10/23/2019 Peter Durantine

Autumn Research Fair 2019: Student Explores Taoist Reflections in Chinese Architecture

Deeply curious about China’s culture, Franklin & Marshall senior Paige Alexander spent her junior year in Beijing, where she engaged the language through an immersion program and went on to research art, architecture and religion.

“I really like Chinese culture, and a big part of that is Taoism, ” Alexander said. “I wanted to learn that cultural aspect, but the communist government there doesn’t really encourage religion, so it was interesting to find spaces where religion was being explored or practiced.” 

A joint major in art history and Chinese, Alexander researched how architecture, such as Buddhist temples, fostered communities of Taoism, which is viewed as a religion and a philosophy. 

  • “I really like Chinese culture, and a big part of that is Taoism, ” Alexander says. “[T]he communist government there doesn’t really encourage religion, so it was interesting to find spaces where religion was being explored or practiced.” “I really like Chinese culture, and a big part of that is Taoism, ” Alexander says. “[T]he communist government there doesn’t really encourage religion, so it was interesting to find spaces where religion was being explored or practiced.” Image Credit: Deb Grove

“I found those spaces represented the ideals of Taoism,” said the John Marshall Fellow. “I had to climb mountains to get to these temples.”

She studied one of the main concepts in Taoism, yin and yang—the negative and the positive, the dark and the bright, the feminine and masculine. 

“The way to represent that is having water and land,” Alexander said. “A lot of the temples would have rivers in front of them and mountains behind them, mountains that are taller than the one they were on because the Chinese feel it’s balanced that way.” 

Alexander focused on how yin-yang principles project in temple spaces.

“Temples would be constructed according to yin and yang. The main temple was physically located in the center to represent yin and yang, and then around it there were eight different stone structures that represented the eight directions surrounding yin yang,”  she said.

Professor of Art History Amelia Rauser said Alexander used her analytical skills, gained from her F&M art history courses, to determine Tao’s relationship in Chinese culture. 

“Paige’s campus studies prepared her well for the field research she did in China,” Rauser said.

  • In China, says Alexander "the balance in nature means mountains ... " In China, says Alexander "the balance in nature means mountains ... " Image Credit: Paige Alexander
  • " ... and rivers." " ... and rivers." Image Credit: Paige Alexander
  • "I saw both while hiking to this temple," Alexander says. "This space was arranged according to yin and yang principles, which means the temple is in the center, representative of yin and yang." "I saw both while hiking to this temple," Alexander says. "This space was arranged according to yin and yang principles, which means the temple is in the center, representative of yin and yang." Image Credit: Paige Alexander

While in rural areas and mountains, Alexander found nature and religion provided an essential balance she rarely found in Beijing. “There wasn’t as much of a sense of nature or religion,” she said.

Yet, Tao seemed everywhere. “The principles of Chinese medicine are based on Taoism and this sense of balance,” she said. “Every food is associated with either fire, water, earth, metal or wood.”

Her roommate praised her consumption of Pomelo, a Chinese grapefruit; it had a fiery quality that provided balance.

“A lot of Chinese thinking and society are built on Taoism, but not everyone necessarily acknowledges that,” Alexander said. “If the Chinese government didn’t support it, they would just get rid of it.”

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