Home » FeatureSpring 2011

Portal through Time and Space

by Mardy Fones One Comment

Tracy Miller’s study of Asian architecture reveals a people, culture and history.

Tracy Miller admires a Ming dynasty (1368-1644) tomb model house that’s part of Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery’s permanent collection.

Buildings represent a three-dimensional record of a people, art and culture. For Tracy Miller, associate professor of history of art, tracking these facets of medieval Chinese life through free-standing timber frame buildings is a passion and an exploration that began early.

“My grandmother painted furniture in the chinoiserie style,” Miller says, explaining her early exposure to China through the decorative painting technique.

Later, as an art history major at Arizona State University, Miller took a Chinese painting survey class. “In Chinese paintings, there is a sense of a landscape through which you can walk, as though it’s a portal, a way to travel through time and space,” Miller says. She stepped through that portal, becoming fluent in Mandarin and spending three years studying language and architectural history at Chinese universities in the 1990s. She later earned a doctorate through the University of Pennsylvania’s Asian and Middle Eastern Studies program.

History and Culture through Architecture

Miller is the artist in a technically minded family. Her mother is a mathematician and software test specialist. Her siblings and father are engineers. “Math is interesting, but it doesn’t thrill me,” she says. (Even so, she does find herself with a math renaissance as she runs multiplication drills with her third-grade daughter while driving. She and her husband, Peter Lorge, a senior lecturer in the history department, have another daughter, age 5.)

Miller’s academic specialty is the art and architecture of East Asia, with an emphasis on ritual sites in China between 618-1644 C.E., and the ways in which regional identity is expressed through construction techniques.

She makes frequent trips to Shanxi Province, where 70 percent of premodern Chinese architecture is located. Key in her research are the timber bracketing systems that support the roofs of ritual structures such as temples and palaces, bracket systems that are also replicated with masonry in tombs.

“These buildings and bracket systems are markers of self-awareness and self-confidence in a specific time and place,” Miller says, explaining that her work documents Chinese regional identity which persisted despite new rulers who sought to import styles from other regions. “The style of the bracketing is helpful in tracking the path of architecture and culture as the southeast increased its influence over north-central China from the 10th through the 13th centuries.”

Studying the construction styles, Miller is able to create an in-depth picture of the geo-political forces that drove design of ritual sites and influenced architecture, culture and history. Her current research is for a second book regarding Chinese medieval architecture; her first, the award-winning The Divine Nature of Power: Chinese Ritual Architecture at the Sacred Site of Jinci, was published by Harvard University Press in 2007.

Adventures in China

China’s increasing receptivity to Westerners has expanded and quickened the pace of her research. “I used to spend a lot of time waiting for people to tell me ‘No, [you] can’t have access,’ ” she says. “Now you talk to locals and let them know you’re not there to steal or take pictures for a glossy magazine, and they say, ‘Talk to Mr. Lin. He has the key.’ Things are more open now, but it is China. They could close at any time.”

Her China trips typically consist of 10 intensely focused days visiting rural locations where she photographs, documents and moves on to the next site. “I’m trying to get a sense of [medieval buildings] while looking at regional and cultural forces through architectural style,” she explains. “Ultimately, that means seeing as many free-standing buildings as possible and searching for patterns to see how things are the same, how they differ. If access gets sticky, sometimes I just have to move on.”

Each trip to China is both a journey into the familiar and an adventure in the unknown. In many rural areas only the local dialect is spoken, sometimes causing difficulty in communication. This is compounded by her “foreign” blonde hair and fair skin. She recalls trying to get directions to a temple site, while overhearing a growing crowd of curious locals saying, “What language is she speaking? Is she speaking German? Is it English? Russian? Oh, wait, she’s speaking Mandarin.”

Each trip to China is both a journey into the familiar and an adventure in the unknown.

Other adventures are both humorous and intimate. Miller, at 5 feet, 4 inches, says in China she frequently is the tallest woman in a group. In the ’90s, an older woman was overcome by curiosity and began stroking Miller’s then waist-length blonde hair.

In Taiwan, where Miller and Lorge studied classical Chinese with a local professor, a slip in Chinese etiquette—handing their teacher cash in payment for lessons—once yielded quick correction. “The professor said, ‘Next time, use an envelope. This isn’t a grocery store,’ and handed the cash back,” Miller recalls. “In both China and Taiwan, teachers of all levels garner great respect.”

In the Classroom

While her trips to China, Japan and Korea further her understanding of art, architectural history and tradition in Asia, Miller prizes her time in the classroom. Current courses include the art of Japan and a study of East Asian architecture and gardens. Last semester, she taught a writing seminar for first-year students that was titled House, Temple, City—Sacred Geographies of China.

“I love teaching freshman. They’re so open, so interested,” Miller says. “When you teach freshman, you have the luxury of talking about issues as if you didn’t know anything. Freshmen will challenge you, not just about your thinking but about the information itself. They keep me sharp.”

Miller also serves as acting director of the Asian Studies program in the College of Arts and Science. Her hope is that some of her students will find their life’s work in the study of China and build Vanderbilt’s role as a center for research of all things Asian.

“Vanderbilt is looking toward finding a footprint in Asia,” she says. “As we get to the point in the History of Art program where we’re considering a graduate program, some of these students may be a part of it, and we’ll be able to attract excellent people who will help us build it.”

photo credit: Tracy Miller, John Russell

One Comment »

  • Maureen said:


    Just wondering if you are aware of present day copies being made of these miniature houses that were found in Chinese tombs.

    Maureen Dutler