Suzhou “Xiangshan School”: The Crisis and Turnaround of Inheritance

Mr. Ye Shengtao once commented on Suzhou gardens: no matter where the visitors stand, they always see a perfect picture in front of them.

In the traditional gardens of “Romantic Mountains and Rivers”, it almost can not be separated from mountains and rivers. Although the Royal Garden is highly respected, private gardens are also full of affection. Suzhou gardens, the private garden with the essence of Chinese classical gardens, is a model of Chinese landscape architecture from layout to architecture.

 Growing up with Wu culture, besides the ancient and amazing  Suzhou gardens, there are also a group of skillful landscape architects, Xiangshan School craftsmen. During the 2500 years of Wu culture’s growth and spread, their blood has been deeply integrated into every inch of Wu County soil.

The splendid ancient Wu civilization provided a stage for the craftsmen in this area to display their skills. From the beauty of pillars to artistic conception, from the carvings to layout, from the pavilions to halls, each design and construction of that has a subtle taste. When people visit the garden, they consciously meet a master craftsman who knows both technology and art breaks through time and space. Maybe he’s stacking bricks and tiles, maybe he’s framing scenery, carving leaky window patterns. The groups come to us from history and have already become beyond the times.

Art and technology are bound to collide and stimulate each other. Wu County is a famous as its “fertile land of fish and rice”, with warm climate, beautiful mountains and rivers and abundant products. Taihu Lake is rich in rocks, dense jungle branches and leaves, Yangcheng Lake is suitable for burning high-quality bricks and tiles, the natural environment for the construction of Suzhou Gardens provides unique building materials, to provide a material basis for the Xiangshan School’s mature. 

Wu County’s landscape has bred the “Xiangshan School”, whose craftsmen are best at building houses, gardens, stacking stone and marble water. In its heyday, the “Xiangshan School” craftsmen numbered as many as 5,000. However, since the late 1980s, only the older generation of local craftsmen of the “Xiangshan School” have been engaged in the renovation of ancient gardens. Young people are seldom willing to engage in front-line work. Because of the low income, the traditional craftsmen have experienced a difficult situation that there are few successors. The non-legacy “Xiangshan School traditional architecture construction skills are facing the crisis of loss.

Understand the “Xiangshan School 

The opportunity of Suzhou began at the end of the Spring and Autumn Period. In 560 B.C., Zhu Fan, King Wu moved his capital to Gusu District, and the city gradually began to flourish. However, it is He Lv, King Wu who really built Suzhou on a scale similar to that of other big countries. When he returned to Gusu District, he set up Gusu Pavilion in Gusu Mountain, opened Baihua Pool and Changzhou Garden under that, and cut nine-way road to Wu Duxumen, and built a music palace in Shicheng Hill, which had a certain “opening new area” posture. However, it is regrettable that most of these palaces were turned into scorched earth when Yue State destroyed Wu.

The turning point appeared in the Sui and Tang Dynasties. In 605 AD, Emperor Yang of Sui ordered the excavation of the Grand Canal of Beijing and Hangzhou, a major artery of water transportation, which broke the transport bottleneck between the north and the south. This is very beneficial to the development of Suzhou City with lands of fish and rice along the river. As a result, more villages and more people have been growing, the literati and elegant visitors came here one after another to express their feelings for mountains and rivers. Du Xunhe, the poet of Tang Dynasty, wrote “I see you to Ku-su. Homes there, sleeping by the stream. Ancient palace, few abandoned spots. And by the harbor, many little bridges.”in his poem of See a Friend Off to Wu.

 After the Song Dynasty, the development of Suzhou became more prosperous. Since the mid-Ming Dynasty, Wu County was the most developed area in the country. Soviet handicraft and gardens in Suzhou have been flourishing. Taking the oldest Canglang Pavilion as an example, it was built in the Northern Song Dynasty. Since the renovation of Song in 1659, the pavilion “resembles public gardens, official and gentry banquets, elegant collection of literati and so on. It was suitable for its design and treatment.

At that time, there were more than 280 private gardens and courtyards in Suzhou. “All pavilions, railings, terraces and pavilions were built with water as their facial features” Humble Governance Garden; Waterfront construction, side pools building terraces; Canglang Pavilion of “holding a quiet mountain in one path, actually between cities”; Canglang pavilion with lush trees and elegant bamboo cultivation, fully showing the wild spirit of the forest; Lion of “Where can the dwellers seek, actually there are mountain forests in the city”; “A foot of peach blossom rain in a stone building, there are red fish jumping green duckweed” paradise, garden windows, the ordinary scenery set off beautiful. Suzhou gardens ushered in the most brilliant period.

The famous gardens in Suzhou catalyzed the emergence of the craftsmen of the “Xiangshan School”. After nearly 1,500 years of self-reflection and continuous practice, since the Ming Dynasty, the “Xiangshan School” began to enjoy a high reputation and became a skilled craftsman in many natural villages, including Huadun, Waitang, Shuiqiao, Yushe and Zhoushan around Wuzhong Xiangshan.

Kuai Xiang, the craftsman of the Ming Dynasty, was the originator of the “Xiangshan School”. He built the Forbidden City, Tian’anmen Rostrum and repaired the Imperial Palace. His great achievements made him known as “Kuai Lu Ban” and was successively reused by four emperors of the Ming Dynasty. Yao Chengzu of modern Xiangshan School compiled The Origin of Construction Method is known as “the only treasure book of Chinese architecture in the South”. The “Soviet Architectural Treasure Book” changed the tradition that craftsmen depended on manual instruction.


Picture: In 1955, the landscape construction team maintained the West Garden Rockery.

In the centuries of inheritance, Xiangshan School has also emerged a number of generations of artisans who have passed on fireworks; Lu Yaozu, born in a family of wooden artists, was personally taught by his father Lu Wen’an when he was young, and worked together for a long time. He has systematically inherited the decoration of large and small wooden works in traditional architecture, and is now an investment and development of Suzhou Landscape Architecture. Group Co., Ltd. (hereinafter referred to as Suzhou Gardens Group); and Xue Lingen, born in a craftsman family, whose father is Xue Fuxin, is a well-known successor of the modern Xiangshan School, devoted his whole life to the protection of classical gardens. Xue Lingen inherited his father’s skills and passed on the restoration of ancient buildings to the present day, and his representative works are Suzhou CangLang Pavilion, Yiyuan lotus root Champs Elysees, Xiyuan Lake Center Pavilion, Xiyuan Daxiong Palace restoration, etc., are now the “water first” of Suzhou Garden Group.

The craftsmen of Xiangshan School not only have excellent skills, but also have complete types of work and fine division of labor. For example, carpenters are divided into “big wood” and “small wood”. Big wood is engaged in building beams, purlins, rafters, bucket arches, eaves, angle and so on. Small wood is for door panels, hanging, window panes, floor covers, railings, partitions and other building decoration. Some of the small woodworks are specially engaged in carving technology (after the Qing Dynasty, there were special carvers in woodworking).

The technological process of wood carving includes overall planning, design lofting, outline drawing, layered blanking, detailed carving, polishing and polishing, and painting. In addition to the fine division of labor, Xiangshan School’s tools are also very advanced, such as carpenter chisels, chisels, warping chisels, butterfly chisels, triangular chisels, and each chisel has a number of different sizes or angles.

The construction techniques of the “Xiangshan School” are unique and exquisite. Its architectural features are usually harmony in tone, compact structure, fine manufacturing and clever layout. From the construction of “Broken Beam Hall” in Huqiu, it can be seen that the construction technology adopts the techniques of Bodhisattva roof, chessboard, Pipa hanging and dome arch. Hundreds of years ago, it was possible to build such a delicate and ingenious hall without beams, enough to show the superb architectural skills of Xiangshan craftsmen.

The Legends of the Masters

The construction techniques of “Xiangshan School” originated from the collision and turbulence of multi-cultures for thousands of years. Through the process of convergence, change, disintegration and regeneration, the architectural style of “Xiangshan School” which integrates architectural art and construction technology has finally formed, and become an outstanding representative of many architectural schools. Xiangshan School, represented by Soviet architecture, is regarded as one of the treasures of Chinese ancient architectural art, and has still been attracting people so far.

The key to keeping the lasting of “Xiangshan School” is that its craftsmen can not only adapt to the needs of difficult construction technology in different times, but also inherit and carry forward the technology and innovation of craftsmen from generation to generation. Xiangshan School’s construction skills originated from the folk at first, then went to the court, and finally returned to the folk. From the civilian to the delicate, and from the delicate to the folk, the inheritance and development of the Xiangshan School is a vivid portrayal of the whole history of the development of traditional Chinese construction techniques.

As the outcomes of Wu culture, many great masters have emerged in the history of Xiangshan School, such as Kuai Xiang, Yao Chengzu and Shaping Saint Yang Huizhi. However, influenced by the idea of “emphasizing on the road while neglecting the utensils”, there were few descriptions of craftsmen in the workshop. Even a famous architect like Kuai Xiang has only a few descriptions of himself in history. What’s more, few of the more brilliant folk craftsmen can really leave their names. Over the centuries, people have passed on the stories behind these names orally. Many people have become legends of rivers and lakes, but they are indeed the inheritors of Xiangshan School crafts.

To some extent, the top craftsmen in Xiangshan School are not only manual workers who can wield knives and axes, but also knowledgeable scholars of astronomy, geography, humanities and aesthetics. In the traditional view of modern people, they are equated with those who sell pulp and drain the same social stratum. But on the contrary, in the era when Xiangshan School craftsmen grew up, they had a special and respected social status, which were not competent by ordinary people.

“The former craftsmen were highly educated.” Lu Yaozu, the national inheritor of intangible culture, is a native of Xiangshan School. His grandfather is a woodworker and he has a workshop in Jiaxing City. Lu Yaozu’s great-grandfather was a literator. He had studied in private school for ten years and was ready to take the exam. He could have taken the exam for fame, but he failed in the late Qing Dynasty. So Taigong chose carpenter as his career and worked all his life in this industry. Lu Yaozu’s grandfather had participated in the construction of Lion Forest during the Republic of China, when he was 73 years old. “My father was thirteen years old, and he followed him as an apprentice.”

Lu Wen’an, Lu Yaozu’s father, followed his uncle to learn art at the age of 13, and was called “the hero of the younger generation” in the construction of Dongshan Carving Tower. Lu Yaozu was taught by his father when he was young and worked together for a long time. He was systematically inherited in the decoration of large and small wooden buildings. Many of the Lus are craftsmen of Xiangshan School. They have participated in the construction of Dongshan Carving Tower and Xijia Garden and many other gardening projects in Suzhou.

The craftsmen of the “Xiangshan School” attached great importance to the acceptance of apprentices. For quite a long time, the inheritance system of “Xiangshan School” craftsmen has the following two forms: inheritance between families and inheritance by guaranteed practitioners and apprentices. 

Family inheritance refers to the family members whose successors are related by blood. “Xiangshan School” usually chose the family inheritance mode of “son inheritance of father’s business”. Xue Fuxin, the craftsman of Xiangshan School, was born in a good craftsman family. His brother Xue Hongxing’s technology was inherited from his uncle Zhu Xiangqing, who learned art from his uncle Yao Chengzu. Xue Fuxin, a teenager, has a strong learning ability. He could draw dragons with both hands at the same time, and both dragons are finished in one stroke.

Xue Lingen dropped out of school at the age of 15 and studied ancient architecture with his uncle Xue Hongxing and his father Xue Fuxin. Xue Lingen was told by his father that if he chose the way, he must do it best. Adhering to this concept, Xue Lingen has won many awards in ancient architecture. Xue Dong, the son of Xue Lingen, graduated from Tongji University, is now engaged in the design of classical garden architecture. In the family inheritance, there are not only father and son inheritance, but also nephew inheritance. Lu Yaozu studied under his father Lu Wen’an, at present he passed on his skills to his nephew. The inheritance of teachers and apprentices relies on guarantees. The reason why “Xiangshan School” has been spreading to the present day is because it has a custom of apprenticeship like other handicraft industries. According to the three-year rule of apprenticeship, the age of apprentices should not be too old. In the formal ceremony of apprenticeship, a middleman must be invited to build a bridge between apprentices and teachers. In addition to introducing the understanding of both parties, the insurer also needs to assume the responsibility of guarantees. Once the teacher-apprentice relationship is formally established, the insurer is responsible for his actions during the apprenticeship period, including compensation for economic losses. Therefore, the role of insurers usually have certain economic strength and social status.

This skill is slowly marginalized.

The Xiangshan School relies on its own secret skills to stand on rivers and lakes and live in all directions. In the long history of more than 2,000 years, the construction skills and cultural heritage of the Xiangshan School are handed down from generation to generation by means of craftsmen, fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, relatives and neighbours. Without such inheritance, there would be no unique construction technology of Xiangshan School. 

Such inheritance combinations have different development trends, resulting in different times and periods. The history of the rise and fall of the craftsmen in Xiangshan School is also like the ups and downs of the tide. 

In the early years of the Qing Dynasty, Xiangshan School craftsmen set up workshops in the construction industry in urban and rural areas of Suzhou, and also engaged in building materials business. During that period, the construction business of Xiangshan School was depressed, and the craftsmen engaged in their own business after farming. By the middle of the Republic of China, water and wood workshops and construction factories appeared successively in Dongshan, Mudu, Guangfu, Xiangcheng and other towns in Wu County, Suzhou. According to the statistics of the Records of Urban and Rural Construction in Wu County, there were more than 2000 craftsmen in Wu County and Dongshan, Mudu and Hushuguan, accounting for 60% of the total number of craftsmen in the county at that time. All large-scale buildings in Wu County were constructed by Xiangshan craftsmen, which once showed the revival of Xiangshan School. 

During the period of the Republic of China, there were also construction industry associations in Wu County. There were 561 members, including 24 townships and 491 urban districts. Dongshan Town was one of the most concentrated construction factories. There were as many as 20 large and small construction factories and water and wood works. According to the size of the project, the number of employees in construction factories and waterwood workshops varied from 20 to 200. When Yao Chengzu, a patriarchal craftsman of Xiangshan School, built the Xijia Garden, the number of workers has been more than 100. But a good time never lasts long. By the late 1940s, with the social and economic recession, construction factories and waterworks could only employ 35 people to undertake some maintenance projects.


Picture: Yuxiu Garden, Singapore

In the early 1950s, the Suzhou Landscape Management Department organized the folk craftsmen to repair the Lingering Garden, Humble Administrator Garden, Huqiu Scenic Area, Grace Garden, Pavilion of Surging Waves and Lion Forest Garden, etc. This repair project has a large scale, high technical requirements and a large number of gathered talents. It can be said that it is a major inspection of the scattered folk craftsmen of Xiangshan School. It also brings together the main old craftsmen of Suzhou Gardens Group, which lays a foundation for the inheritance of the architectural skills of Xiangshan School. After this large-scale restoration project, Suzhou established a professional garden construction team.

In 1979, Suzhou Classical Landscape Architecture Corporation (the predecessor of Suzhou Gardens Group) undertook the construction project of USA – Ming Xuan. Ming Xuan was built in the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the layout design of that draws the essence of the Nets Garden in Suzhou. It is a classic masterpiece of overseas gardens and regarded as an eternal exhibit in the history of cultural exchanges between China and the United States, and has become the first example of garden export in China, creating the pioneer of “garden art” export. Since then, Suzhou Gardens Group has undertaken more than 50 overseas garden construction tasks. Xiangshan School craft and Suzhou landscape culture have become the world brand of Chinese business card and national culture in foreign exchanges.


Picture: President Nixon visits Ming Xuan

The revitalization of Xiangshan School was in the 1980s, when construction teams at the township levels in Suzhou were set up one after another. Plus the individual rural households, more than 22,000 construction practitioners were active in the forefront of the market economy in Wu County. A group of craftsmen of Xiangshan School have the courage to initiate and inherit the traditional building techniques, start a company to find projects all over the country. There are Suzhou Ancient Construction Team and Construction Company in many provinces of China.     

After the reform and opening up, China’s economy has regained vitality and the construction industry has risen, and Xiangshan School craftsmen have returned to the historical stage. In May 2006, the traditional architectural techniques of Xiangshan School have been listed in the first national intangible cultural heritage list. In September 2009, the traditional construction techniques of the Xiangshan School in Suzhou were selected as the world intangible cultural heritage as the traditional wood structure construction techniques. In recent years, the rapid development of urbanization in China has also stimulated the demand for ancient construction technology, and the demand for ancient construction craftsmen has been growing gradually. In fact, since the late 1980s, the traditional ancient construction technology began to appear with few successors, and less people really grasp the essence of Xiangshan School’s construction technology. Nowadays, there still remain four traditional construction techniques of Xiangshan School, and Lujiayaozu is one of these. Only Lu Yaozu and Xue Lingen are the national inheritors of the construction techniques of the Xiangshan School in Suzhou.

“This skill has been slowly marginalized.” Lu Yaozu honestly said. Xiangshan School is facing the challenge of talent gap. The younger generation has better career choices and is seldom willing to learn the traditional construction technology as a career. And all kinds of construction companies and construction teams with the banner of Xiangshan School craftsmanship with mixed abilities appear frequently all over the country, which affects the brand image of Xiangshan School craftsmanship.

Inheritance Is An Ultimate Goal

Shen Weimin, the Party Secretary, Chairman and General Manager said that the traditional construction techniques of the Xiangshan School are facing the predicament of lack of successors and need urgent rescue protection. Most of the national and provincial masters he contacted are old age people. In his views, the construction skills of Xiangshan School on these masters are the treasure of Chinese traditional culture. How to take measures to strengthen the protection of the traditional architectural skills of Xiangshan School, ensure the existence of its inheritance system, and constantly cultivate generations of Xiangshan School craftsmen have become important tasks for contemporary classical architects.  

“The exciting thing is that the state vigorously advocates cultural self-confidence and technological self-confidence. Since 2017, the central government and provinces and municipalities have issued a number of documents on traditional culture, traditional crafts and non-hereditary heritage protection, many of which are almost tailored for the heritage and protection of traditional crafts of the Xiangshan School,” Shen Weimin introduced. 

“It is a systematic and long-term project to promote the inheritance of Xiangshan School’s construction techniques, which can not be achieved in a short time, and requires a lot of manpower and material resources. However, as the main body of the inheritance of Xiangshan School’s traditional construction techniques, Suzhou Garden Group is also a state-owned enterprise. So it is our duty to do this work well. There is a natural sense of mission and responsibility.”

There are only a few top masters like Yao Chengzu, Lu Yaozu and Xue Lingen among more than 1000 members of the Xiangshan School. Being a master of the Xiangshan School depends not only on one’s cultural level, comprehension ability and various factors such as mentoring school, but also on his appreciation and learning ability that is acquired through frequent practice.

The first step of Xiangshan School’s construction of artists’ inheritance work is to design the system of masters’ intergenerational inheritance, to smoothly dock each level including the old, middle-aged and young talent from the national, provincial and municipal inheritance pyramid inheritance system. Suzhou Gardens Group has formulated the Xiangshan Talents Training Program, and devoted 10 million yuan to the talents training of Xiangshan School in 2019.

In April this year, under the witness of provincial and municipal leaders and experts and scholars, Suzhou Gardens Group held the traditional apprenticeship ceremony of three national masters, Lu Yaozu, Xue Lingen, Zhong Jinde and ten provincial and municipal masters. The first batch of 28 apprentices included nearly the half of “post-90s”. “Through the close combination of words, deeds and training, disciples can learn as much as possible about their true abilities. The initial five-year goal is to train 10 national, 20 provincial and 30 municipal masters and craftsmen of Xiangshan School construction technology. Shen Weimin also admitted that it was difficult to achieve this goal, but for Xiangshan School’s ultimate goal. Only by inheritance can the skills be carried forward, and only by inheritance can the spirit of craftsmen be developed. In the process of inheritance and development, we can smoothly solve the dilemma of the fault of Wu County traditional craft inheritance, take talents as the basis, and promote the construction industry of Suzhou gardens to form a complete industrial chain.


Picture: The ceremony of the first batch of 28 apprentices

Yu Haiming, the Vice Director of State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of Suzhou Municipal Government said that the implementation of “Xiangshan Talents Training Program” will undoubtedly enhance the core competitiveness of Suzhou Gardens Group and lay the foundation for the sustainable and high-quality development of enterprises. Meanwhile, it can further spread the culture of Xiangshan School and Suzhou gardens, and act on the spirit of craftsmen and cultural self-confidence in the new era with practical actions.

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