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Evolution of Chinese Architecture

Architecture mirrors the material and aesthetic standards of a society, and classical Chinese architecture is no exception. It is interesting to see how the ancient buildings of China were developed, with their unique timber structures and decorative styles.

Primitive people lived in natural caves before they learned to build houses. The earliest primitive shelter found in China belonged to the “Peking Man,” who was estimated to have existed between a million and 300,000 years ago.

As human intelligence increased however, primitive people learned to excavate caves as their homes. Such cave dwellings were called "den residences" by the ancient historians, and many still remain in use today in the Loess Plateau of north and northwest China.

Gradually, primitive people also learned to make dwellings out of branches and thatch, which were called "nest residences." Chinese mythology ascribed the invention of such dwellings to a demigod named Youchaoshi. Archaeological finds showed that there were mainly two types of "nest" dwellings” in Neolithic China: one was constructed over a shallow pit, the other on a platform of poles.

The pit-style houses, either square or circular in shape, used the inside banks of a hand-dug pit as the walls of the structure and one to several thick pillars to prop up these walls; earth was then rammed around them. This also helped to prevent the wood from catching fire.

The platform-style houses existed mainly along the Yangtse River basin and in southern China. Some ethnic minorities still live in this kind of house today, constructed on upright pillars. It is conceptually amazing that the primitive Chinese people were able to employ stone tools to make the beams and purlins, and even chisel out mortises and tenons to secure the joints of the beams. Evidence of these early structures has been found in the Hemudu Ruins in Yuyao, Zhejiang Province, and is generally estimated to be about 7,000 years old. For centuries, the "nest residence" prevailed over the "den residence" and became the dominant trend of ancient Chinese architecture. The use of timber framework and the invention of mortises and tenons formed the prototype of classical buildings in ancient China.

During the slave society of the Xia and Shang dynasties (21st-11th century BC), houses varied according to the caste of the inhabitants. Most slaves still lived in pit-style houses. The slave owners lived in much better, on-the-ground houses with rammed earth walls. Their houses had one or more rooms, and the earth floors were hard and smooth after being heated by fire. Some slave owners not only demanded human sacrifices for burials but also buried their slaves as sacrifices below their homes. The grandest structure of the slave period, at least amongst those unearthed so far, was a palace built during the early Shang Dynasty at Erlitou, Yanshi County, in Henan Province. The building stood on a 10,000-square-metre terrace of rammed earth. In the middle was an eight-bay wide, three-bay deep palatial hall with a hipped roof and double eaves. The main gate was located on the southern side of a terrace encircled by galleries.

The Western Zhou Dynasty (1066-771 BC) saw a marked development in architecture. Members of the royal family and aristocrats were granted land on which they could set up their feudal states, and as a result, building activities increased. Excavation of early Zhou palace sites in Qishan, Shaanxi, indicates that a specific pattern of construction evolved during this period, with main buildings, porches, and the front and back courtyards all positioned on a single axis. Roofing materials also improved with the advent of earth tiles, which were used to cover the ridge and gutters. People plastered and rammed their walls and floors with a mixture of soil, lime, and sand, which created flat surfaces that were smooth and hard. They also learned to make the north walls of their houses thicker than the others to resist the cold, bitter northern winds. One of the most significant architectural developments of this period was the invention of corbel brackets, called dougong in Chinese, which were inserted on column heads to support the projecting eaves. This later became a unique feature of classical Chinese architecture.

Over the next few hundred years, Chinese economy and commerce thrived. The construction of elevated terraces became popular as the rulers of each feudal state used "lofty terraces and magnificent palaces" to flaunt their wealth and power. This craze for architectural grandeur culminated during the reign of Emperor Qinshihuang, the first emperor of ancient China, who unified the country in 221 BC.

The Qin ruler, who was also associated with the building of the Great Wall and the massive terracotta army in Xi'an, lived in an enormous palace of an unprecedented size. It was so gigantic and extravagant that when the peasant rebels burned it, the subsequent fire raged for three weeks. The erecting of imperial palaces on elevated terraces continued into the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD), as can be seen by the Forbidden City.

Architects of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) demonstrated very sophisticated techniques. Corbel brackets were widely used. Meanwhile, multi-storied buildings appeared and many different roof styles evolved, such as the gabled roof, hipped roof, and double-eaved roof, all featuring sweeping slopes with upturned eaves and tilted corners. The large overhangs were merely for artistic effect but also proved functional, keeping out both sunlight and the rain. The utilization of bricks as a building material also occurred during the Han Dynasty some 2,000 years ago. One engraved brick tomb found in Sichuan Province—which featured several courtyards separated by galleries—illustrates the traditional residence of a Han Dynasty aristocrat.

The Tang Dynasty was a period of great prosperity. Construction of palaces, Buddhist temples, and pagodas flourished. Architects began using glazed tiles and carved stones in their construction work. Brick walls were common in Tang structures, but this did not change the most unique and prominent feature of classical Chinese architecture: the distinctive timber framework composed of columns, beams, purlins, and multitudes of corbel brackets. There is an old saying—"the walls may topple down but the roof won't collapse"— meaning that the function of a wall was not to support the weight of the roof, but rather, to separate the space. Because of this, windows and doors could be made freely in the walls without causing the building to collapse.

Another advantage of the construction during this period was that the buildings were earthquake-resistant. This accounted for the preservation of many centuries-old structures, such as the Foguang (Buddha Light) Temple in the Wutai Mountains, built in 857, and the 67.31-metre high wooden pagoda of Yingxian in Shanxi. Built in 1056, this structure is the oldest surviving timber pagoda in China and the tallest timber building in the world. The thriving economy of the Tang Dynasty also led to an architectural rivalry amongst aristocrats and wealthy officials. The imperial court finally had to stipulate standards of residential construction according to social status. For instance, it ruled that officials under the rank of duke were not entitled to houses with double-arched ceilings; officials below the third class (ancient officials were roughly divided into nine classes) were confined to five-bay houses; and commoners could only build three-bay houses. Private households were not allowed to construct towers overlooking other people's residences. Notably however, the Tang emperors themselves indulged in the construction of a gigantic and magnificent capital, Chang’an (now Xi’an); this ambitious layout was subsequently copied in varying degrees by later dynasties, and even went so far as to spread its influence to the ancient Japanese capitals of Kyoto and Nara.

Architectural art reached new levels during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) as increasingly elegant and flexible designs were created, featuring polygonal, multi-eaved roofs, intricate ceiling structures, and finely carved doors, windows, columns and brackets. Lattices on windows and doors also became popular during this time. The lattices served more than an ornamental purpose as they also facilitated the mounting of paper to admit light. Glass was not introduced to China until a much later period.

The construction techniques of stone and brick structures became very sophisticated during the Song period, as testified by the appearance of a number of vaulted beamless structures built entirely of bricks and stones. The most well-known beamless hall is Wuliangdian in Nanjing's Linggu Temple, built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, timber shortages gave birth to jointing and paneling techniques, in which huge columns and beams could be made out of small fragments of wood. Meanwhile, beams and columns were also connected directly, thus simplifying the superstructure as well as relegating brackets to ornamental adjuncts on the eaves. However, these simple timber structures did not prevent the architects of this period from making their buildings opulent. In fact, the Ming and Qing palaces represented the culmination of architectural extravagance, mainly through their extensive use of yellow glazed tiles, purple-red walls, white marble balustrades, ornate wood, stone and metal carvings, gilding, lacquering, painting, and inlaying.

The Forbidden City in Beijing has often been noted for its magnificent buildings and dignified layout. First built during the early 15th century, the enclosed city occupied an area of 720,000 square meters and contained 9,999 rooms (nine was deemed an auspicious number). The main hall, built on a seven-meter high podium and finished in white marble, was positioned on a single axis.

During the Ming and Qing periods, the art of garden-making also flourished. Not only the emperors, but also the rich and powerful, lavished extravagant amounts of money on building private gardens and resorts. The best of these include the Summer Palace and Yuanmingyuan (the Old Summer Palace) in northwest Beijing, as well as numerous resorts in Chengde, Hebei Province. These gardens would feature harmonious landscapes alongside exquisite arrangements of pagodas, pavilions, halls, and bridges.

Private gardens built by the wealthy were compact and delicate, particularly those in the southern cities of Suzhou, Hangzhou, Wuxi, and Yangzhou. These gardens aimed to offer as many different visual delights as possible within a limited space. Inside these contained environments, the viewer could witness grotesque rockery formations, lotus-covered ponds crossed by elegant bridges, graceful miniature pagodas, and richly-decorated pavilions.

Nowadays, China's classical architecture is mainly preserved and reproduced for nostalgic reasons, as well as to provide a catalyst for foreign tourism. Its unique designs and decorative techniques remain valuable, however, and can still be utilized heavily in modern architecture.

Revised June 22, 2011