During the Qing Dynasty (清朝:1644–1912), there was a legendary architectural family who had been responsible for construction and restoration of imperial buildings, including many of the China’s current UNESCO world heritage sites for over 200 years.
Their family name was Lei. In China, people respectfully called them “Yangshi Lei”, which is a term referring to the emperor’s head architect.
The Lei family folklore tells the glorious achievements during the eight generations of Yangshi Lei on Chinese architecture. It started in early days of the Qing Dynasty when the central government agency in Beijing summoned Lei Fada and his relative from Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, to rebuild Taihe Palace in the Forbidden City.
With his sophisticated skills, Lei Fada became an imperial builder and his reputation began to spread widely. Lei Jinyu, his son, followed this path. Having inherited and learned both techniques and position from his father, Jinyu, as a chief imperial craftsman, also made great architectural achievements such as rebuilding the summer imperial residence at Yuanmingyuan (圆明园)—the Old Summer Palace—and constructing Changchunyuan (畅春园)—the Qing Dynasty’s first royal garden.
It was under the reign of Emperor Qianlong, from 1736 to 1796, when the fourth generation of Lei family undertook designs of many significant buildings from that time. Until the last imperial chief architect from the family took office in the 20th century—Lei Xiancai—each successive Yangshi Lei had built famous buildings, such as the Temple of Heaven (天坛), the Summer Palace (颐和园), and the Chengde Mountain Resort. The number of UNESCO World Heritage sites the Lei family created number more than one fifth of all the spots in China.
In 2007, UNESCO added the Leis’s architectural drawings and diagrams to the list of intangible cultural heritage for its significance and influence on Chinese modern imperial architecture. Although, the descendents of the last Yangshi Lei apparently had tough times living through in the first half of 20th century, the architecture of the great Lei dynasty are still shining through the age.
Another insight into Chinese architecture