China has a unique and time-honored architectural tradition, dating back to the Zhou era 2,500 years ago. Discover the reasons behind its features and how China's architecture reflects Chinese culture. Since ancient times, several types of architecture have been traditionally built by the Chinese, and they are introduced here.
General Features of Chinese Architecture
Wooden buildings had intricate roof frameworks.
Since ancient times, the people built wooden buildings, structures built with rammed earth, and buildings and structures built with stone or brick. Each of these kinds of construction had different features. The buildings were built to survive the frequent earthquake, typhoon and flood disasters and to be easier to rebuild. Along with survivability and ease of renovation, the buildings reflected and helped to propagate social order and religion.
Preference for Lumber Construction
China's culture originated thousands of years ago along the Yellow River and Yangtze River. In the environment of the river basins, the seismic activity and frequent flood disasters prompted the people to build flexibly using wood for most buildings.
The thick forests then were a ready supply of lumber. The wooden architecture has distinctive features that changed little from the Zhou Dynasty (1045–221 BC) era up until early modern times when China adopted Western architecture.
The basic features of traditional lumber architecture were a stamped earth base, load bearing wooden pillars that were not planted into the foundation, and slightly flexible brackets. These design features made the buildings resilient to earthquake and storms, and they also allowed for reconfiguration, expansion and reconstruction if the buildings were damaged.
See more on Chinese Wooden Architecture: Why Wood Was Used and How.
Heavy Overhanging Roofs
On large buildings, such as this in the Forbidden city, roofs might overhang the walls by several meters.
A noticeable feature of the traditional wooden buildings are the heavy ceramic tiled roofs with wide eaves and slightly upturned corners. The builders considered it important to cover wooden buildings with overhanging roofs. This was to protect the building from weathering since wood rots much faster when it is wet. The wide eaves also provided shade in the summer, and in the winter, the slanted sunlight warmed the buildings.
As you can see in the picture of a building in the Forbidden City, in traditional buildings, the eaves were not supported by columns past the walls. The eaves might overhang the walls by several meters. Since ancient times, durable ceramic tiles were the favorite roofing material, but they were heavy.
Rammed Earth Buildings
A Hakka earthen building, Fujian
In places where a clan's compound faced the danger of attack such as the Hakka villages in Fujian, people built earthen buildings 土楼 (tǔlóu). In these compounds, thick walls of rammed earth and sometimes bricks and stone were built in a circle without windows, and inside dwellings were constructed.
See more on Hakka Earthen Buildings.
The Interplay of Architecture and Culture
The various styles of architecture that have been built since the Zhou era reflect how the various Chinese people over the centuries adapted to the environment. The architectural designs conformed to their needs and culture and also helped to propagate social norms and order.
Wooden Courtyard Compounds
Courtyards traditionally played an important role in family life.
In most areas, where the clan families felt safe enough to live permanently and did have not face frequent attacks and wood was plentiful, the clans built easily modifiable wooden courtyard compounds for three generations. This is the typical style for clans that could afford to build and maintain such compounds.
Because the clans could more easily modify their dwellings as their needs changed over time, clan members found it advantageous to stay put on clan properties instead of moving on to another plot of land to build a new compound. They could renovate and more easily repair the damage from disasters and avoid relocation, so family members had to learn to live in enclosed compounds with little personal space throughout their entire lives even as their roles changed as they aged.
This type of housing arrangement served to propagate generation after generation the ancient traditions that dictated how families were to interact and of the roles and responsibilities of the members such as piety towards parents, respect for the elders, women's traditional roles, and etc. These courtyard compounds were called siheyuan (四合院) that means 'four combined courtyard.'
Whether for imperial palaces or the courtyard buildings of peasant clans, there were several rules that dictated how to best build compounds such as three sections along a north/south orientation, symmetrical layouts, one-story design, southern entrances, and inner courtyard space.
South Facing Orientation
This long narrow courtyard that was oriented north/south allowed the sunlight to warm the main building with the big doorway.
The south facing orientation had a practical reason. When courtyards were built with taller buildings in the north north and in the south shorter walls facing east and the west, it allowed the maximum amount of sunlight to warm the building during the winter months when the sunlight was angled strongly from the south.
This is particularly a northern Chinese feature.
This is why the door and windows of the main building faced southwards and opened over the inner courtyard that let in the sunlight. So the main building that held the ranking older members of the family who also most needed warmer living quarters during the winter was placed to the north of the courtyard.
On the south side of the compound were the servants and guard quarters near the main gate to the compound that was always placed on the southern side of the compound. In this way, if enemies entered, they would have to pass by the servants and guards first before they reached the children and younger married couples quarters on either flank. The most protected building furthest from the gate was the main house for the older/ranking members.
Symmetrical layouts of the compound with the larger main building in the center of the compound flanked on all sides by smaller ones or gates placed symmetrically helped to buffer the important main building from the elements or attacks from the outside. So the side and southern buildings blocked the wind and also shielded the main northern building from arrows or other projectiles of attackers.
One-story buildings survive earthquakes and storm winds better than multistory buildings. It is more difficult to build strong multistory buildings with wood. So for both commoner dwellings and the residences of the rich clans, officials, and the imperial clans, low buildings were the preferred style except in the southeastern corner of China where there is little earthquake activity. There, if a clan could afford it, they could build two-story buildings. A thick, tall wall sometimes served to protect their buildings from occasional typhoons.
In northern China, if a compound had a two-story building, the second floor was usually a balcony set as part of the north wall of the compound that protected the main residence from attack and the elements. This pavilion that was higher than the rest of the buildings also reinforced the higher status of the elders.
Fengshui Design Principles
Fengshui is geomancy. The principles of this philosophy/religion dictates how to locate, orient, and build habitations and towns for the best effect. It accords with Taoist ideals of harmony. These design ideals were thought to promote the occupants' health, wealth and happiness, and through following these principles, builders thought to direct the flow of the qi energy as part of Traditional Chinese Medicine practice. See more about Fengshui and Chinese Construction.
Heaven Worship and South-North Orientation
To signal its importance and the importance of the emperors' ceremonies in it, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at the Temple of Heaven was among the three tallest buildings in Beijing.
Since ancient times, it was believed that Heaven was at the North Star, and this was where the supreme god who was originator of the earth, China and all people lived. They believed this because the stars and all of Heaven seemed to wheel around it.
So within their compounds, the clan heads were positioned closer to heaven than the others in the clan, and they also saw themselves as the representatives of the clan to Heaven. The northern part of the compound was considered the most important section for this religious reason as well.
The south-north orientation and religious and social order is apparent in the construction of the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Ming Tombs. Heaven worship is most clearly seen in the designs of the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven.
Three-gateway entrances (central one for important people, smaller ones either side for less important people), like those of the Forbidden City, were a sign of China's heirarchical culture.
Their choice of layout of their compounds was not only due to practical reasons. The design and layout tended to reinforce social and religious ideas and the dominant status and role of clan rulers.
Since ancient times, the society was hierarchically stratified as espoused in the teachings of Confucius (~551–479 BC) and other ancient teachers. All through history, the societies have been strongly hierarchical with the emperor or king at the top, parents served by the children in the tradition of filial piety, and the servants or slaves at the bottom. The rulers of a clan and of the nation aimed to promote their status by having the biggest and most imposing dwellings.
Reflecting the traditional social code, according to the tradition of filial piety, a clan's compound was usually sectioned into three parts if they could afford the expense. In the most important, choice northern section, the heads of the clan who were usually the eldest, the grandparents, lived in the biggest and tallest structures. Their children lived in the middle section with their children, and the less important relatives, servants, and guards lived in the smallest quarters on the south.
To impress their dominance, the clan rulers would almost always live in the tallest and biggest structure. It was against their rules for others of lower rank to live in a similar-sized or bigger dwelling. They would sit in the highest seat and have the biggest dwellings, and this served to psychologically impress subservience on those of lower rank. The lowest class were housed in the smallest dwellings, so they would feel that they were subservient and less important socially, and thus the design of the structures served to preserve the social order.
The Predominant Role of Emperors
Forbidden City plan view: click to enlarge
Ancient Chinese imperial buildings included palaces, government offices, and military defensive projects. The imperial dynasties demonstrated the political control of the particular era by building the largest, most imposing structures. Generally, their architectural style was formal and solemn, and they were centrally located and built in grand scale in order to promulgate the society's formal hierarchical order.
The Temple of Heaven was one of the three tallest buildings in Beijing at 38 meters (125 feet) when it was built by the Ming court. It was equal in height to the two tallest buildings in the Forbidden City, the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the Wu Gate, that both measured about 38 meters (125 feet high) at the roof ridge.
The emperors' Hall of Supreme Harmony was the biggest and tallest building in the Forbidden City for court functions, and to the north of it in the emperors' residential inner courtyard, the second biggest building of the palace complex, the Palace of Heavenly Purity, was originally built to be the dwelling of the emperors. In the Qing Dynasty, however, emperors started to use it for other purposes. The empresses' smaller palace was set to the north.
Twice a year, the emperors would go to the Temple of Heaven to perform special sacrifices and ceremonies that were thought to be essential for the continuance and blessing of their domains. The extreme size of the buildings of the emperors and of the Temple of Heaven marked both the importance of the emperors who were worshiped as gods, and the importance of their religious functions in society. Others were not allowed to build bigger buildings than theirs throughout the whole empire.
See more on Forbidden City Architecture.
Other Major Types of Architecture
Xi'an City Wall
The lumber construction was the most common architectural style for both commoner and imperial dynasty residences, but it wasn't the only traditional style. To build towers, mausoleums, fortresses, bridges and other kinds of architecture, they usually used rammed earth, brick or stone. Ethnic minority groups had their own preferred architectural styles.
Ancient (imperial) Chinese architecture started developing very rapidly from the Han Dynasty (206 BC– 220 AD) onwards. At this point, builders had mastered earth ramming skills for city walls and the Great Wall and knew how to fire tiles and build with cut stones.
During the Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–907) dynasties, kiln firing techniques improved, and brick structures became more popular.
Mausoleums and Tombs
Ming Tombs mausoleums were made in brick.
Though for inhabited buildings, they usually used wood, for mausoleums and tombs, they used stone and bricks to make permanent structures. The dead didn't need to remodel their tombs. So it was more logical to build permanent structures to house their remains.
The mausoleums and tombs were designed and located according to fengshui principles, so most Chinese mausoleums were built on or near mountains. Other distinguishing features include a path leading up to the structure.
Chinese Landscape Gardens
Gardens and courtyards were an important part of clan and official compounds.
Garden and courtyard architecture was considered very important for the compounds of imperial clans, officials and wealthy clans. Fengshui principles determined the layout so that they could control the cosmological and health effects of the various elements of the gardens.
Read more on China's Top 6 Beautiful Gardens.
The architectural style of traditional Chinese residences was functional and suited to local conditions.
For example, in Southwest China, bamboo houses suited the muggy environment and local resources well.
In the northern part of Shaanxi Province where the weather is cold and dry in winter, the loess-carved dwellings were good at retaining heat and were cheap to construct.
During the Sui Dynasty and afterwards, some builders demonstrated special skill in the construction of stone bridges that have survived through centuries of earthquakes, floods, and wars.
The 1,400 year old Zhaozhou Bridge is celebrated as China's oldest standing bridge and the oldest open-spandrel stone bridge in the world. It is remarkable because iron was utilized for supporting and stabilizing parts that allowed the bridge to slightly adjust due to earthquakes, the settling of the ground, and environmental changes.
Wong Tai Sin Temple in Hongkong.
China has four official religions. Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity have a long history in China.
Since the Chinese imperial court contributed to the introduction of Buddhism in China, Buddhist buildings in China normally followed the imperial style of construction, which was glorious and grand.
Taoist buildings in China were closer to the style of buildings for commoners compared to the other religious buildings. They are usually built compactly with brick to be strong enough to last a long time.
Muslim architecture in China was a blend of traditional Chinese and Middle Eastern styles.
As for Christianity, most churches in China follow Western architectural designs.
Read more on 5 Types of Ancient Chinese Architecture.
Elegance and Decoration
There was always an emphasis on beautiful style. Existing examples of ancient Chinese architecture are greatly praised for their elegant profiles and varied features such as overhanging eaves, upturned roof corners, and different shapes of roofs.
The unique exteriors not only satisfied a practical function, but they also had wonderful appearances. They are good examples of practicality and beauty combined.
Most traditional Chinese buildings strictly followed an axis-centered principle with symmetrical wings. The biggest building was in the center, and on either side, they constructed smaller buildings as need arose. Along with practical reasons for the symmetrical design described above such as for protection, the style accords with their aesthetic standards for harmony, balance and symmetry that date from Shang Dynasty times.
Decorative column and dougong bracket.
Architects in ancient China paid special attention to color and adornments, from the whole building to specific parts. They used different colors or paintings according to particular building functions or local customs. Buildings were often quite colorful.
Carved beams, painted rafters, various patterns, inscribed boards, couplets hung on the pillars, and wall paintings were used to add a colorful and beautiful style to interiors.
Stone lions, screen walls, ornamental columns, as well as flowers were used to decorate the exteriors of buildings.
Modern Chinese Architecture
Sanlitun in Beijing.
Nowadays, few buildings are being built in wood in Chinese cities. Modern buildings are built with less expensive concrete and steel. The Chinese have adopted Western building methods.
However, they might still design buildings according to traditional styles and utilize fengshui concepts to orient and design buildings. For example, modern apartment complexes are usually built around a central courtyard/playground.
Read more on Modern Chinese Architecture.
Explore the Ancient Architecture of China with Local Experts
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- 4-Day Emperor's Tour of Beijing - Discover the ancient architecture and history of Beijing with a knowledgeable guide.
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