Art as architecture, poem as dwelling place: Arthur Leung’s “Earthen Houses”

Arthur Leung’s “Earthen Houses” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #14 of Cha

-This post by W.F. Lantry was awarded one of the Highly Recommended prizes in the Fine Tea Competition 2011.

In my own homeland, the preferred building material was adobe. It’s easy to understand why: there aren’t many trees in the desert southwest, and not many quarries either. All you need for adobe is dirt and straw. You can dig the dirt yourself, gather the straw and build a house almost like a cave, cool in summer, warm in winter, perfect. Many people did, and life was good.

It was good, at least, until the 1872 earthquake. 7.4, they say. All those adobe houses collapsed. There’s an old saying that quakes don’t kill anyone, buildings do. Since the quake happened in the middle of the night, most of the people in the region were lost. That was the end of adobe houses in the Mojave Desert. Most of the survivors picked up and left, heading for the seacoast.

We’re only talking a few thousand people, it wasn’t like the Shaanxi earthquake. In that area, people lived in loess houses. If you’ve never seen one, imagine an entire hillside made up of clay-like silt. You don’t actually need to build anything, you simply dig out the hillside. It’s perfect, just like adobe: cool in summer, warm in winter. You only need to build a door, all the walls are living earth. Millions of people thrived there.

Until the 23rd of January, 1556. The earthquake measured 7.9. Not huge, as such things go. But it shook down whole hillsides of loess houses. Some say a million people lost their lives in a few minutes. Some of the survivors of that earthquake, and many other quakes, before and after, picked up and went to live somewhere else.

But where? That same loess silted up the river, and caused flood after flood on the northern plain, some of them as bad as the earthquake. And then there were the wars, the invasions, even wandering bandits. Some people headed south, never forgetting what they’d left behind.

Whether by choice or necessity, they stopped in Fujian, where the mountains were high and the Emperor was far away. When they decided to build new homes, they kept those three problems in mind: earthquakes, floods and roving bands. And they invented the tulou.

It’s as simple as adobe: rammed earth on a stone base, the earth reinforced with strips of bamboo, the same way we use strands of fibreglass now to reinforce concrete. The buildings were often circular, with tile roofs and an open air centre courtyard. Some were three or four stories tall and housed dozens of families. All the apartments faced inward to shared space. The walls were so thick, and so well-built they were completely earthquake proof. Since the base was well-laid stone, they were immune to floods. And even if you brought a thousand men to attack one, the people inside could hold out for months.

To read Arthur Leung’s poem, “Earthen Houses”, to read it well, you need to know all this. But it’s just a starting point. In the poem, just as in a tulou, the walls lean inward, pushing together against gravity, and this is what gives the structure its strength. The apartments that line the inner circle are framed with wood, and a few, like the one at Yuchanglou, are built in a zigzag pattern. If you scan Leung’s poem, you’ll notice the same pattern. Look closely at the first stanza (see below): line one is perfect pentameter, but line two is shortened. The same happens in the inverse at the stanza’s end, the last line longer than its predecessor. In fact, the poem mirrors the architecture almost perfectly. The poem could almost serve as building guide, a kind of artful Yingzao Fashi.

Perhaps you wonder how mud fortifies
rammed earth walls like these
as though our wood frame tulou treads against
the weight of mountains. We blend with stones, branches,
bamboo chips and let gravity push together
the blocks, doors facing the water well.
If we open the third-storey windows
autumn will slip in and whistle for harvest.

When you’re done reading it, you could build a tulou yourself.

Note too the tone. Leung addresses the reader at the beginning: ‘Perhaps you wonder how mud fortifies’ (L1, emphasis added), to explain the technique, then draws the reader in, almost as an invitation to join in the communal experience, the shared living space. He invites the reader in the way the residents invite the autumn, with open windows and soft whistles.

And the autumn suggests a harvest, the warmth of a hearth, a feast. Persimmons are already on the table, the cabbage brought in from the fields. In a tulou, when one family is grilling a caught goose, the aroma permeates the entire space. In such a season, there’s abundance for everyone.

Some say the oldest continually maintained human structures are the rice terraces of southern China. I don’t know if that’s true, just as I don’t know why Leung chose to italicize the phrase “eat rice” (L16). But rice fields and terraces would have surrounded most tulous, keeping famine at bay. Even though the giant forest mushrooms of Yunnan are far away, perhaps only a legend, the peaceful harmony of the structure itself encourages feasting.

I have long believed that we read poems not simply to experience a beautiful object, or a skilful composition. Whether or not a thing of beauty is indeed a joy forever seems to me completely irrelevant. I am convinced we read works of art so that we may live, if only for a few minutes, within the mind of the artist, that we may think his thoughts, see through his eyes. Yes, a piece of jade must be polished before it becomes beautiful, I understand that. But I don’t think we should be trying to add to the world, to make something happen, to change it. Rather, we should be looking for new eyes. Art in general, poetry in particular, can give us that, another kind of vision, a new way of looking at the world. The poet, in other words, can construct a new dwelling for us, using the materials at hand: language, sound, verbal images. We should be able to live inside the poem, and experience the world as the poet does.

That’s the great gift Leung gives us as we read. He has built a place we didn’t imagine, even though it has long existed, and we get to dwell inside it for a little while, to smell the scents, to hear the clamour, to feel the light winds of autumn on our skin.


Arthur Leung was born and raised in Hong Kong. His poems have been published in anthologies such as Hong Kong U Writing and Fifty-Fifty, as well as in numerous magazines and journals including Smartish Pace, Yale Anglers’ Journal, Loch Raven Review, Existere, Mascara Literary Review, Bravado, Poetry Kanto, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Crannog Literary Magazine, Pulsar Poetry Magazine, Magma Poetry and elsewhere. Leung has served as external editor for Yuan Yang and as guest poetry editor for Cha. He was a winner of the 2008 Edwin Morgan International Poetry Competition. In 2009, Leung was commended by the Home Affairs Bureau of the Hong Kong SAR government for his outstanding artistic accomplishments. [Also see Leung’s Cha profile.]

5 Responses to “Art as architecture, poem as dwelling place: Arthur Leung’s “Earthen Houses””

  1. Pey Says:

    “Eat rice” is italicised because that is what many Chinese people say when about to dig into their bowl of rice: they pause to make sure everyone round is also ready to eat and there is a chorus of: “Eat Rice!” When we were children, we had to call all the adults to “eat rice” before we could begin, and it had to be hierarchal in my family, Grandfather first, then Grandmother, then eldest Uncle ect ect

  2. t Says:

    Thank you, Pey.

  3. Arthur Leung Says:

    Many thanks for Pey’s elaboration. In fact “eat rice” was not italicized in my earlier version of the poem and then I wondered if “eat the rice” should sound more natural to the non-Chinese ear, but that might attenuate the cultural association that Pey described.

    When I learnt that Cha was going to launch a “China Issue”, I thought of submitting for their consideration something uniquely Chinese which hasn’t been much featured in the literature in English. I am very grateful for Lantry’s commentary which indeed enriches the poem in profound and meaningful ways!

  4. Asian Cha Says:

    From Poetry After Ink: “Back to the competition theme; A Cup Of Fine Tea have just announced the winners of a competition to write thought provoking articles on poems, stories, and photographs featured on Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. What I particularly like about this idea is that it refocuses attention on the original works, all of which are extremely deserving of your time. I loved Earthen Houses by Arthur Leung, and without W.F. Lantry‘s commentary, I would never have understood the historical context of the buildings described, or how the form of the poem describes the tulou’s sound structure.”

  5. Panax Ginseng: Poems, Places, Habitations | Lantern Review Blog Says:

    […] buildings of which he writes. W.F. Lantry offers a close reading of the poem’s rhythmic structure here, discussing the way earthen houses are constructed and making the general argument that poems are […]

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