AsiaNow Speaks with Aurelia Campbell

Aurelia Campbell is Associate Professor at Boston College and author of What the Emperor Built: Architecture and Empire in the Early Ming, published by University of Washington Press and winner of the 2023 AAS Bei Shan Tang Monograph Prize.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

My book is about the architectural projects of third emperor of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Di, who ruled as the Yongle emperor from 1402-1424. Yongle was prolific builder and, fortunately, many of the buildings from his reign survive today. Examining how and why the buildings were constructed, I argue that Yongle’s architectural projects were key components in his approach to emperorship, his sense of empire, and his imperial legacy. 

What inspired you to research this topic?

The inspiration for this project actually began while I was still a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania. I came to Penn to study Chinese architecture. As a student, I noticed that even though an abundance of Ming dynasty architecture survives, scholarship on it had been significantly neglected in contrast to that on architecture of earlier periods in China. Therefore, I decided to write my dissertation on something related to the Ming. While preparing for my comprehensive examinations, I read as much as I could on the topic and, in the process, noticed that some of the most remarkable surviving Ming buildings had been commissioned by the Yongle emperor. This included a hall made out of metal on the highest peak of the Daoist Mount Wudang in Hubei and an imperial style architectural complex at a Buddhist monastery in Qinghai, at the Sino-Tibetan frontier. Yongle had also commissioned two of the most well-known sites in premodern Chinese architectural history: the Porcelain Pagoda in Nanjing and the Forbidden City in Beijing. Unfortunately, the pagoda was destroyed during the Taiping rebellion and, although the imperial palace still exists, the majority of the Yongle-era buildings were reconstructed over the course of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Nonetheless, given the great deal of interesting-sounding architecture Yongle commissioned, I felt that there might be a good story to tell. Although I wrote my dissertation on just one site (Qutan Monastery in Qinghai), it was clear that in order to convey the complete picture of Yongle’s architectural ambitions, I eventually would need to investigate his building projects as a whole.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

Because Yongle built so expansively, the fieldwork for this project was oftentimes exhausting. Between 2009 and 2017 I made seven research trips to China. During these trips, I traveled to sites in far-flung regions multiple times to make sure that I understood the buildings well enough to write about them. Now that I’m older, I’m not sure I would be able to do that kind of research again! But truth be told, the most difficult and frustrating part of the process happened after I finished the book: securing the permissions for all the images I published, which took months. To meet the high standards of the University of Washington Press, I also had to hire a professional illustrator to redraw dozens of the architectural line drawings—another very time consuming process that was particularly stressful given that I was working under a tight deadline. In terms of what was easier than expected, perhaps surprisingly, the archival research. I was lucky to be accepted into three-week long workshop at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin to test out a new digital tool they were developing that allows you to easily search key terms across hundreds of local gazetteers (difangzhi 地方志). This tool was invaluable for locating information on the Ming and Qing court’s use of nanmu as a construction material. The findings from that workshop made up much of the second chapter of my book.

What is the strangest/funniest/most outrageous/most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

Yongle was such a fascinating character that some of the most interesting aspects of my research involved trying to understand his psychology. It is well known that Yongle usurped the throne from this nephew, whom he killed in the process. After spending several years reading about Yongle, it was apparent just how deeply his past haunted him. It was almost comical how far Yongle and his sycophantic officials would go to spin every event in his favor while still feigning modesty. For instance, when a large nanmu tree fell on its own in the forest, Yongle’s officials saw it as a sign that Heaven had offered the timber up for the imperial construction projects on account of the emperor’s great virtue. But Yongle did not want to take credit for it and instead attributed it to mountain spirits. A huge deal was made of the “miraculous” event: Yongle ordered an inscription to be composed by a high official documenting it in hyperbolic terms, and it was retold in several different textual sources. Likewise, when the architectural complex at Mount Wudang, created for the Daoist deity Zhenwu, was completed, Yongle dispatched officials to the mountain to record in words and images all the miraculous occurrences that had taken place. They documented some pretty fantastical scenes of rainbow light and even the deity himself emerging from the clouds with his retinue. Of course, all of these outrageous anecdotes made the book much more fun to write.  

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

So many books were inspirational in my research! But the following books stand out as being particularly useful in shaping my approach: Hok-lam Chan’s Legends of Building Old Peking (University of Washington Press, 2008); Patricia Berger’s Empire of Emptiness: Buddhist Art and Political Authority in Qing China (University of Hawai’i Press, 2003); William Coaldrake’s Architecture and Authority in Japan (Routledge, 1996); Craig Clunas’s Empire of Great Brightness: Visual and Material Cultures of Ming China (University of Hawai’i Press, 2007); and Timothy Brook’s The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (Harvard University Press, 2010). Although it was published after my book, Making the Palace Machine Work: Mobilizing People, Objects, and Nature in the Qing Empire, edited by Martina Siebert, Kai Jun Chen, and Dorothy Ko (Amsterdam University Press, 2021) complements my book quite nicely.

Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, scholar, professor, or person living in the world?

I’m currently turning my academic attention away from the imperial and expansive and towards places of a more intimate scale: individuals’ tombs, specifically in the Ming dynasty. The Ming has been significantly overlooked in art historical scholarship on tombs, which tends to terminate in the Yuan, leaving a lacuna about what happened afterwards. Yet hundreds of tombs from the Ming have been excavated and they yield quite extraordinary material finds. Moreover, Ming tombs present an interesting problem in that they are more simplified with regard to tomb design and decoration than earlier tombs. In the Ming, you rarely find painted or sculpted decoration mimicking aboveground architecture, as was common in earlier periods. Why was this the case? I’m fascinated by what the artifacts selected to accompany people in death can tell us about how people lived, what they valued, and even what they believed in terms of their conceptions of life after death. I’m enjoying the research process, but the challenge will try trying to see the tombs and objects in person one day.