In the 1930s, the couple began surveying and recording the country’s overlooked ancient buildings, in an effort to begin preserving them.
Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. We launched Overlooked to tell the stories of women who left indelible marks on society, but whose deaths went unremarked by our newspaper. Now we’re expanding our lens to include other notable people — many of them marginalized — who were omitted.
Many of China’s ancient architectural treasures crumbled to dust before Lin Huiyin and Liang Sicheng began documenting them in the 1930s. In China, ancient structures were usually treated like any other buildings rather than being protected and studied, as they were in many Western countries. The husband and wife team were among the first preservationists to operate in China, and by far the best known. Their efforts have since inspired generations of people to speak out for architecture threatened by the rush toward development.
Becoming China’s premier architectural historians was no easy feat. The buildings they wanted to save were centuries old, often in shambles and located in distant parts of the country. In many cases, they had to journey through treacherous conditions in the Chinese countryside to reach them.
Exploring China’s outlying areas during the 1930s meant traveling muddy, poorly maintained roads by mule, rickshaw or on foot. This was a demanding undertaking both for Liang, who walked with a bad limp after a motorcycle accident as a young man, and Lin, who had tuberculosis for years. Inns were often squalid and lice-infested, food could be tainted, and there was always risk of violence from rebels, soldiers and bandits.
Their greatest discovery came on an expedition in 1937 when they dated and meticulously catalogued Foguang Si, or the Temple of Buddha’s Light, in Wutai County, Shanxi Province. The breathtaking wooden temple was built in 857 A.D., making it the oldest building known in China at the time. (It is now the fourth-oldest known).
Liang and Lin crawled into the temple’s most forbidding, forgotten areas to determine its age, including one aerie inhabited by thousands of bats and millions of bedbugs, covered in dust and littered with dead bats. Liang wrote of the experience in an account included in “Liang and Lin: Partners in Exploring China’s Architectural Past,” the English-language story of their lives written by Wilma Fairbank, their close friend and correspondent.
“In complete darkness and amid the vile odor, hardly breathing, with thick masks covering our noses and mouths, we measured, drew, and photographed with flashlights for several hours,” Liang wrote. “When at last we came out from under the eaves to take a breath of fresh air, we found hundreds of bedbugs in our knapsack. We ourselves had been badly bitten. Yet the importance and unexpectedness of our find made those the happiest hours of my years hunting for ancient architecture.”
Though Lin and Liang worked to save remnants of ancient China, their lives were inextricably entangled with modern Chinese history.
Liang was born in Tokyo on April 20, 1901, where his father, Liang Chi Chao, a diplomat, was stationed. Lin was born in Hangzhou, China, on June 10, 1904. Children of prominent families, they both lived and studied abroad and grew up to be open-minded intellectuals when much of Chinese society was constrained by strict traditions.
Their families knew each other, and they journeyed to the United States together to attend the University of Pennsylvania in 1924. Lin was enthusiastic about studying architecture, but the university’s architecture school would not admit her because it was considered improper for young ladies to work late into the night, unsupervised, with young men. So when they graduated in 1927 Lin earned a bachelor of fine arts degree, having taken classes in architecture, and Liang became the official architect, earning a bachelor’s and later a master’s degree in the field. But they always worked together.
“I think they saw each other as partners, not as business but as life partners,” Nancy S. Steinhardt, a professor of East Asian art at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the couple’s work, said in a telephone interview. “It’s not clear who did which parts of drawings or articles they wrote; they were a team.”
At first glance they made an incongruous couple. Lin was a glamorous, vivacious polymath who wrote poetry, fiction, criticism and drama, and made her home into a kind of intellectual salon.
Liang was a highly focused architect and teacher who could be taciturn, but warmed to people once he knew them. Their differences proved complementary, much to the benefit of Chinese architecture.
Lin entertained several suitors as a young woman, including the poet Xu Zhimo, but married Liang in Canada in 1928, where they traveled after their graduation. After several months in Europe they returned to China, where Liang and Chinese colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania founded the architecture department at Northeastern University in Shenyang, the country’s second architecture program. His academic writings and lectures from the 1930s were eventually bound and released as “A History of Chinese Architecture,” a rare effort to write a comprehensive book about the subject.
During the early 1930s, after moving to Beijing, they began regular expeditions into the Chinese countryside to seek out some of the remaining ancient wooden structures, surviving examples of the architecture Mr. Liang detailed in his book.
Their explorations ended when Japanese forces invaded China in 1937. In 1940 the extended Liang family, now with a young daughter and a son, relocated to a cottage they built in a village near Kunming in southern China. Lin’s tuberculosis got worse, and the straitened circumstances of wartime made life all but intolerable.
During the war they used their copious notes, photographs and drawings to continue writing about architecture. When the war ended Liang became a visiting professor at Yale and China’s representative to the committee that designed the United Nations building in Manhattan in 1949. Lin, burdened by caring for her family and by illness, remained in China.
After the Communist takeover in 1949, Liang and Lin, archetypal bourgeois intellectuals, became fodder for Communists trying to display party loyalty. Lin did not have to endure the mistreatment for long — her health worsened, and she died of tuberculosis on April 1, 1955, at 51.
But Liang, who had returned to China to care for her, was accused of being a counterrevolutionary and endured re-education and public shaming from party officials. He was also powerless to stop the demolition of the ancient walls and gates that surrounded Beijing — he argued for their preservation, but Maoist forces wanted to reinvent the city as an industrial center. Still, he continued to work and teach and eventually remarried. He died on Jan. 9, 1972, at 70.
The work of Liang and Lin lived on, with the help of Fairbank and Liang’s second wife, Lin Zhu. Decades after Liang’s death, they tracked down his lost drawings and photographs. Fairbank combined them with his written work to create “A Pictorial History of Chinese Architecture,” which was published in 1984. It is an in-depth look at Chinese architecture, documenting many buildings that no longer stand.
Lin and Liang have also become folk heroes in China, their lives recounted in novels, films and a documentary series. But developers in Beijing were less concerned with preserving their legacy than with progress. In 2012, under cover of night and to the dismay of preservationists, they demolished the house where Liang and Lin had lived during the 1930s.