On Ornamental Wings: Qing Dynasty Wooden Corbels

Corbels with Phoenix and Crane, 19th Century
Qing Dynasty; China
Wood and pigments; 27 x 14 x 5 in.
2001.58.13a,b
Gift of Kevin Branch
Diagram dougong holding up a multi-inclined roof,
from the architectural treatise Yingzao Fashi, 1103.
To one degree or another, all objects run the gamut between form and function. In architectural terms this polarity presents itself as the difference between structural and ornamental elements, though now the lines between the two have begun to blur. In much of today’s architecture, the skeletal post and beam structure of buildings causes walls themselves to fall more into the aesthetic category. Chinese architects and builders, due to available building materials and other factors, have been building temples and palaces without load-bearing walls by resting supports on columns for thousands of years. Throughout the centuries this architecture has changed immensely; various components have come into or out of use, or have been moved from one end of the structural-ornamental spectrum to the other. This blog post examines two 19thCentury Qing Dynasty Chinese corbels from the Bowers Museum’s collection previously on display in the John M. Lee Court, and how they underwent this very transition, and their symbolic meaning.
Corbels are a subset of brackets, vertically oriented architectural elements which support either a roof or cornice above. The tendency in Western architecture was to almost exclusively have corbels projecting from walls. However, due in large part to walls not being load-bearing in Chinese architecture, the heavy roofs of Chinese temples and palaces were traditionally supported instead by extremely complex systems of interlocking wooden brackets called dougong which rested on columns. Without any adhesive, interlocking latticework of brackets redistributed the disperse weight of the roof structurally strong points. Despite their wonderful combination of beauty and utility, building styles shifted so that by the beginning of the Ming dynasty, the dougonghad already been mostly ornamental for hundreds of years. It was then that a bracket which closely resembled Western corbels was introduced. The very first of these corbels were trumped up bracing beams which had a good capacity to bear weight. Very much like the dougong, over time the ornamentation of these corbels increased and their structural function ebbed: line drawings gave way to reliefs which, which by the middle of the Qing Dynasty had evolved into purely ornamental openwork carvings.
In the upper left corner of this photograph we can see one of the uses for these corbels at the Fogong Temple Pagoda. Photographed by Gisling, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0.
Often described as the combination of many other birds,
the phoenix interestingly has the legs of a crane.
Detail of 2001.58.13a.
The designs of these 19th Century Qing corbels depict a wide array of subjects. The most common depictions were of scenes from Chinese history, folklore, and mythology. One pair of these Qing corbels in the Bowers’ collection is of the Eight Immortals, a powerful motif which can be seen in other works of Chinese art at the Bowers Museum. Landscapes, flowers, geometric shapes, and animals were also commonly depicted, something that we see in these two corbels, one of which features a phoenix, and the other of which depicts a crane. As these corbels were almost always made in pairs corresponding with their placement in Chinese temples, the two together form an interesting pair with in Chinese symbology. Both phoenixes and cranes hold strong symbolic import in Chinese culture. The usage of the phoenix in Chinese art dates as far back as 8000 years ago and in that time has taken many meanings. In the Qing Dynasty, the phoenix was understood to be the embodiment of female power and usually stood alongside the dragon as the symbolic representation of the Empress of China. For all the multiplicity of the phoenix, the crane quite simply was used as a motif for longevity or immortality. It is thought in Chinese culture that the crane lived over a millennium and after its first six hundred years only needed water to live. After the phoenix and the crane was the most used bird in Chinese art, but it rarely juxtaposed one another as they do here. Unfortunately, many of these corbels were sold without much explanation at temples were being torn down to make way for new buildings, where exactly they came from, and what the phoenix and crane may mean in this context is likely lost to the ages.
Time and the elements have eroded much of the surface of these corbels to the point where their once vibrant pigments have almost disappeared. Though they never bore weight, the corbels of the Bowers Museum do still fulfill their ornamental purpose elevating the beauty of our own John M. Lee Court.
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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