What the Emperor Built Architecture and Empire in the Early Ming

Aurelia Campbell

One of the most famous rulers in Chinese history, the Yongle emperor (r. 1402–24) gained renown for constructing Beijing’s magnificent Forbidden City, directing ambitious naval expeditions, and creating the world’s largest encyclopedia. What the Emperor Built is the first book-length study devoted to the architectural projects of a single Chinese emperor.

Focusing on the imperial palaces in Beijing, a Daoist architectural complex on Mount Wudang, and a Buddhist temple on the Sino-Tibetan frontier, Aurelia Campbell demonstrates how the siting, design, and use of Yongle’s palaces and temples helped cement his authority and legitimize his usurpation of power. Campbell offers insight into Yongle’s sense of empire—from the far-flung locations in which he built, to the distant regions from which he extracted construction materials, and to the use of tens of thousands of craftsmen and other laborers. Through his constructions, Yongle connected himself to the divine, interacted with his subjects, and extended imperial influence across space and time.

Spanning issues of architectural design and construction technologies, this deft analysis reveals remarkable advancements in timber-frame construction and implements an art-historical approach to examine patronage, audience, and reception, situating the buildings within their larger historical and religious contexts.

Campbell cover final


  • $65.00 cloth, 9780295746883
  • $65.00 ebook, 9780295746890
  • 240 pages
  • 109 illus., 58 in color, 7 x 10 in.

about the author

Aurelia Campbell is an assistant professor of art history at Boston College. She specializes in China, with a particular focus on the Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Her most recent research has centered on imperial architecture of the early Ming, when official buildings underwent a major structural shift. This is the subject of a number of her articles and book chapters as well as her first book. She is engaged in several ongoing research projects, including an examination of Tibetan Buddhist stupas and urban space in the capital city Dadu during the Mongol-ruled Yuan period; an art historical, environmental, and economic history of Dali marble from Yunnan province during the Ming and Qing dynasties; and a study of Ming dynasty tombs, about which we know very little in contrast to those of earlier periods.

Her research has been supported through grants and fellowships from the Millard Meiss Publication Fund, the James Geiss Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Asian Cultural Council, and the Metropolitan Center for Far Eastern Art Studies, among others. She has spent over five years living in China (including in Beijing, Kunming, Ningbo, Shanghai, and Xining), and since 2018 she has been involved in the creation of an English dictionary of Chinese architectural history terms in collaboration with scholars from Vanderbilt University and Southeast University in Nanjing. During the 2016-2017 academic year she was a visiting scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany.