The Biography of an Architect

Leou, Tzong-Yeun (773 A.D.-819 A.D.)

    My brother-in-law's house is in the Virtue-Brightening Village. One day an architect knocked on his door and asked to rent a room. The only tools that he had were a ruler, a compass, thread and a bottle of ink for marking lines. He had no sand paper, knife, or saw. I asked the architect what he could do. He said, "I am good at using wood. Based on the design of a house, I use an appropriate type of wood and hire a group of carpenters to work for me. Without me, the carpenters could not even build one house. Consequently, if I work for the government, my salary will be three times as high as that of other workers. If I work for a private individual, I will take half of the total payment."

    The other day, I went to the architect's room. His bed was short one leg and he could not fix it. He said, "I will ask someone else to fix it." I laughed at him openly because I considered him incompetent and greedy.

    Later, the mayor was about to remodel his office building. I passed by the site and saw piles of wood and a group of workers. Each worker carried either an axe, a knife, or a saw, and stood around the architect. The architect carried a ruler in his left hand, held a cane in his right hand, and stood in the center of the circle of workers. After calculating the required strength for the columns and beams, and evaluating the sturdiness of various types of wood, he brandished his cane and said, "Chop!" Those who carried axes ran to the right. Then the architect turned back, pointed at a pile of wood, and said, "Saw!" Those who carried saws rushed to the left. After arriving at their proper positions, the group paused to look at the architect and wait for him to nod that it was alright to begin. It appeared that the workers did not dare to make their own decisions. Those who proved incompetent did not dare to protest when the architect furiously ordered them to leave. The architect drew a blueprint on the wall. It was only about a square foot in size, but it described his design in great detail. I realized that if his accurate design for a high-rise were followed exactly, then not even a slight error could occur. After the remodeling was completed, he inscribed his name and the date on the beam of the building. The names of other workers were not listed. After I examined the office building carefully, I was amazed at his work and understood that it required great skill.

    Then I praised him, saying: "The architect discards the skill of manual labor so that he can concentrate on the building design. He alone holds the essential knowledge required to build a high-rise." I have heard that one who thinks has people working for him, and one who performs manual labor works for someone else. The architect is a thinker. Wise people design, and people who have skills execute the design. The architect is a wise person. The talent and wisdom of the architect are of the same high quality that is needed for one to assist the emperor and become a competent prime minister. There is no better example to illustrate the ideal prime minister. One who governs the nation relies completely on his officials to execute his policy. Of the officials who execute the prime minister's policies, the least powerful are local officials, rural masters, and village masters. Above them are knights, barons, and viscounts. Finally, at the highest level are earls, marquises, and dukes. The central government is divided into six ministries: Ministry of Supervision, Ministry of Education, the Senate, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Justice, and Ministry of Agriculture. These ministries are further divided into various departments. National guards and foreign affairs officials are stationed at each border. Each state has a governor, and each city has a mayor. They assist the central government in executing the prime minister's policies. Below them are secretaries and local officials. Ranking even lower are park rangers, editors, and librarians. Each official has his own duties just as the architect’s workers have various labor skills to make their living.

    In the same way that the architect uses a ruler, a compass, and a line marker and ink to design a special building, the prime minister helps the emperor govern the nation, appoints talented people, and gives them various duties. He directs and orders them to execute his policies. The prime minister lists important guidelines and modifies them as needed. He also issues the law codes and constantly amends them to accommodate social changes. The Prime Minister selects talented people to fulfill job requirements and make all people I China feel secure so that they can concentrate on their work. By watching the capital, one can understand a citizen's life in the countryside. By watching the countryside, one can determine if a nation's politics are on the right track. Whether a problem is imminent, distant, important, or trivial, one can easily follow the Prime Minister's policies to obtain a solution. It is like the architect drawing the blueprint on the wall and workers following the design to complete the task. The Prime Minister should appoint talented people to appropriate positions so that they do not feel that they have obtained their positions because of personal favors. He should fire those who prove incompetent; because they lack skill, they do not dare to complain. A prime minister should not boast, be proud, do trivial jobs himself, or infringe upon the duties of his subjects. He should discuss government policies with distinguished scholars as the architect should use skilled workers to execute his design. Then the correct approach to being a prime minister is realized, and state affairs will be well managed. Once the prime minister comes to understand the correct approach and learns to manage the state affairs well, all people in China will lift their heads in admiration of his effort, and say, "Our Prime Minister is accomplishing great work." The later generations will follow his legacy and say, "That prime minister had great talent." When Chinese scholars discuss the accomplishments of the Shang and Chou dynasties, they only mention the four great prime ministers: Yi, Fu, Chou, and Chao. The work of their officials were not recorded. It is similar to the situation in which an architect puts his name on the wall to assume all the credit and fails to list the workers who executed his design. It cannot be overemphasized that it is extremely important for a prime minister to understand the correct approach. Only a competent prime minister can understand this truth. A prime minister who fails to understand the priority of his work performs ineffectively. He considers diligence as an accomplishment and maintaining appearances of quality his most important work. He is proud and boasts of his talents. He does small jobs himself, inappropriately takes on work that should be performed by the six ministers, and infringes upon the duties of various officials. In his office, he is always argumentative about trivial things and overlooks important and enduring values. This so-called prime minister does not understand his job priorities. He is like an architect who does not know how to use a line marker to draw curves, use a ruler or compass to draw a right angle or a circle, or use these tools to measure. Such an architect robs other workers of their axes, knives, and saws to execute his poor design himself. The truth is that a prime minister cannot do everything alone, and by attempting to do so he fails to accomplish anything. It would be absurd for a prime minister to spend tremendous effort and accomplish nothing of worth.

    Some may argue, "Suppose the owner of a building considers it clever to contravene the architect's design and override the professional experiences inherited from the architect's ancestors with a layman's advice. If the building subsequently collapses, one should not blame the architect since the owner neither trusted him nor allowed him to follow his design."

    I said, "This is not the correct attitude for an architect. Rulers, compasses, and threads and ink are tools for building design. When applying these tools, one must follow the rules of architecture: The high structure cannot be condensed into a low one. The narrow structure cannot be expanded to become a wide one. If one follows the design, the building will have a solid structure. If one fails to follow the design, the building will collapse. If the owner of the building chooses the shaky design instead of the solid one, then the architect should retrieve his design, keep his wisdom silent, and resign in relief. A good architect should not lower his standards. Suppose an architect is greedy for material gain. He would allow the contraventions, and would not pass up a lucrative opportunity. Suppose he also forsakes the principles of architecture and as a consequence comprises the quality of his work to meet the owner's demands. If a beam were to bend and the building were to collapse, such an architect would say, “It is not my fault." Is this right? Is this right?

    Since the profession of an architect is similar to that of a prime minister, I wrote the architect’s story and treasure this manuscript. An architect, in ancient times, was referred to as the one who studied the shape and strength of various wood. The surname of the architect I met was Yang. I withheld his first name.