Yingzao Fashi: Twelfth-Century Chinese Building Manual

by Qinghua Guo
Yingzao Fashi: Twelfth-Century Chinese Building Manual
Qinghua Guo
Architectural History
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Yingzao Fashi: Twelfh- Century Chinese Building Manual


Yingxao Fashi (State Building Standards) is the oldest extant Chinese technical manual on buildings.' It was compiled by Li Jie, a Superintendent of State Buildings (later Director of Palace Building) in 1100 and published by the Song sovereign in I 103 (Figure I).

There are thirty-four chapters in the Yingzao Fashi, starting with a concise definition of the main terms used in the manual by tracing their textual origins. The main body of the book specifies the units of measurement, design standards and construction principles with structural patterns and building elements illustrated in drawings. Furthermore, it specifies standard estimates for labour works, documents material data, and lists recipes for decorative painting and coatings, etc. It embodies the greatest achievements of Chinese architecture in its day.


Since the unification of China by the sovereign of the lungdom of Qin and the founding of the first centralized empire in 221 B.c., the principle of administration, in the sense of dominion extended to China's geographical limits, was expressed in the ideal of universal standardization. In practice, the emperor unified the internal communication system by standardizing the dimensions of roads and vehicles, systems of weights and measures, monetary forms, as well as written characters. This universal standardization made it possible to create a cohesive state out of initially separate societies. If the First Emperor had made none of these, the whole course of Chinese history might have been different.

In China, court-enforced building codes were known from a very early time.2 These codes must have been a collective creation, the fruit of the efforts of several generations of memorizers, compilers and editors. It is very difficult to trace the early history of the compilation and editing of the codes. Exact information about building codes however is evident in the documents of the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). The Yingshan Ling (National Building Law) was composed and edited by the court into a formal document during the early Tang dynasty. Unfortunately all volumes containing

3 4 

Fig. 1.Yingzao Fashi (State Building Standards). (I) Printed text ofthe book. It incoyovates interpolated notes in small-size chavacters following main items. Engraved illustrations: (2)Joints Ofcolumns and beams; (3) Specijcation for making bracketing units with inclined arms;

(4) Patterns ofdecorative paintwork.

this law were lost except for fragments in Tang Lu (The Tang C~de).~

Although we have little direct and positive evidence of the relationship between the Yingshan Ling and the Yingzao Fashi, their connexions can be reconstructed from materials furnished by the chronicles and the codes themselves. However, in order to understand the Yingzao Fashi as a compendium of architectural knowledge rather than a system of codes, its fulcrum must be sought in the Chinese artisan guild system.


Carpentry in China developed within a family-guild system that was unrivalled in its absolute authority and absolute protection of secret techniques. The guild system was represented primarily by the gathering of artisans held together in two ways: firstly, government registration of artisans by birth ensured continual experience;4 secondly, the guild itself was sustained by governmental codes.

The artisan family-guild was an integral part of Chinese society, serving as an instrument of legitirnization and cohesion. During the reign of Emperor Xuan Zong (712-56), there were 34,850 state registered craftsmen under the Agency of Palace Buildings (Jiangxuo Jian) of the Tang government.5 In general, registered artisan families were not allowed to change their occupations and were required to serve the state. Further, there were artisan families who served the state as court architects or chief carpentry supervisors.

The carpenters' crafts and the guilds' management were handed down from generation to generation. Not only were there specializations within the guilds relating to expertise for different types of building constructions, such as temples or secular architecture, but also regional qualifications and demarcations. Commonly, for the sake of easy memorizing and confidentiality, the carpenter's knowledge and experience were summarized in verse. The verse relied upon oral transmission and was incorporated with working drawings and building models, some of which have been preserved to the present day though they are still not generally known.


The Song government took measures to standardize the building process as part of its policy to consolidate national control. Although the Yingzao Fashi can be understood as a logcal expansion of earlier building codes, it is difficult to explain it without considering major changes in the social fabric of the first half of the Song dynasty (or Northern Song, 960-1125). The urban population consisting mainly of popular agglomerations was characteristic of the Song epoch. The Song capital, Bianliang (present Kaifeng, Henan province), in fact provided the first example in which commercial life and amusements were predominant. These changes affected architec- tural design and city planning. The most important result of the new quest for harmony was the compilation and edition of a new building handbook.

The book which appeared was the result of the 'Wang Anshi Reform' (1069-74). Wang Anshi (1021-86) was a shrewd statesman, poet and scholar who served as premier at the court for many years.6 He introduced specialized studies on economy,


taxation, book-keeping, law and administration into the state examination system.' He insisted that officials should understand every aspect of their specialized professions.

Until that time public works projects such as canal maintenance, road construction and the erection of state buildings were carried out mainly by unpaid labourers corvee labour. Wang's reform programme aimed at replacing this system by revenue assessments which were payable in cash. In this way the revenue generated by the change would enable Wang to pay wages to craftsmen who were employed in government projects, including carpenters, masons and other builder^.^ At the same time the court began to be concerned about the ever-increasing construction budget, due to the lack of effective evaluations in building costs, in materials and manpower as well as the destruction offorests due to over-exploitation. Owing to the confrontation between the Song and the tribal powers to the north, the Song administration was not able to make use of the natural timber resources of remote areas. At Wang's urgng, a guide to building construction, to be titled the Yingzao Fashi, was compiled between the 1070s and the year 1091.

Following this, in 1097, Li Jie received a commission from Emperor Zhe Zong to formulate a 'new' Yingzao Fashi, because 'the old codes only specified forms and locations of building elements but did not mention their size variations; and they gave too general estimates of manpower and material,' as a result, 'it could not be enforced and thus became meaningless word^.'^ So, Li Jie sat down to revise and rewrite this book. He read historical documents and literature and consulted building masters, the duliao jiang,10 commanding them to explain every detail. Li explains directly in the preface that he had personally learned the practical know-how and orally transmitted rules from his duliao jiang. The new Yingzao Fashi turned out to be composed of a total of 3,555 items in 3 57 sections; about eight per cent were drawn from documents and the rest based on inherited methods and established practices. Most importantly, the system of carpentry measurement, the cai-fen system, was now established in the new edition. Li had no easy task: it took him three years to complete the job. The manuscript was presented to the throne and ministries in 1100, the last year of Zhe Zong's reign (I093-I I 00); the emperor's successor, his younger brother Hui Zong, gave permission for the book to be printed in I I03 and for the new regulations to be promulgated throughout the country in the following year.

The author, Li Jie (1065-1 I IO), was one of a few great figures from ancient times that we know something about in the field of building science and technology. Most have been lost in all but name in written history. Chinese historians mention their names because of the great palaces, temples, bridges or cities designed by them, or because they were close to emperors whose stories were being told. However, we know little or nothing about the training and previous careers of ancient designers. Although there was no clear-cut distinction between architects, engineers and city- planners, the creation of great state buildings and city plans was undoubtedly an upper- class occupation, and usually training was received within the family. However, there is little evidence about the subject of the education of Chinese large-project designers. In Li's case, it is obvious that his early education was greatly enhanced by the fact that his father was once the Minister of ~evenue." Li Jie was an intellectual, painter, author of books on geography, history and philology. From 1092, working as a Superintendent for State Buildings in the Ministry of Works (Gong Bu), he carried out many building projects that gave him enormous first-hand experience and knowledge at the time when he was commissioned to compile the state building standards, Yingzao Fashi. Around I 103,he was eventually promoted to Director of Palace Buildings.

Li administered and supervised all the processes of civil engneering and state building construction^:^^ canals, bridges, roads, ships, wagons and housing, including structural carpentry, adobe, stonework, tiling, bamboo-work, brickwork, non-structural carpentry &joinery, and associated works, such as brick- and lime-hln, metalwork, and tong-oil preparation.13


It may be said that the Yingzao Fashi was an official book of building technology, which summarized the knowledge of the day and established standards for new constructions.

In the introductory chapters of the Yingzao Fashi, Li Jie quotes many ancient documents and discusses the meanings of earlier technical terms, then goes on to describe the practices of his time, and finally specifies rules and regulations which form the main body of the book. This monumental tome of thirty-four chapters consists of five parts arranged systematically. They are: Basic Data; Regulations; Labour Work; Materials; and Drawings.

The first part gves full references in a glossary of forty-eight building technicalities, 
mathematical formulae, building proportions and information on construction, such 
as foundations, roofs, and site topography and orientation. 

The second part prescribes the standards and regulations for building design, methods 
of construction, working procedures, and the manufacture of bricks, clay tiles and 
glazed tiles. All rules and regulations aim at standardization, organization and technical 

The third part is about work norms, data for the estimating of costs for hiring different 

labourers, on the basis of one day's work, materials and seasons. 
The fourth part summarizes the material quotas and mixture proportioning of mortars, 
colour pigments and glazes. 

The last part contains drawn illustrations aimed at expressing practical details for 
carpentry and joinery, such as jointing of elements, forms of structures and patterns of 

Each of the five parts is subdivided into thirteen sections: moats and fortifications; stonework; structural carpentry; non-structural carpentry andjoinery (doors, windows, partitions, screens, staircases, ceilings, shrines, etc.); stone-carving/dressing; turnery; sawing; bamboo-work; roofing tiles; claywork/plastering; decorative painting/coat- ing; brickwork; brick/tile making; and kilns.

As an example of the breakdown into sections, the part discussing regulations covers a wide field concerning architectural and structural design, construction methods and procedures, and the manufacturing processes of building materials.


This book primarily aimed to provide sumptuary regulations for enpeering agencies

of the central government in order to monitor the expenditures ofvarious construction

activities. To instruct the officials in the management of buillng construction

accounts, Li Jie had provided design principles, building types (all dimensioned in

unified measures), technical know-how, hard data and illustrations in one book to help

his assistants in solving their problems and meeting specific needs.

The book summarizes and consolidates long-established carpentry traditions in

response to new political, social and economic circumstances, and promotes greater

reliance on national standards and specified techniques in building practice. It had a

great impact on workshops and artisan families in government service, encouragng

them to use the written manual to ensure rapid and accurate training of new craftsmen

and the successful complying with the building codes. In all respects, the Yingzao Fashi

is of enormous interest and value, because it is the oldest complete code of architectural

regulation existing in China, and because it presents the key features of Song China's


Li's book clearly met a need: in 1145 the second edition appeared.14 During this

period China was suffering from an invasion by the Niizhen tribe, which became an

important force in northern China and established the Jin state with its capital set close

to present-day Beijing in I 123, while the Song court was forced to move its capital,

Bianliang, to the southeast, to Lin'an (present Hangzhou), and in I 127 to re-establish

the state, known as the Southern song.I5 This second half of the Song dynasty

(1127-1279) was a period of remarkable creativity in Chinese history. Several

extraordinary innovations emerged such as movable-type printing, the development

of the magnetic compass and porcelain. Many great scientists, thinkers, poets and

artists, including those with totally lfferent opinions, were active at this time,

tolerating and sympathizing with each other's ideas. The emperor of Southern Song

in preparing to build a new capital commissioned the humble Wang Huan to prepare

a second edition of the Yingzao Fashi for publication.

The Yingzao Fashi focuses strongly on technology. Apredominant feature of the book is the cai-fen system which was used for all dimensional measurements in structural carpentry. Li Jie stresses that 'for all the rules of house building, cai is the basis. Cai has eight grades used accorlng to the scale of the building.' The significance of this is that the cai-$n system is modular. The module controls the scale. The Yingxao Fashi specifies that the cai-fen system consists of two related ways of measuring: (I)measurements of length, used for both individual timber elements and complete building structures, are given infen ,cai and zu cai. I cai = Isfen ,and I xu cai = 21 fen. Thecai is particularly important because it introduces a standard system of sectional dimension for timber elements; (2)measurements of section, used for all cross-sections of timber elements, are single standard unit (dun cai), I 5 x ofe en, and full standard unit (zu cai), 21 x 10fen . The cai has eight grades, which evolve on the basis of the

Grade I I I 111 IV V VI VII Vlll

Fig. 2. Cai-fen system ofunits. The cai has eightgrades, which are used according to the scale of the buildings.

dimensions of naturally growing tree-trunks of certain sizes (Figure 2). The eight grades enable the use of sidar structural patterns of many variations from very small to very large, in the size of structural elements and consequently in that of the building. Thus, when a small grade cai is used, the entire structure is correspondingly small, whereas for large-grade cai, the entire building is also large (Figure 3). Chinese architecture is based on a standardized system, but the standardization is established by experimentation. The Chinese structural design system unifies architectural design, and construction is carried out by assembling prefabricated standard components. This has led to a typology of structural patterns and the specification of construction methods. In terms of building budget estimation, it is easy to make a rough evaluation once the size of the cai and the structural type are known.

According to the Yingzao Fashi, Song buildings were classified by structural types -Diantang (palace), Tingtang (mansion), Yuwu (ordinary-house) and Tingxie (pavilion). The book governed all structural types of ranked buildings in detail except the yuwu.

The palace type is a structural layout of a large house with a fujie (appended apron structure). It consists horizontally of three superimposed independent structural units: a network of columns (of equal height), a puxuo (bracketing unit) and a roof (Figure 4). Thefujie functions as a secondary structure to stabilize the network of columns of the main building. Various structural arrangements can be derived from this type of construction. Four inner structural layouts are clearly presented with plans in Chapter 3 I of the Yingxao Fashi (Figure 5). Timber sizes are grades I-v.

The mansion type is easily distinguished from the palace. Its whole structure can be Avided into a number of transverse frameworks which are separately made and assembled. Columns may be of different heights. The beams and columns are connected to each other to form a stable framework. The longitudinal connexions between these frames are secured with purlins, additional tie-beams and sills. The transverse frames have a great variety of forms and details, and different frameforms can be used in the same building. There are eighteen patterns specified in the Yingxao Fashi, Chapter 3 I (Figure 6). The maximum size of timbers used is Grade 111, and the minimum Grade VI.

Sectional drawings of a pavilion of Cujiaoliang construction (where hipped roofs are superimposed) are gven in the Yingzao Fashi, Chapter 30. Such piled-up hipped roofs

Fig.4. Palace-type building:

Tvansverse framework;
Longitudit~al jamewovk.

are made using minor hip rafters overlying major rafters, and overlying one another, usually in three successive sections, and forming a concave curving pyramidal roof (Figure 7). The timber unit used is VI to VIII in grade.


A handcopy of the I 145 edition Yingzao Fashi was first found in 1919 by Zhu ~i~ian'~ in the Nanjing Provincial Library. Zhu's enthusiasm over his discovery impelled him not only to have a photolithographic edition printed in the same year, but also to establish the Institute for Research into Chinese Architecture (Zhonpguo Yingzao Xzreshe).A second reprint followed in 1925. Research carried out by the institute on the book started soon after. Later, some fragments of other ancient editions of the

Fig.5. Inner structural arrangements ofpalace-type buildings; (I) single cao; (2) double; (3)crucgorm; (4) rectangular.

Yingzao Fashi including two chapters of the original I 145 edition were found in the documents within the court of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). These provided supplementary information and, more importantly, contained two further sections which had been missing in the previously found version." It was reprinted again in

1932. As more than eight and a half centuries have passed, and with time many technical terms have changed and some practical details are indecipherable, it was extremely difficult to fully understand this book. For such a complex work, annotation was a major task. The early work, carried out between 193 I and 1946, focused on textual research, i.e., comparison of different editions, correcting printing errors and restoring omissions. Research continued from 1961 to 1966, during which time researchers did not attempt to complete the whole book, but rather concentrated on publishing it in sections. In 1983, the book entitled The Annotated Yingzao Fashi (Yingzao Fashi Zhushi, Vol. I) was finally completed in Beijing. The Annotated Yingzao Fashi (Vol. I) was largely Liang Sicheng's achievement; his uncompleted manuscript was completed in collaboration with his students and ~ollea~ues.'~

Punctuation marks were added to the orignal unpunctuated text; 137 technical terms were illuminated including podium, stonework and timberwork; fifty- seven illustrations and 148 photographs were given. This is not only a literal translation of terms into modem language but also a significant study in its own right of Chinese architecture. Nevertheless, problems still remain for approximately twenty per cent of

Fig.6. Mansion-type buildings. A total $18 dtferentpatterns are specijied in the

Yingzao Fashi.

the Song terms of the Yingzao Fashi. During the same period, Liang's lifelong assistant and colleague Chen Mingda (1914-1997) contributed an important work: A Study on the Structural Carpentry System According to the Yingzao Fashi ( Yingzao Fashi Damuzuo Yanjiu, 2 VO~S.),

Beijing, 1981.

The 1925 edition of the Yingzao Fashi was widely distributed and served to create worldwide interest in Chinese architecture. In the same year, Paul Demikville published his review 'Che-yin Song Li Ming-tchong Ying tsao fa che' in Bulletin de l'kcole Frangaise dlExtre'me-Orient, xxv 1925: 213-64. The British scholar W. Perceval Yetts wrote 'A Chinese Treatise on ~rchitecture','~

'Writing in Chinese Architecture' and 'A Note on the Ying tsao fa shih'. They were published in the Bulletin of the Institute for Research in Chinese Architecture (Zhongguo Yingzao Xueshe Huikan) 1-1 and I2,1930. AJapanese scholar, Takuichi Takeshima, also completed his remarkable work,

Fig. 7. A pavilion with a piled-up-hipped roof:

Study of Ying Tsao Fa Shih -The Chinese Book ofArchitectura1 Tectonic (Eizo hoshiki no kenkyu) Vols. 1-111. Tokyo: Chuo Koron Bijutsu Shippan, 1970-72 (reprint 1997). Another notable paper was finished by Else Glahn 'On the Transmission of the Ying Tsao Fa Shih'. T'oung Pao, LXI 1975: 232-65.

It would be of great interest to explore further the relation between the Yingzao Fashi and extant buildings. The book was written at a specific time as the Song governmental code of 'ranked' state buildings, but extant historical buildings have been built over a relatively long and in geographically diverse areas. Only a few high-ranking state buildings have survived from early periods, and they have sagged under long-term loads and experienced various kinds of renovations. Although attempts have been made to retain the original styles, some deviations from the 'building standards' would have been expected. One thing we can be certain about is that architecture is a socio- cultural phenomenon which is beyond state control. Master carpenters who built for the state were trained in local or vernacular traditions as well as in state conventions. Knowledge and techniques moved back and forth between the central government and the various localities of the empires. In all probability there was a complex gve- and-take between state-sanctioned and local traditions, and practitioners were highly context-dependent.


I The title Yingzao Fashi has a number of different translations in English. I translate it as 'State Building Standards'. 2 KaogongJi (The Artificer's Record), a section of the book Zhou Li, an official document of Qi State

(c. 470 B.c.). 
3 See Wallace Johnson, Tlze Tang Code (Vol. I) -General Principles, Translation with an Introduction 
(Princeton, 1979). 
4 At least one son in a registered artisan family had to continue the profession to ensure that the knowledge 
and the craftsmanship were retained and developed. 


5 Tang Liudian (Institutes of the Tang Dynasty), Chapter 7. Tang dynasty, A.D. 738. 6 The biography of Wang Anshi in Song Ski (History of the Song, 960-1279), 1345. 7 The state examination system was formally started in the Tang dynasty. In ancient China, dfferent examinations were organized by government at all levels every year in order to select state administrators. The examinations were progressively county, provincial and state examinations. The state examination was held by the emperor in his imperial palace, i.e., the emperor personally assigned a subject for text composition. This lund of election system encouraged everyone to study hard in imperial Chna. No one was born poor forever, and nothng limited people strictly to one occupation or position in life. The Chinese ideology is that everyone has great potential to succeed. The examination system and the state registration system were complementary to each other. 8 Else Glahn, 'Chinese Building Standards in the 12th Century,' Scient8c American(May 1981), pp. 162-73. 9 Yingrao Fashi, Chapters of Kanxiang (Preface) and Zhazi (General terminology). 10 The term duliao jiang means arbiter who was responsible for building design and assembly. I I Appendix of the Yingzao Fashi (modem reprint): the epitaph on Li Jie's tombstone. 12 Song HuiyaoJigao (Drafts for the History of the Administrative Statutes of the Song Dynasty). I3 Tong oil or China wood oil: a product of the seeds inside the fruit (the finest obtained from fruit ripened over three or four years) of trees of the Aleurites family, common in South China. It is used in undercoats, varnish and putties. 14 Chen Zhongchi, 'A Preliminary Study of the Yingzao Fashi,'Wenwu (Cultural Relics) (Feb. 1962), pp. 12-17. 15 Lin'an was a sort of splencbd Venice. Marco Polo (1254-1324) saw this city a few years after its greatest growth, around the 1280s. 16 Zhu Qiqian (1872-1962) passed the state examination and received the degree of j'uren', then became an official. From 1913 to 1916 he was the acting head of the Ministry of Inner Affairs (Neiwu Bu). In the 1930s he became the head of the Chinese Archaeologcal Society. He wrote several works including 'Li Mingzhong (Li

Jie)'s Yingzao Fashi'. Xu Youchun, ed., Great Biographical Dictionary ofMinguo Period 1911-1949 (Zhengzhou:

Henan People Press, 1991), pp. 200.

17 Fragments and sections of the Yingzao Fashi, printed in I 145, were chapters I I to 13, the last four pages of

Chapter 10, the first page of Chapter 8, the eighth page of Chapter 10, which was photoliographed by China

Press in Beijing, 1991.

18 Liang Sicheng (or Liang Ssu-ch'eng, 1901-72) was a leadng scholar of the history of Chinese architecture

in his day. See Wilma Fairbank, Liang and Lin: Partners in Exploring China's Architecture Past (Philadelphia,


19 W. Perceval Yetts, 'A Chinese Treatise on Architecture', The Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, London Institute, Vol. IV, Part III.

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