top of page

Rebuilding Chinese Society Through Architecture - The Story of Lin Huiyin

Lin Huiyin Portrait. Photograph retrieved from Fujian Daily. Date Unknown. ©

Looking upon the world at night, the great shift of human population out of a rural, agricultural lifestyle into cities can be observed. Every time new and brighter spots are appearing on the globe at night. China in particular has experienced rapid urbanization over the last decades. However, a transition to an urban lifestyle is more than simply changing residence, but a mental shift of a society, which is transforming into modernity. Building upon the recognition of architecture, this contribution introduces the trajectory of Lin Huiyin (林徽因),who was the first female Chinese architect. In that position she managed to not just (re)build architecture but moreover bridges between cultures by overcoming boundaries.

Dream society in a built society

All around the world cities represent a certain type of society and its ideas of living together. “Buildings talk about democracy and aristocracy, about openness and arrogance, about threats and friendly welcome, about sympathy for the future or the desire for the past” (Botton, 2008, p. 71). Architecture implies endowing certain values, norms and visions onto a particular spot, representing the present, while dreaming of the future. “Anything can become a home, a place of convergence, a privileged site, to the extent, that every urban space bears within this possible- impossible, its own negation” (Lefebvre, 2003, p. 39). Summarizing in short terms, utopia are “dreamt societies” (Sargent, 2005, p. 11) with cities serving as materialization of those utopian dreams. In fact cities are posing as “built social history” (Siebel, 2012, p. 201), telling a particular story about people having created and enlivened them.

This is the story of Lin Huiyin (林徽因), a pioneer woman who changed the face of Chinese architecture forever. Huiyin grow up in a time, when women were still marginalized in Chinese society, barred from equal participation in the sociocultural sphere, denied physical, intellectual and social autonomy (Yeh, 1992, p. xlv). Together with her husband Liang Sicheng, (梁思成), the father of modern Chinese architecture, she managed to overcome the boundaries of her time, building bridges between East and West as converging a consciousness of the past with the desire for the future. Both pioneers summarized their mission as following: “I hope that our new architects will preserve tradition in their hearts and at the same time be up to date”(Kalman, 2018, p. 155). Their achievements are still visible in many places today.

Beautiful Music or the Sound of Modernization

On the 10th of November 1904, Lin Huiyin was born into an influential academic family at Hangzhou (杭州) in the province of Zhejiang(浙江). Her grandfather Lin Xiaoxun (林奥勋) was a former member of the renowned Confucian Hanlin Academy and had served as mayor of the city. Likewise, her father Lin Changmin (林长民) was highly inspired by the new Western ideas of modernization, he encountered during his studies in Japan. Luckily, she grew up in an intellectual open environment, which was characterized by a strong openness for innovative ideas including a high commitment for education. This is emphasized by the choice of the name Huiyin, which translates into Beautiful Music", "Good Reputation" or "Good News". During the studies of her father in Japan, she was educated by her well read aunt and her grandfather, who even composed a poem hoping that his granddaughter would inherit outstanding virtues (Lin, 2005, p. 380). After the return of her father Lin Changmin, soon, with him becoming a member of the Senate in Republican China, the family resettled for Shanghai. There, Huiyin received a primarily Western-oriented education, including subjects such as modern history, geography, Japanese and English, taught by home teachers. Such an investment into the daughter was very uncommon for that time (Lin, 2005, p. 380). After the Paris Peace Conference, Lin Changmin became a representative for China at the newly established League of Nations, prompting the family to resettle for Europe. This gave the 16-year-old Huiyin the opportunity to travel through the old continent. Eventually, the family settled down in London, where Huiyin became the owner of an intellectual saloon, where she brought together the Chinese curiosity for the Western ideas and the particular British mind for intellectual clubs exchanging ideas during tea time (ibid. p.13). In 1922 she finished her secondary education in London, receiving a scholarship for the USA (ibid p.385 f.).

Heading for America and the invention of Chinese architects

As a pioneer of her time, Lin Huiyin, and her latter husband, Lian Sicheng, benefitted from Boxer Indemnity scholarships granted as compensation of the Boxer Uprising, or also called Yihetuan Movement (义和团运动,), enabling them to study at the University of Pennsylvania. They were part of the first generation of Chinese architects, studying Western science and then returning to China. As stated by Nancy Steinhardt, professor of East Asian art and curator of Chinese art at the Penn Museum: “They took the Penn education, they went back to China, and they wanted to make a difference in the future of their nation” (Elegant, 2019, p. 50). At that time Pennsylvania was the third largest city in the United States, steaming full of innovations and new ideas, serving as a perfect environment for inspiration. Many museums and cultural facilities were inaugurated at that time. Despite her passion for architecture, women were not allowed to participate in the program, forcing Huiyin to focus on fine arts. Nonetheless, she managed to instruct some architectural classes (ibid. p.52). After her graduation, Lin Huiyin and Lian Sicheng got married in 1928 and went on an extensive honeymoon tour through Europe, visiting France, England, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Germany. In just a few months, they rushed from place to place, seeing everything they had previously studied, among them the famous Bauhaus. Eventually in autumn 1928 the just wed couple returned to China.

Together with three other graduates, they established the Department of Architectural Engineering at Northeast (Dongbei) University at Shenyang (Kalman, 2018, 157 f.). After a few other stations, among those a position as lecturer at the school her father had founded in Fuzhou, Lin Huiyin and her husband settled for Beijing. During the second Sino-Japanese war, erupting in 1936, both had to flee several times, making ends meet by building houses to people recently having gained wealth due to the war. Finally in 1946 they returned to Beijing in 1946, when Liang was invited to set up the Department of Architecture at the Tsinghua University (ibid.p.169).

Besides their architectural endeavours the couple is also famously known for their research on Chinese cultural heritage. During the 1930s both spent much time traversing the country, seeking, and surveying centuries-old buildings. Sadly, in many cases their sketches and photographs are the only vestiges of those buildings, either lost by Japanese bombing or intentional destruction during the cultural revolution (Elegant, 2019, p. 53).

A picture taken of Lin and Liang on the roof of the Hall of Prayers for Good Harvest of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing in 1936 stands as an iconic moment, with Huiyin transgressing gender boundaries, when women still were mostly restricted to the domestic sphere, transgressing society and family, as well as transgressing between tradition and modernity (Song, 2014, p. 62). Their reputation was this influential, that even People's Liberation Army General Fu Zuoyi (傅作义) visited the architect couple to identify the most important historical and cultural building as well as sites, which should be spared from shelling (ibid.p.83). After the proclamation of the People's Republic, they were highly involved in the reconstruction and modernization of Beijing, even saving many spots from the modernistic spirit of rebuilding the city in a contemporary style.

Conserving the past while building the future

Both architects Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin came from privileged families and were deeply influenced by the Confucianism of their fathers. Both intended to combine new ideas of modernization and innovation from the west with Chinese traditional values. Their architecture is highly influenced by the concept of of ti-yong( 体用), which represents a balance between the essence of (Chinese) learning (ti) and (western) practical use (yong) (Kalman, 2018, p. 157). Here, “ti” stands for the physical thing, the ontological existence, or the fundamental code, like the true nature. Conversely, “yong” describes the function or the application. Any ti-yong relationship ti provides the basis on which yong depends (Pohl, 2018, p. 57). This can be best described by a quote of 19-year-old Huiyin: “We must learn the fundamental principles of all art only in order to apply them to designs distinctly ours. We want to study methods of construction that mean permanency.” (Elegant, 2019, p. 52). During this time, Western influence seemed to dominate even in architecture. Like most Chinese intellectuals of their time, Lin and Liang were convinced that China’s civilization could only be reconstructed through “the re-examination of its national heritage.” Therefore, both invested a tremendous effort in examining a writing about the importance of Chinese architecture. For that purpose they invested many efforts in elaborating upon the core characteristics of Chinese features. Their most iconic achievement on that was “Qing Structural Regulations” (清式营造则例). Herein the couple, Lin Huiyin and Lian Sicheng, together studied the Forbidden Cities in all their details, creating the standard work for studying ancient Chinese architecture. Both intended to create their own Chinese interpretation of contemporary architecture, converging modernization, and Chinese tradition. Foremost, their “translation” of old architectural jargon into modern terms made this field intelligible and accessible for a generation of contemporary young Chinese architects.

A depiction of a high-rise building from their book “Imaginary Pictures of Architecture” (1954),shown below, illustrates their vision. Despite the tremendous height of the building, it is a reminder of classical Chinese architecture (Kalman, 2018, p. 174), or as they figured out: “Chinese architecture is essentially of wood. […] Even structures in masonry are mere imitations of wooden forms in brick or stone.” (ibid p.160).

Sketch for ‘a high-rise building of thirty-five stories,’ from ‘Imaginary Pictures of Architecture,’ 1954. ( found in Kalman 2008:175)

Their introduction of a western scientific approach was revolutionary. A contemporary historian, Fu Sinian, argued that history should not follow any “ism,” but simply collect “objective evidence.” Conversely, educated in Western style, Liang, Lin and their colleagues first developed a theory and after that tested it on the buildings they researched. “In other words, each building became physical proof of their preconceived theory” (Zhu Tao, 2012, p. 30). This approach was noteworthy, as the classic Chinese paradigm focuses more on practical application than philosophical conception, or prioritizing empiricism over theory (Guo & Radder, 2020, 592–594). Their approach went through three phases. At the beginning, they tried to understand the styles and rhymes of the past, using the tradition unintentionally. After that, relying on a first theoretical ground they tried to rebuild a depiction of an assumed glorious past. Eventually, in the third phase, they came to the conclusion of appreciating the past, while enlivening and innovating it with the possibilities given through modern technology (Sun 2023,p.332).

According to their research Chinese architecture is based upon four principles. First, arguing, „ reconstruction is more prosperous than repairs, and does not require the original to survive;“Second, building is based on depicting virtue, with arrogance and extravagence violating the harmony of the composition. Third, the basic of architecture is found in the poems, with classics determing the space for the style. Eventually, as fourth point, emphasizing the importance of such a theoretical work, the knowledge and skills were given from the master to the apprentice in an oral form, rarely recorded in books but building on mentorship. Drawing lessons from the past. building, these pioneers searched to create a timeless modern Chinese architecture, by avoiding rigid imitation, but by encouraging transformative and innovative elements, honing a new Chinese style on its own soil (Chang, 2021). Building on Lin Huiyin architectural art stands as product of cooperation between engineering science and artistic thought (Sun 2023;p.333), encouraging contemporary Chinese architects to understand the past while depicting their vision of the future.

Furthermore, Lin Huiyin made an impact as a salonnière each Saturday afternoon, hosting guests at her home in Beijing. During those meetings she gathered intellectuals from different fields, encouraging conversation in a wide array of topics (Song, 2014, p. 81). Despite her privileged provenience, those salons were also open to a wider stratum of the middle-class including craftsmen and shopkeepers (ibid. p.84). Adding to her unique career, her work as a poet and essayist must also be mentioned.. Most iconic known is her work “Ninety Nine”, where she describes a picture of the social structure at Beijing[3] in the 1930s. Similar to studying the architecture of the past as symbols of an ancient Chinese society, this novel takes the reader as a documentary photographer on a voyage through contemporary China. Here several social disparities and inequalities of the time become visualised. Through this literature the awareness of the social challenges, its temporal and spatial position in a moment of revolutionary changes become visible (Prado-Fonts, 2010, p. 129f.).

Having been infected by tuberculosis, Lin Huiyin eventually died on 1st April 1955, leaving a tremendous legacy. Unfortunately her impact went into oblivion. Despite acknowledging each other as equal partners, her contribution to the construction of modern Chinese architecture was shadowed behind the impact of her husband Liang Sicheng.

An (invisible) heritage

Only in recent years was Lin Huiyin rediscovered by popular culture, to be found in documentaries, series and even an opera dedicated to this female pioneer (Elegant, 2019, p. 51). Nevertheless, her impact on the People's Republic of China is visible at its core. On request of Premier Zhou Enlai (周恩来), Lin Huiyin created the national emblem of the new China, combining the historic entrance to the Imperial City with the new spirit of socialism, visualising, what she was striving for ‘continuity of the old and new culture’ (Kalman, 2018, p. 172).

Concluding, “cities are “built social history” (Siebel 2011:202), with Lin Huiyin living through one of the most transformative years of contemporary Chinese history. Her vision was to support Chinese society with the aim to find a spot in the modern world through architecture, or in her words given in an interview for the Philadelphia Public Ledger in 1925: "I dream of the homes I’m going to build, real homes with children and gardens” (cited after Kalman, 2018, p. 155).

About the Author

Stephan Raab holds two M.A.'s in political science and adult education from the Otto-Friedrich University, Bamberg. Currently, he is president of the Institute for Greater Europe. He has worked in the field of civic education for several actors such as the German Conference of Bishops or the European Parliament. His research interests are mostly in the field of educational diplomacy and global education, focusing on global interrelatedness. You can find his works on twitter at @raab_stephan.


Botton, A. de (2008) Glück und Architektur- Von der Kunst daheim zu Hause zu sein, Frankfurt am Main, Fischer Verlag.

Chang, Qing (2021): In commemoration of Liang Sicheng (1901 ~ 1972); in: Built Heritage 5, 17

Elegant, N. (2019) ‘The Story of Liang and Lin’, The Pennsylvania Gazette, vol. 118, no. 2, pp. 48–53.

Guo, Y. and Radder, H. (2020) ‘The Chinese Practice Oriented Views of Science and their political grounds’, Zygon, vol. 55, no. 3, pp. 591–614.

Kalman, H. (2018) ‘Chinese Spirit in Modern Strength’: Liang Sicheng, Lin Huiyin, and Early Modernist Architecture in China’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch, vol. 58, pp. 154–188.

Lefebvre, H. (2003) The Urban Revolution, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Lin, S. (2005) 一带才女林徽因 [ The most talented woman of the era: Lin Huiyin], Bejing, 作家出版社[The Writers Publishing House].

Pohl, K.-H. (2018) ‘Western Learning for Substance, Chinese Learning for Application’ – Li Zehou’s Thought on Tradition and Modernity’, in Ames Roger and Hershock, P. (eds) Li Zehou and Confucian Philosophy, Honolulu, University of Hawai´i Press.

Prado-Fonts, C. (2010) ‘Fragmented Encounters, Social Slippages: Lin Huiyin´s " In Ninenty Nine Degree Heat"’, Lectora,no. 16, pp. 125–141.

Sargent, L. T. (2005) ‘The Necessity of Utopian Thinking: A Cross-National Perspective’, in Rüsen, J. e. a. (ed) Thinking Utopia. Steps into Other Worlds., New York, Berghans, pp. 1–14.

Siebel, W. (2012) ‘Die europäische Stadt’, in Eckhardt, F. (ed) Handbuch Stadtsoziologie, Wiesbaden, Springer Fachmedien, pp. 201–211.

Sun, Lina (2023): The evolution of Liang Sicheng's construction of Chinese architectural traditions in his drawings (1920s–1930s); in: Frontiers of Architectural Research 12 (2) p. 319-336.

Song, W. (2014) ‘The Aesthetic versus the Political: Lin Huiyin and Modern Beijing’, Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), no. 36, pp. 61–94.

Yeh, M. (1992) Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry, New Haven, Yale University Press.


bottom of page