Traditional Wisdom Passed On — The Story of a Master Carpenter, Han-jen Hsu
Traditional Wisdom Passed On — The Story of a Master Carpenter, Han-jen Hsu
By Chu Rujun
This article is provided by the Call for Entries Campaign of the Taiwan Digital Archives Expansion Project under TELDAP
Master Hsu and the Martial God Temple (Guanditing, literally “Hall of Emperor Guan”) he built. 
Master carpenter: The hands behind the wood
Architecture is the face of a city. The Forbidden City is to Beijing as the Grand Mosque is to Mecca. Architecture reveals how people live and decorations on buildings serve as cultural symbols. Patterns and signs often provide clues to the faiths of different peoples. Great structures require both a builder and an architect to come to fruition — the former employs a large team of talents to carry out the physical construction while the latter infuses his extensive knowledge and cultural understanding into the design.
A good architect should be familiar with aesthetic, geographic, and cultural considerations as well as have knowledge about engineering, building materials, and trends in the market. Since oriental architecture traditionally uses wood as its main medium, a master carpenter is a natural choice for a project’s architect. The carpenter holds his Tng-ko, a traditional ruler, for precise measurement and serves as the chief-coordinator from start to finish; after all, every step of an architectural project requires complicated, interdisciplinary teamwork. The master carpenter, much like a modern architect, designs structures that fit well with the local environment. Feng sui, local customs, structural dynamics, and aesthetic standards are all taken into consideration. Since a temple is the center of the local faith, its construction places even more responsibility on the designer. Given the importance of the master carpenter, he is also one of the chief worshippers during the beam-raising ceremony of a temple.
In 1986, a tie beam was added to the Martial God Temple. The heavy timber was raised with strips of cloth.
Han-jen Hsu, Master Carpenter
Hsu, a master carpenter who has built 67 temples, was born in Houjia, Tainan in 1929. His father, Tonglu Hsu, who was in the temple and housing construction business, learned from Zhang Dun, a carpenter of the Quanzhou Xidi school. Hsu closely observed his father’s work during his childhood, before starting his apprenticeship at age 17. As an apprentice, he followed his father to construction sites and learned about timber framing. The architectural techniques he acquired are the culmination of a thousand years of knowledge of traditional Han-style architecture in Taiwan.
Han architecture includes mainly wooden structures and involves a number of techniques under two categories — timber framing (damuzuo, literally “big woodworking”) and decorative woodworking (xiaomuzuo, literally “small woodworking”). Timber framing uses beams, posts, and dougong (interlocking wooden brackets) to form complicated joint-and-peg structures of many kinds. Functionally, such design works as a buffer against shock, embodying the significance of flexibility, a concept from the thinking of Laozi, a great philosopher of ancient China and the founder of Taoism. Aesthetically, guatong (melon-shaped components situated on the short wood of a beam), dougong, queti (triangular components situated between a post and a beam, often carved with bird patterns), chuihua (flower-shaped components hanging from the structure), and other components are assembled with joints and wooden pegs, revealing beautiful oriental architecture.
The front hall of the Martial God Temple, Tainan.
Blueprint of traditional wooden structures.
Persistence and determination are essential to learning traditional timber framing. What appears to simply be building blocks actually involves significant aesthetic and social considerations, not to mention on-site coordination and blueprint drawing. Few apprentices are able to successfully acquire all of these skills. Hsu obtained these skills in the traditional way, through hands-on experience with his father. As the demand for timber framing decreased, however, Hsu left and went into the vehicle building business in 1953. In 1958, Hsu returned to temple construction. Contract work gave him the opportunity to share insights with other professionals in the trade. In the face of growing demand for modern construction, he began to wonder what a traditional master carpenter has to offer with his timber framing knowledge.
Standing above the woodworkers is the master carpenter, Tng-ko in hand, who “draws his lines right, cuts with his saw divine, and measures with his Tng-ko of absolute authority.” Tng-ko, a traditional ruler essential to timber framing, is needed every step of the way, from the design phases to the completed construction of a building. The use of Tng-ko and timber framing knowledge form the base on which a master carpenter designs, coordinates, and determines what materials to use for building. In 1965, Hsu picked up his Tng-ko for the first time hasn’t put it down since.
Traditional Architecture Digitized
3D laser scanner.
Architecture sits in the background of our lives. It records our history without saying a word. To appreciate architecture, we can look to its spatial arrangement, style, and cultural significance. To understand it, we can look for clues from its social environment, function, and construction team. But how do we preserve and promote it?
As the seasoned woodworkers age with their knowledge, preservation of such traditional wisdom has become a serious problem. Take Kongo Gumi Co., a construction company in Japan, for example. Since its establishment in the year 578, Kongo Gumi has devoted itself to the preservation of temples and clung onto its mission since then, regardless of changes in environment and building materials. Cultural workers in Taiwan, however, are faced with a much tougher situation. They often have to tap into their own resources to protect architecture and other properties of cultural significance. As valuable architecture decays, seasoned carpenters age. As knowledge of the craft fades, the preservation of carpentry skills has become a top priority.
The Architecture Archives Project: Techniques and Works of a Master Carpenter, Han-jen Hsu is the effort of a research team led by Professor Hsu Min-fu of the Department of Architecture at National Cheng Kung University. The project has digitized the blueprints, Tng-ko techniques, and temple pictures, amounting to 415 pieces of data by Hsu. Representative architecture, such as the Martial God Temple in Houshejia, Tainan, for instance, has also been 3D scanned. The team’s website offers audiovisual recordings of the master’s oral history in order to provide an in-depth, thorough understanding of the subject. The project’s firsthand data from the seasoned master helps preserve precious information on Taiwan’s religious buildings since the Japanese colonization period. The archives are a great contribution to the history of temple construction, academic research, and its future application as a 3D digital guide.
In the late spring of 2010, Hsu was surrounded by students and researchers under a banyan tree in front of the temple. To a group of youngsters typing on laptops, the master explained the process of creating traditional wooden structures in detail before he kindly asked, “Do you understand what I said?” At the age of 80, Hsu should be content to relax at home, yet he is still active in the development of traditional architecture. Hsu has been amazed with advances in modern technology, and was excited when he was shown the see-through 3D models of his works. Needless to say, he also enjoyed seeing his blueprints, Tng-ko techniques, and the rest of his knowledge being passed on via digital technology.
Traditional timber framing forms part of the backbone of our local culture, social identity, religious heritage, and ethnic diversity. As Hsu introduced to us a world of wonders behind the wooden door, the tender smile on his face seems to open a path for the old technology to take on yet another journey.
Lin, Yi-Chun (2008). Computational consideration of recurring the Tng-ko of Taiwan traditional timber frame (Doctoral dissertation)