what the artist says is art. It requires interaction with people and emotional as well as intellectual responses.

The recent discovery of the Poyang Lake Bridge has garnered considerable local attention, to the point that people are flocking to the structure to follow its irregular path across the now dried-up lake. Was the bridge art when it was created? Or, was it merely an architectural wonder with practical purposes? Either way, what remains today is no different than the contemporary work of artists like Robert Smithson (1938-1973) whose monumental sculptures like Spiral Jetty (1970), a large earthwork sculpture off the northeastern shore of Great Salt Lake in Utah, attracted (and continues to attract) similar attention as the recently reveal Poyang Lake Bridge.

Is that not what art is all about? People interaction, people experiences, people showing emotions and responding to the work.

Poyang Lake Bridge as Art

The Ming Dynasty constructed over 1,000 stone bridges similar to the one just discovered on the lakebed of the dried-up Poyang Lake. Art? The people who are lining up to trace the bridge’s path seem to think so. They represent the viewers, the general public, who appreciate art as well as becoming a part of the work itself, making their own snaking line across the lakebed as they trace the bridge’s original path.

Art? What is it? An object, an idea, something to be appreciated, something to be understood, something that requires an interaction with human beings, something that is truly inspirations, something that has been created by a human being – that and much more. The Poyang Lake Bridge is more than a fine example of Ming Dynasty engineering prowess. It is more than an archaeological find. It is now, more than ever, a work of art.

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© Copyright 2014 Emily-Jane Hills Orford, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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