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Gold Bricks

Palace halls and courts have been paved with bricks for 2,000 years since the Spring & Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.), and this has become a distinctive feature of classical architecture. Today one can see brick-paved floors and grounds in the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Ming Tombs and similar places elsewhere. The bricks so used are called Jinzhuan ('gold bricks').

Naturally not made of real gold, they are so-called because, when knocked, they produce a metallic sound. Another explanation for the name is that they were officially called during the Ming and the Qing dynasties Jingzhuan (capital bricks) because bricks of this quality were meant only for the imperial house in the capital. In time, Jingzhuan came to be known as Jinzhuan or gold bricks. Whatever the reason for the unusual name, they did involve great costs and difficult skills to make and in this sense, the name might not be a great exaggeration.

The area around Suzhou used to be the home of these 'gold bricks'. Lying close to the Grand Canal, it abounds in a kind of fine clay most suitable as the material for compact bricks. To make those meant for the palace buildings, a strict procedure of manufacture must be adhered to. It included selecting the caly, pugging, setting, moulding, drying in the shade and, finally, firing in the kiln. This last process was the most complicated one.

According to The Illustrated Book on the Selection of Bricks, a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) work, (The unburnt bricks) after being put in the kiln, are smoked with smouldering husks for a month, burnt with firewood chips for another month, with twigs for a third month and with pine branches for yet another 40 days-totalling 130 days before they are left to cool down and taken out of the kiln. The cost of a 'gold brick' made this way was 0.96 taels of silver, enough to buy in those days one dan of rice. Another source says that, during the reign of the Ming emperor Jiajing, three years were spent to produce 50,000 bricks of this quality, averaging only 5 bricks per day. All finished 'gold bricks' were shipped to the capital by the Hangzhou-Beijing Grand Canal.

The laying of the bricks, like their manufacture, must follow strict prescriptions. A bricklayer assisted by two helpers could only lay five in a day. Every piece must be ground and polished on site in such a way that, when paved, they fitted perfectly with other pieces, leaving no crevices. The bricks must also be soaked with raw tung-oil so that they became lustrously dark like black jade.

Worn by several hundred years of time and trodden during the last decades by millions upon millions of sightseers, these bricks have largely remained intact, thanks to their rock-like hardness. Now they are from time to time mopped with a kind of high-quality vegetable oil to get a new layer of protection.

Notes:

Dan: a unit of weight (=50 kilograms)

Grand Canal: the (Hangzhou-Beijing) Grand Canal is known as the oldest and longest canal in the world. It was first dug in 486 A.D, 1794 km in length. It flows through the cities or provinces such as Beijing, Hebei, Tianjin, Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

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