Wenchang Buildings in Late Imperial China

A Consideration of the Visual Record in Late Imperial Local Gazetteers


  • Daniel Burton-Rose Wake Forest University




Late Imperial period, local gazetteers, Daoism, Suzhou, Wenchang


Structures dedicated to the high god Wenchang and his subordinate Kuixing were a pervasive feature of cityscapes in late imperial China. Common in Daoist and Confucian temples as well as schools both public and private, the buildings also broke free from walled complexes as stand-alone attractions. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the practice of building a high structure as a geomantic intervention to improve the collective prospects of local candidates on the civil service examinations — first attested in the Southern Song — combined with devotional practices to the Daoist god Wenchang. The present article considers the range of visual sources available on these structures, the questions that can be asked of these images, and the written textual source that complement the visual record. A case study from Suzhou demonstrates the ways in which the visual materials in gazetteers on the Wenchang towers in a particular locality can shed light on urban spatial dynamics and contests for power among local elites.




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All Siku quanshu (hereafter SKQS) editions refer to texts accessed through the Kanseki Repository (https://www.kanripo.org/), which are available as a digital facsimile of the Wenyuan ge exemplar juxtaposed with the searchable transcription.


Changzhou xian zhi 隆慶長洲縣志 (Changzhou County Gazetteer). Longqing ed. Facsimile reproduction in Tianyige cang Mingdai fangzhi xuankan xubian 天一閣藏明代方志選刊續編. Shanghai: Shanghai Shudian, 1990.

Chiping xian zhi 茌平縣志 (Chiping County Gazetteer). 1935.

Fengcheng xian zhi 鳳城縣志 (Fengcheng County Gazetteer). 36533. 1921.

Liaoyang xian zhi 遼陽縣志 (Liaoyang County Gazetteer). 1928.

Pingshun xian zhi平順縣志 (Pingshun County Gazetteer). H00B3. Kangxi ed.

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Wu xian zhi 吳縣志 (Wu County Gazetteer). Preface dated 1642. Facsimile reproduction in Tianyige cang Mingdai fangzhi xuankan xubian, v. 15–19. Shanghai: Shanghai Shudian, 1990. Also included in Erudition Gazetteers database.

Zhenxiong zhou zhi 鎮雄州志 (Zhenxiong Departmental Gazetteer). 91819. 1887.

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Burton-Rose: Wenchang Buildings in Late Imperial China




How to Cite

Burton-Rose, D. (2022). Wenchang Buildings in Late Imperial China: A Consideration of the Visual Record in Late Imperial Local Gazetteers. The Journal of the European Association for Chinese Studies, 3, 59–84. https://doi.org/10.25365/jeacs.2022.3.burton-rose



Visual Materials in Local Gazetteers