In ancient China, buildings were never constructed with nails or screws, but rather with mortise and tenon joints. In general, the mortise-tenon structure is actually straightforward as it can be considered as a Chinese version of “Lego”. It is a method of combing wood through concave-convex interlock, in which the concave part is called the “mortise” and the convex part is called the “tenon”, and this is the main technique used in traditional building.
However, the intricacy of this early Chinese joinery enabled buildings to stand for thousands of years. Therefore, it was really not hard to imagine the complexity of the mortise-tenon construction. Thus, the ancient buildings that have been preserved are not only examples of early Chinese joinery’s elegance, but also of the great wisdom passed down through generations of Chinese ancestors.
Last weekend, I traveled to Hangzhou to visit artisan Wenhui Liu, who is now devoted to the repair and investigation of historic structures, as well as the invention of the Chinese version of “Lego” – mortise and tenon blocks. In recent years, Liu Wenhui has not only offered many valuable works to renowned museums with architectural models from various dynasties in Chinese history, but has also popularized this old architectural style among people worldwide. Nonetheless, the most remarkable element, in my opinion, was his models’ authentic portrayal of Chinese historical buildings.
“If you can piece this model together, then you will be able to build a real house,” said Liu.
I was afterwards invited to his workshop, where I was also allowed to view the complete manufacturing line. It was there that I realized the work’s depth and intricacy. The workshop is divided into nine sections, the first of which is responsible for transporting and repairing woods before their use, and the final of which is responsible for assembling all the little components that make up the finished product, the structure.
The job was highly meticulous, and each individual was equipped with an exceptionally accurate ruler and a variety of measuring instruments. When I randomly selected two tiny components from the same category, they fit precisely, not a millimeter out of place.
“If there was a deviation of even a millimeter, the product will end up unstable, or wobbly, which is where carpentry needs to be most rigorous,” said Sun.
On the other hand, I was impressed by the mechanization. Apart from the final few sections that require manual modification of the products, the majority of the remaining regions were highly mechanized. However, these high-end and sophisticated pieces of equipment require considerable time to debug and adjust. Then I used my camera to document one of the manufacturing procedures for a particular component.
Later that day, we returned to the office table and discussed our visit. We talked about the cultural significance of these Mortise-Tenon art, as well as the present constraints on the preservation of cultural relics in society, from which I learned a lot …