In the Western world, the concept of a window set in framework did not commonly appear until the 13th century, whereas in China carved-timber lattices as windows were used as early as the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220). By the 8th century, the window became such an aesthetic and emotive feature of Chinese households and imperial palaces that the "boudoir plaint" - whereby a young woman gazes contemplatively out of her chamber's window - became a conventional literary motif among Tang poets. Wang Changling's "By her quiet window," Li Yu's "She lies in a drunken dream before the window," Li Bai's "The window hides her words," and Du Fu's "I will feel always secure by the window" are some examples of prose of the era using fenestration as a metaphorical framework for their verse.
Imperial China's evocative window-themed poetry seemed to have been inspired in part by the creatively intricate latticework of the times; artistic woodcarvings based on geometric principles meant to convey the social hierarchy of the household therein.
These meticulously carpentered patterns became increasingly complex throughout the dynasties, including interlocking shapes and elaborate ornamentation, with each region developing their own characteristic designs.
In industrial China, however, latticework became an unnecessary extravagance, with many home exteriors stripped of decorative woodwork in order to conform to socialist egalitarianism. Fenestration of doors and windows was thusly minimalized to their most utilitarian function.
Qing-era latticework can still be found in Shanghai's more carefully preserved sites, but a stroll through today's last remaining residential laneways reveals that most 19th and 20th century housing adopted the paned-glass cross-casement windows being used in the city's foreign concessions.
Framed in rust-red wooden panels, often secured with wrought-iron bars and, in modern times, frosted or covered in adhesive film for privacy, they may not be sought-after antiques, yet even these simple windows have become cultural relics in their own right, symbolizing the intimacy and openness of these once-densely populated communities.
The dynamic nature of old Shanghai, where one could lean into a neighbor's kitchen window for a chat, is vanishing in its contemporary high-rise developments, along with the musings that China's expressive latticework once inspired. But perhaps 30-story views of the city's space-aged skyline will someday conceive a new generation and genre of poets and poetry.
A longtang (laneway) resident peers up from her kitchen window.
Original Qing-era timber lattice in a residential lilong (laneway) home
Western-style cross-casement window set in stone framework
Ubiquitous 1980s-era floral-pattern adhesive film
Early 20th century eight-paned fenestration
Century-old latticework found in a common shikumen (stone-gate residence) window
Wrought-iron security grillwork in a classic Chinese design
A well-utilized window at a local longtang Photos: Tom Carter/GT