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Chinese

architecture

Diagram of corbel wood bracket supports ("Dougong") holding up a multi-inclined roof, from
the architectural treatise Yingzao Fashi (1103 AD)
Chinese architecture refers to a style of architecture that has taken shape in East Asia over
many centuries. The structural principles of Chinese architecture have remained largely
unchanged, the main changes being only the decorative details. Since the Tang Dynasty, Chinese
architecture has had a major influence on the architectural styles of Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.
The architecture of China is as old as Chinese civilization. From every source of information literary, graphic, exemplary - there is strong evidence testifying to the fact that the Chinese have
always employed an indigenous system of construction that has retained its principal
characteristics from prehistoric times to the present day. Over the vast area from Chinese
Turkistan to Japan, from Manchuria to the northern half of French Indochina, the same system of
construction is prevalent; and this was the area of Chinese cultural influence. That this system of
construction could perpetuate itself for more than four thousand years over such a vast territory
and still remain a living architecture, retaining its principal characteristics in spite of repeated
foreign invasions - military, intellectual, and spiritual - is a phenomenon comparable only to the

continuity of the civilization of which it is an integral part.


Liang, Ssu-ch'eng, 1984[1]
The following article gives a cursory explanation of traditional Chinese architecture, before the
introduction of Western building methods during the early 20th century. Throughout the 20th
Century, however, Western-trained Chinese architects have attempted to combine traditional
Chinese designs into modern architecture (usually government), with only limited success.
Moreover, the pressure for urban development throughout contemporary China required higher
speed of construction and higher floor area ratio, which means that in the great cities the demand
for traditional Chinese buildings, which are normally less than 3 levels, has declined in favor of
modern architecture. However, the traditional skills of Chinese architecture, including major and
minor carpentry, masonry, and stone masonry, are still applied to the construction of vernacular
architecture in the vast rural area in China.

Features

Model of a Chinese Siheyuan in Beijing, which shows off the symmetry, enclose heavy platform
and a large roof that floats over this base, with the vertical walls not as well emphasized.

Architectural Bilateral symmetry


An important feature in Chinese architecture is its emphasis on articulation and bilateral
symmetry, which signifies balance. Bilateral symmetry and the articulation of buildings are
found everywhere in Chinese architecture, from palace complexes to humble farmhouses. When
possible, plans for renovation and extension of a house will often try to maintain this symmetry
provided that there is enough capital to do so.[2] Secondary elements are positioned either side of
main structures as two wings to maintain overall bilateral symmetry.
In contrast to the buildings, Chinese gardens are a notable exception which tends to be
asymmetrical. The principle underlying the garden's composition is to create enduring flow.

Enclosure

Que towers along the walls of Tang-era Chang'an, as depicted in this 8th-century mural from
Prince Li Chongrun's tomb at the Qianling Mausoleum in Shaanxi
Contemporary Western architectural practices typically involve surrounding a building by an
open yard on the property. This contrasts with much of traditional Chinese architecture, which
involves constructing buildings or building complexes that take up an entire property but
encloses open spaces within itself. These enclosed spaces come in two forms: the open courtyard
() and the "sky well" ().[2]
The use of open courtyards is a common feature in many types of Chinese architectures. This is
best exemplified in the Siheyuan, which consists of an empty space surrounded by buildings
connected with one another either directly or through verandas.
Although large open courtyards are less commonly found in southern Chinese architecture, the
concept of a "open space" surrounded by buildings, which is seen in northern courtyard
complexes, can be seen in the southern building structure known as the "sky well". This structure
is essentially a relatively enclosed courtyard formed from the intersections of closely spaced
buildings and offer small opening to the sky through the roof space from the floor up.
These enclosures serve in temperature regulation and in venting the building complexes.
Northern courtyards are typically open and facing the south to allow the maximum exposure of
the building windows and walls to the sun while keeping the cold northern winds out. Southern
sky wells are relatively small and serves to collect rain water from the roof tops while restricting
the amount of sunlight that enters the building. Sky wells also serve as vents for rising hot air,
which draws cool air from the lowers stories of the house and allows for exchange of cool air
with the outside.

Hierarchical

A stone-carved pillar-gate, or que (), 6 m (20 ft) in total height, located at the tomb of Gao Yi
in Ya'an, Sichuan province, Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD);[3] notice the stone-carved
decorations of roof tile eaves, despite the fact that Han Dynasty stone que (part of the walled
structures around tomb entrances) lacked wooden or ceramic components (but often imitated
wooden buildings with ceramic roof tiles).[4]
The projected hierarchy and importance and uses of buildings in traditional Chinese architecture
are based on the strict placement of buildings in a property/complex. Buildings with doors facing
the front of the property are considered more important than those facing the sides. Building
facing away from the front of the property are the least important.
As well, building in the rear and more private parts of the property are held in higher esteem and
reserve for elder members of the family or ancestral plaques than buildings near the front, which
are typically for servants and hired help. Front facing buildings in the back of properties are used
particularly for rooms of celebratory rites and for the placement of ancestral halls and plaques. In
multiple courtyard complexes, Central courtyard and their buildings are considered more
important than peripheral ones, the latter which are typically used as storage or servant's rooms
or kitchens.[2]

Horizontal emphasis
Classical Chinese buildings, especially those of the wealthy are built with an emphasis on
breadth and less on height, with close heavy platform and a large roof that floats over this base,
with the vertical walls not well emphasized. This contrasts Western architecture, which tends to
grow in height and depth. Chinese architecture stresses the visual impact of the width of the
buildings.
The halls and palaces in the Forbidden City, for example, have rather low ceilings when
compared to equivalent stately buildings in the West, but their external appearances suggest the

all-embracing nature of imperial China. These ideas have found their way into modern Western
architecture, for example through the work of Jrn Utzon.[5] This of course does not apply to
pagodas, which are and limited to religious building complexes.

Cosmological concepts
Chinese architecture from early times used concepts from Chinese cosmology such as feng shui
(geomancy) and Taoism to organize construction and layout from common residences to imperial
and religious structures.[2] This includes the use of:

Screen walls to face the main entrance of the house, which stems from the belief that evil
things travel on straight lines.
Talismans and imagery of good fortune:
o Door gods displayed on doorways to ward evil and encourage the flow of good
fortune
o Three anthropomorphic figures representing Fu Lu Shou ( f-l-shu)
stars are prominently displayed, sometimes with the proclamation "the threes star
are present" ( sn-xng-zi)
o Animals and fruits that symbolize good fortune and prosperity, such as bats and
pomegranates, respectively. The association is often done through rebuses.
Orienting the structure with its back to elevated landscape and ensuring that there is water
in the front. Considerations are also made such that the generally windowless back of the
structure faces the north, where the wind is coldest in the winter
Ponds, pools, wells, and other water sources are usually built into the structure

The use of certain colors, numbers and the cardinal directions in traditional Chinese architecture
reflected the belief in a type of immanence, where the nature of a thing could be wholly
contained in its own form. Although the Western tradition gradually developed a body of
architectural literature, little was written on the subject in China, and the earliest text, the
Kaogongji, was never disputed. However, ideas about cosmic harmony and the order of the city
were usually interpreted at their most basic level, so a reproduction of the "ideal" city never
existed. Beijing as reconstructed throughout the 15th and 16th century remains one of the best
examples of traditional Chinese town planning.

Construction
Structure
Main article: Ancient Chinese wooden architecture

Mortise and tenon work of tie beams and cross beams, from Li Jie's building manual Yingzao
Fashi, printed in 1103.
Use of large structural timbers for primary support of the roof of a building. Wooden
timber, usually large trimmed logs, are used as load-bearing columns and lateral beams
for framing buildings and supporting the roofs. These structural timbers are prominently
displayed in finished structures. However, it is not known how the ancient builders raised
the huge wooden load bearing columns into position.
Although structural walls are also commonly found in Chinese architecture, most timber framed
architecture are preferred when economically feasible.

Timber frames are typically constructed with jointnary and doweling alone, seldom with
the use of glue or nails. Structural stability is further ensured through the use of heavy
beams and roofs, which weighs the structure down.
Using even numbers of columns in a building structure to produce odd numbers of bays
(). With the inclusion of a main door to a building in the centre bay, symmetry is
maintained
The common use of curtain walls or door panels to delineate rooms or enclose a building,
with the general deemphasis of load-bearing walls in most higher class construction
Flat roofs are uncommon while gabled roofs are almost omnipresent in traditional
Chinese architecture. Three main types of roofs are found
1. Straight inclined: Roofs with a single incline. These are the most economical type
of roofing and are most prevalent in commoner architectures
2. Multi-inclined: Roofs with 2 or more sections of incline. These roofs are used in
higher class constructions, from the dwellings of wealthy commoners to palaces
3. Sweeping: Roofs with a sweeping curvature that rises at the corners of the roof.
The types of roof construction are usually reserved for temples and palaces
although it may also be found in the homes of the wealthy. In the former cases,
the ridges of the roof are usually highly decorated with ceramic figurines.
The roof apex of a large hall is usually topped with a ridge of tiles for both decorative
purposes but also to weight down the layers of roofing tiles for stability. These ridges are

often well decorated, especially for religious or palatial structures. In some regions of
China, the ridges are sometimes extended or incorporated from the walls of the building
to form matouqiang (horse-head walls), which serve as a fire deterrent from drifting
embers.

Materials and history

Models of watchtowers and other buildings made during the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25220);
while these models were made of ceramics, the real versions were made of easily perishable
wood and have not survived.
Unlike other building construction materials, old wooden structures often do not survive because
they are more vulnerable to weathering and fires and are naturally subjected to rotting over time.
Although now nonexistent wooden residential towers, watchtowers, and pagodas predated it by
centuries, the Songyue Pagoda built in 523 is the oldest extant pagoda in China; its use of brick
instead of wood had much to do with its endurance throughout the centuries. From the Tang
Dynasty (618907) onwards, brick and stone architecture gradually became more common and
replaced wooden edifices. The earliest of this transition can be seen in building projects such as
the Zhaozhou Bridge completed in 605 or the Xumi Pagoda built in 636, yet stone and brick
architecture is known to have been used in subterranean tomb architecture of earlier dynasties.
In the early 20th century, there were no known fully wood-constructed Tang Dynasty buildings
that still existed; the oldest so far discovered was the 1931 find of Guanyin Pavilion at Dule
Monastery, dated 984 during the Song.[6] This was until the architectural historians Liang Sicheng
(19011972), Lin Huiyin (19041955), Mo Zongjiang (19161999), and Ji Yutang (1902c.
1960s) discovered that the Great East Hall of Foguang Temple on Mount Wutai in Shanxi was
reliably dated to the year 857 in June 1937.[6] The groundfloor dimensions for this monastic hall
measures 34 by 17.66 m (111 ft by 57 ft).[7] A year after the discovery at Foguang, the main hall
of nearby Nanchan Temple on Mount Wutai was reliably dated to the year 782,[8] while a total of
six Tang era wooden buildings have been found by the 21st century.[9] The oldest existent fullywooden pagoda that has survived intact is the Pagoda of Fogong Temple of the Liao Dynasty,
located in Ying County of Shanxi. While the East Hall of Foguang Temple features only seven
types of bracket arms in its construction, the 11th century Pagoda of Fogong Temple features a
total of fifty-four.[10]
The earliest walls and platforms in China were of rammed earth construction, and over time,
brick and stone became more frequently used. This can be seen in ancient sections of the Great

Wall of China, while the brick and stone Great Wall seen today is a renovation of the Ming
Dynasty (13681644).

Classification by structure

A pavilion inside the Zhuozheng Garden in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, one of the finest gardens
in China

The Zhaozhou Bridge, built from 595605 during the Sui Dynasty. It is the oldest fully-stone
open-spandrel segmental arch bridge in the world.
Chinese classifications for architecture include:

(Chinese: ; pinyin: Tng) ting (Chinese pavilions)


(simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: Ta) tai (terraces)
(simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: Lu) lou (Multistory
buildings)
(simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: G) ge (Two-story pavilions)
() xuan (Verandas with windows)
ta (Chinese pagodas)
xie (Pavilions or houses on terraces)
wu (Rooms along roofed corridors)
(Chinese: ; pinyin: Dugng) dougong interlocking wooden brackets, often
used in clusters to support roofs and add ornamentation.
Caisson domed or coffered ceiling

Architectural types

Commoner
As for the commoners, be they bureaucrats, merchants or farmers, their houses tended to follow a
set pattern: the center of the building would be a shrine for the deities and the ancestors, which
would also be used during festivities. On its two sides were bedrooms for the elders; the two
wings of the building (known as "guardian dragons" by the Chinese) were for the junior
members of the family, as well as the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen, although
sometimes the living room could be very close to the center.
Sometimes the extended families became so large that one or even two extra pairs of "wings"
had to be built. This resulted in a U-shaped building, with a courtyard suitable for farm work;
merchants and bureaucrats, however, preferred to close off the front with an imposing front gate.
All buildings were legally regulated, and the law held that the number of storeys, the length of
the building and the colours used depended on the owner's class. Some commoners living in
areas plagued by bandits built communal fortresses called Tulou for protection.

Imperial
There were certain architectural features that were reserved solely for buildings built for the
Emperor of China. One example is the use of yellow roof tiles; yellow having been the Imperial
color, yellow roof tiles still adorn most of the buildings within the Forbidden City. The Temple
of Heaven, however, uses blue roof tiles to symbolize the sky. The roofs are almost invariably
supported by brackets ("dougong"), a feature shared only with the largest of religious buildings.
The wooden columns of the buildings, as well as the surface of the walls, tend to be red in color.
Black is also a famous color often used in pagodas. They believe the gods are inspired by the
black color to descend on to the earth.
The Chinese five-clawed dragon, adopted by the first Ming emperor for his personal use, was
used as decoration on the beams, pillars, and on the doors on Imperial architecture. Curiously,
the dragon was never used on roofs of imperial buildings.
Only the buildings used by the imperial family were allowed to have nine jian (, space
between two columns); only the gates used by the Emperor could have five arches, with the
centre one, of course, being reserved for the Emperor himself. The ancient Chinese favored the
color red. The buildings faced south because the north had a cold wind.

A vaulted tomb chamber


in Luoyang, built during
the Eastern Han Dynasty
(AD 25220)

A tomb chamber of
Luoyang, built during the
Eastern Han Dynasty (AD
25220) with incised wall
decorations

Beijing became the capital of China after the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, completing
the easterly migration of the Chinese capital begun since the Jin dynasty, the Ming uprising in
1368 reasserted Chinese authority and fixed Beijing as the seat of imperial power for the next
five centuries. The Emperor and the Empress lived in palaces on the central axis of the Forbidden
City, the Crown Prince at the eastern side, and the concubines at the back (therefore the
numerous imperial concubines were often referred to as "The Back Palace Three Thousand").
However, during the mid-Qing Dynasty, the Emperor's residence was moved to the western side
of the complex. It is misleading to speak of an axis in the Western sense of a visual perspective
ordering facades, rather the Chinese axis is a line of privilege, usually built upon, regulating
access - there are no vistas, but a series of gates and pavilions.
Numerology heavily influenced Imperial Architecture, hence the use of nine in much of
construction (nine being the greatest single digit number) and reason why The Forbidden City in
Beijing is said to have 9,999.9 rooms - just short of the mythical 10,000 rooms in heaven. The
importance of the East (the direction of the rising sun) in orienting and siting Imperial buildings
is a form of solar worship found in many ancient cultures, where the notion of Ruler is affiliated
with the Sun.
The tombs and mausoleums of imperial family members, such as the 8th century Tang Dynasty
tombs at the Qianling Mausoleum, can also be counted as part of the imperial tradition in
architecture. These above-ground earthen mounds and pyramids had subterranean shaft-andvault structures that were lined with brick walls since at least the Warring States (481221 BCE).
[11]

Religious
See also: Temple (Chinese)
Generally speaking, Buddhist architecture follow the imperial style. A large Buddhist monastery
normally has a front hall, housing the statue of a Bodhisattva, followed by a great hall, housing
the statues of the Buddhas. Accommodations for the monks and the nuns are located at the two
sides. Some of the greatest examples of this come from the 18th century temples of the Puning
Temple and the Putuo Zongcheng Temple. Buddhist monasteries sometimes also have pagodas,
which may house the relics of the Gautama Buddha; older pagodas tend to be four-sided, while
later pagodas usually have eight-sides.
Daoist architecture, on the other hand, usually follow the commoners' style. The main entrance
is, however, usually at the side, out of superstition about demons which might try to enter the
premise. (See feng shui.) In contrast to the Buddhists, in a Daoist temple the main deity is
located at the main hall at the front, the lesser deities at the back hall and at the sides.

A group of temples at the


top of Mount Taishan,
where structures have
been built at the site since
the 3rd century BC during
the Han Dynasty

The Giant Wild Goose


Pagoda in Xi'an, built in
652 during the Tang
Dynasty

The Nine Pinnacle

The tallest pre-modern building in China was built for both religious and martial purposes. The
Liaodi Pagoda of 1055 AD stands at a height of 84 m (275 ft), and although it served as the
crowning pagoda of the Kaiyuan monastery in old Dingzhou, Hebei, it was also used as a
military watchtower for Song Dynasty soldiers to observe potential Liao Dynasty enemy
movements.
The architecture of the mosques and gongbei tomb shrines of China's Muslims often combines
traditional Chinese styles with Middle Eastern influences.

Urban planning
Main article: Ancient Chinese urban planning
Chinese urban planning is based on fengshui geomancy and the field-well system of land
division both used since the Neolithic age. The basic field-well diagram is overlaid with the
luoshu, a magic square divided into 9 sub-squares, and linked with Chinese numerology.[13]

Miniature models
Main article: Science and technology of the Han Dynasty#Structural engineering
Although mostly only ruins of brick and rammed earth walls and towers from ancient China (i.e.
before the 6th century AD) have survived, information on ancient Chinese architecture
(especially wooden architecture) can be discerned from more or less realistic clay models of
buildings created by the ancient Chinese as funerary items. This is similar to the paper joss
houses burned in some modern Chinese funerals. The following models were made during the
Han Dynasty (202 BCEAD 220):

A pottery palace from the


Han Dynasty (202 BC
AD 220)

Two residential towers


joined by a bridge, pottery
miniature, Han Dynasty
(202 BCAD 220)

A pottery tower from the

During the Jin Dynasty (265420) and the Six Dynasties, miniature models of buildings or entire
architectural ensembles were often made to decorate the tops of the so-called "soul vases"
(hunping), found in many tombs of that period.[14]