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A Study of the Three Buddhist Copper Hall Projects, 1602–1607

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The copper hall was a special type of building in Chinese architectural history. It imitates traditional Chinese timber architecture in terms of structure, but with all its components cast out of copper alloys and then assembled. During the Wanli reign of the Ming dynasty, three such Buddhist copper halls were constructed from 1602 to 1607, and set up at Emei Mountain, Baohua Mountain, and Wutai Mountain. The present article makes several points. First, the three copper halls were from the same design, as determined through historical texts and on-site investigation. In conception, they may have been inspired by Taoist copper halls, but did not follow those particular designs. Furthermore, the author has created a statistical database of all the inscriptions from Wutai Copper Hall and loaded the data into the GIS platform, which was keyed to a historical map of 1582. The data suggest that the patrons of Wutai Copper Hall lived in areas along the Grand Canal, the Sanggan River, and the Fen River; and that the patrons were numerous. The Chan Master Miaofeng was not only an organizer but also an experienced project manager who preferred brick, stone and metal to timber. Under his organizing and management, people from different social classes and communities willingly contributed. Finally, this paper contextualizes the Buddhist building projects of the late Wanli period. The inscriptions in Wutai Copper Hall reliably record a vivid landscape of Ming society. The donation initiated by Miaofeng was not merely a personal action but also an influential event the effect of which lasted for years. The numerous patrons were organized not by the power afforded by any state representative, but by networks of monks, nuns, merchants, local religious communities, and pilgrim associations. Copper halls, especially Wutai Copper Hall, are excellent evidence for how religious monumental projects were organized, managed, and implemented in late Ming society.


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