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Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E10): Aurelia Campbell on the Yongle Emperor, 5.6.21

Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E10): Aurelia Campbell on the Yongle Emperor, 5.6.21

Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.


Season 3, Episode 10 brought participants back in time to the ruling period of one of the most famous emperors in Chinese history, the Yongle emperor (r. 1402–24), who gained renown for constructing Beijing’s Forbidden City, directing ambitious naval expeditions, and creating the world’s largest encyclopedia.

Aurelia Campbell (AC) is Associate Professor in the Department of Art, Art History, and Film at Boston College. Her research centers on the architecture and material culture of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing periods in China. Campbell’s first book, What the Emperor Built: Architecture and Empire in the Early Ming (University of Washington Press, 2020) examines the construction projects of the famous Yongle emperor to consider how imperial ideology is given form in built space. Addressing how and why his buildings were constructed, the book expands our understanding of “imperial Chinese architecture” as a building typology. Her research has been supported through grants and fellowships from Millard Meiss Publication Fund, James Geiss Foundation, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Asian Cultural Council, and Metropolitan Center for Far Eastern Art Studies, among others.

Selected Quotes from Pieces of China, Season 3, Episode 10:

Dinda Elliott (moderator): Yongle was a ruthless fellow who came to power in a bloody way. How is he remembered?

AC: Yes, he was a great usurper. He was the fourth son of the first emperor of the Ming dynasty. Yongle lived in the formal Mongol palace for around two decades, which gave him an inflated sense of power and grandeur. He wound up starting a civil war against his nephew and burned the palace in Nanjing. And then he took control of the throne and moved the capital up to Beijing.

The Forbidden City was first constructed under Yongle, but at that time it was just his imperial palace. He tore down the former Yuan Dynasty palaces and built his own palatial estate on top of it. It became the residences for the rest of dynastic history- until the early twentieth century.

The moat and the main halls all date from [Yongle’s time].

DE: What was the process of building?

AC: According to historical records, it only took four years to build. But millions of conscripted workers were gathering and preparing materials for almost a decade before that.

DE: Was it really millions of workers?

AC: At least a million, but the skilled craftsmen were much fewer in number.

DE: Tell us about the Golden Hall project [in Hubei province] and what that says about the emperor.

AC: At the same time he was rebuilding his palace in Beijing, he was building a bunch of Daoist temples on a mountain called Wudang in central China. This mountain was associated with a deity called Jian-Wu to whom Yongle claimed a close personal relationship [as in, he helped usurp the throne.]

This temple was cast in bronze but it is constructed as if it was a timber building. They were cast in Nanjing and shipped to the mountain and carried up the mountain and assembled on site…And you can visit- it is quite accessible.

DE: What is so special about the construction of these buildings? What is the architectural legacy?

AC: [The Yongle Emperor] was concerned with trying to prove that he had the mandate to rule – obsessed really – and that is part of how he would be remembered after he died. So, he had a very totalitarian rule, but it resulted in many great cultural legacies.

A parallel with today is that with this top-down order and a lack of red tape, it is very easy in China- and we see this in Yongle’s time as well as today- for large-scale construction projects to be completed very quickly. Cities are changing so rapidly and there is so much new construction that today you can hardly recognize whole cities…


Full Video of Pieces of China with Aurelia Campbell


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