The Fascinating Beauty of Ancient Woodcraft
By Zhu Yu & Nicole Leo
In recent years, astounding architectural masterpieces constructed using traditional mortise and tenon joinery reintroduced the art form to the admiring eye of the public.
Unique in its subtle elegance and precision of craft, this ancient joinery art speaks volumes about the ingenuity of early craftspeople. Modern designers are adapting these methods to continually push creative boundaries.
1998 Chi Lin Nunnery, a Buddhist temple complex in Hong Kong, was completed. Over 120,000 cypress wood pieces were joined without a single nail to form the 16 halls and other facilities of the sprawling and magnificent complex.
2010 The China Pavilion was the largest display in the history of the World Expo. The structure is a towering 70 meters tall and colloquially known as the Oriental Crown. Its unique structural component was the use of dougong style, traditional wooden bracketing, to fix layers of the large overhanging eaves. With each tier extending further out and hence much wider at its top, the pavilion stands steady and unshakeable.
2013 The Tamedia Office Building in Switzerland, conceptualized by famed architect Shigeru Ban, was built by securing interlocked pinewood columns and beams with beechwood pins. Devoid of bolts and encased in glass, the structure exudes urban sophistication.
Architectural Legacy of Ancient Civilizations
The most basic form of mortise and tenon joints involves interlocking the mortise hole and the tenon tongue. The pieces are made to fit perfectly, without the use of nails, bolts or glue.
The earliest evidence of this technique dates to more than 7,000 years ago. These joints can be found in the wooden linings in water wells constructed during the Neolithic period, wood-framed houses at the Hemudu Site in Zhejiang, China, and planks of the world’s oldest ritual vessel known as the Khufu Boat from Ancient Egypt. The most elaborate development of this art form can also be found in Ancient Chinese architecture and furniture. In particular, Ming-dynasty furniture emphasized the beauty of natural wood grains through superb craftsmanship which showcased this joinery work.
Miraculous Enduring Strength
No discussion of ancient timber construction techniques would be complete without paying homage to dougong — one of the hallmarks of traditional Chinese architecture. Said to have been invented by Lu Ban of the Zhou dynasty, dougong similarly uses interlocking techniques to secure a complex series of wooden brackets, connecting pillars or columns to roof frames. Multiple interlocking brackets are formed by fixing bow-shaped blocks (“gong”) on top of square caps (“dou”), and repeatedly adding layers of caps and blocks above each other to form a stable structure.
Another amazing feature of dougong is its resistance to earthquakes. In 1996, Lijiang in China’s Yunnan Province applied for its old town to become a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) heritage site. The visit of UNESCO evaluation experts coincided with a devastating earthquake measuring 6.6 on the moment magnitude scale. The walls of numerous old homes and shops collapsed, but the main frames stayed erect, allowing expedited restoration work and the town to be declared a world heritage site.
Several other ancient wooden structures have successfully weathered numerous earthquakes. The 67-meter-tall Pagoda of Fogong Temple of Shanxi Province, built in 1056 by Emperor Daozong of Liao dynasty, is the world’s oldest fully wooden intact pagoda, and has withstood several large earthquakes through the centuries. Dule Temple in Tianjin survived the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, and the Hanging Temple in Shanxi experienced two earthquakes with magnitudes above 6 over the last 40 years.
These miraculous feats of endurance were achieved through the ingenuity of dougong, along with mortise and tenon joinery construction. The dougong brackets lessen the pressure on horizontal beams by transferring weight to the vertical columns, and hence are able to support roofs of substantial weight. The walls are non-loadbearing, used to delineate space rather than support weight. The flexibility of the joint connections in these brackets allows the structure to shift shape and adapt to pressure. Thus even when the walls collapse during upheaval, the structural integrity of the buildings remains.
The mastery of physics, mechanics and material science by engineers and craftspeople from thousands of years ago still has the power to move us to awe and amazement.
Beyond Natural Beauty
Mortise and tenon joints are at the very heart and soul of traditional Chinese wood furniture, starting as early as in the Eastern Zhou period.
As cultures fused during the Wei and Jin dynasties, the daily habit of sitting on the ground evolved to sitting on chairs. Craftspeople continued to adapt this form of joinery into the new styles of furniture throughout the dynasties, reaching the peak of creative application during the Ming dynasty.
Made entirely out of wood without metal connectors, this style of furniture looks seamless, exquisite and refined, shining the spotlight on the natural beauty of the wood grains. Moreover, this allows the furniture to keep its shape and avoid issues such as rusty nails and bolts. Superior wood quality allows the precisely crafted pieces to last up to hundreds or even thousands of years.
Exemplifying ideas from Zen, the meditation chair is one of the most characteristic pieces of Ming-style furniture. It shows off high-quality material and smooth, clean lines in its design, offering inspired comfort and stability. It is wider than most types of chairs to enable one to sit in the lotus position; the armrest and backrest are formed with simple rectangular frames which are hollow within, giving it an air of dignified austerity. Long associated with self-cultivation, it is popular even in modern-day societies. Prolific Danish designer Hans Wegner drew inspiration from the single, curved back-rail armchair of the Ming dynasty, fusing modern elements to create “The China Chair,” which has drawn praise for its gorgeous fluid lines and natural beauty.
Structures built with mortise and tenon joinery can be easily dismantled and reassembled. The 120,000 cypress wood pieces used to construct Chi Lin Nunnery were produced in Anhui, China and shipped to Hong Kong for assembly. The Tamedia Office Building was similarly created by numerous individual wood sections and parts. Be it a towering and intricate complex or a single piece of simple furniture, mortise and tenon joinery allows the structure to be dismantled into its constituent parts to facilitate transportation.
In 2013, movie star Jackie Chan donated four ancient timber structures from the Ming and Qing dynasties from his personal collection to the Singapore University of Technology and Design. Moving two antique houses, a pavilion and a Chinese opera stage from Anhui, China to Singapore was similar to taking apart wood puzzle blocks and putting them back together. This amazing feat would be impossible with modern-day concrete and steel structures.
Moreover, if any part of the structure is damaged, it can be replaced or repaired without having to change the rest of the undamaged pieces. Mortise and tenon woodcraft and the dougong interlocking style are simply incredible — they are sturdy, resistant to earthquakes, sleek and beautiful, portable, lasting, and beneficial to the environment.
Traditional mortise and tenon structures and furniture are treasures of Chinese culture and, indeed, the wider world. This woodcraft is a celebration of the creativity and sophistication of ancient artisans and their dedication to excellence. It is an art form that truly deserves to be widespread for further design exploration. Mortise and tenon joinery is not just an ancient relic, but a functional and beautiful craft with a place in modern society.