Chinese Architecture — Traditions, Characteristics, Functions, and Styles

Ancient Chinese Architecture Foguang Temple on Mount Wutai, Built in the Year 857.

Ancient Architecture Foguang Temple on Mount Wutai, Built in the Year 857.

 

What Is Chinese Architecture?

 

Chinese architecture is an independent architectural system with a long history, rich regional diversities, special characteristics, clear and strict hierarchy rules, and consistent inheritance of traditional culture. 

 

Nowadays, more modern, tall buildings are constructed in China, because of the large population in cities, and the development of technology. 

 

However, there are also many ancient, traditional buildings, which are valuable representatives of Chinese architectural culture.

Temple of Heaven the Place for Emperors to Worship the Heaven

Temple of Heaven Built in 1420 — Place for Emperors to Worship the Heaven

 

Characteristics Of Traditional Chinese Architecture.

Strict Hierarchy Rules

 

Throughout ancient Chinese history, the hierarchy had been strictly followed and highly valued by Confucianism

In the architectural field, structure, Pattern, Color, decoration, and scale all had explicit regulations, according to one’s social status. 

For instance, except for special buildings like religious pagodas, no one’s house could be taller or bigger than the emperor’s Imperial Palaces; in some dynasties, civilians were not allowed to use certain auspicious patterns like the Dragon or Phoenix, nor some noble colors like Cinnabar Red and Bright Yellow. 

Bilateral Symmetry

 

According to Yin Yang and Five Elements Theory, balance is an essential and highly valued concept.

 

Hence, bilateral symmetry, which has been believed to be a great representative of the balance of Yin and Yang, has been strictly used in traditional Chinese buildings, except for Landscape Gardens.  

 

Moreover, in a bilateral symmetrical ancient building complex, the grandest and most important ones are always located in the central line. 

Panoramic View of the Forbidden City

Bilateral Symmetrical Forbidden City, Imperial Palace of Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 — 1912),  with Main Halls in Central Line, Photo from the Official Site.

Square Building Complex in Enclosure

In ancient Chinese Astrology, people believed that heaven was a hemispherical vault and the earth was a huge square-shaped land.

 

Meanwhile, the idea of "Harmony of Man and Nature" has been an important belief of ancient Chinese Philosophy, which suggests one's living house should resemble nature as well. 

 

Hence, traditional architecture in China is mostly square-shaped building complexes in the enclosure, with north-south orientations and some open spaces inside. 

Part of the White Deer Cave Academy or Bailudong Shuyuan on Mount Lu.

Ancient White Deer Cave Academy or Bailudong Shuyuan on Mount Lu.

Single-story and Small Spaces for Single Function Rooms

 

Traditional Chinese buildings are usually single-story, and each one serves only one function, like a bedroom or study.

Even in the emperor’s Imperial Palace, such as the Forbidden City, all houses were not quite large. 

According to ancient grand city walls and pagodas, the construction of tall and large buildings has been technologically possible in ancient China.

Therefore, those single-story and small rooms were popular for some important reasons:

 

  • Have more chances to survive earthquakes and heavy wind;

  • For busy emperors, it’s inconvenient or safe to climb too many stairs;

  • For other people, their houses were not allowed to be taller than the emperor’s, or the city wall;

  • There were plenty of lands for people to build many single-story buildings;

  • Feng Shui believed that it was ominous for too few numbers of people to stay a long time in a huge house.

Bedroom of Yongzheng Emperor Yingzhen (1678 —   1735)

Bedroom of Yongzheng Emperor (1678 — 1735)

Importance of Worship Ceremonies

 

Worship rites have been one of the most important ceremonies in ancient Chinese culture. 

 

For emperors that were required and qualified to worship heaven and earth and grand deities, special building complexes were constructed in important positions around their royal palaces, such as the Temple of Heaven.

 

For civilians that value ancestor worships, ancestral halls usually are the grandest and most sophisticated buildings in the most important position, like in the midline.

Wide Application of Fengshui, Astrology, and Mythological Cultures

 

Another essential characteristic of ancient architecture in China, both imperial and folk ones, is the widespread belief and strict application of Fengshui culture. 

 

Moreover, ancient Chinese Astrology has been a key factor in imperial buildings and city planning, while Mythology culture, including deities, Mythical Creatures, and folk legends, have been widely used as decorative patterns.

Mythical Creature Panlong Sculptures on Columns of Sheng Mu Dian (Built in 1023 — 1032) of Jinci Temple in Taiyuan City.

Mythical Creature Panlong Sculptures on Columns of Sheng Mu Dian of Song Dynasty (Built in 1023 — 1032) of Jinci Temple in Taiyuan City.

Explicit Rules for the Use of Timber and Stone

 

In ancient China, the timber had been widely used to build traditional architecture, and stones were only for city walls and mausoleums.

 

Reasons For the Use of Timber and Stone In Ancient Chinese Architecture.

Traditional Chinese buildings are mostly made of timber, because: 

  • Easy to obtain the material, and timber is cheaper;

  • Timber building constructed on the earth resembles nature and follows the idea of "Harmony of Man and Nature"; 

  • Different people have different tastes and requirements for their houses, and wooden buildings could be constructed or rebuilt, or redecorated in a shorter period;

  • Dougong, the interlocking wood bracket construction method that connects columns and beams, made sure the walls don't take too much load bearing, which provides people more chances to survive frequent natural disasters like an earthquake.

Chinese Dougong Structure of A Hall of Forbidden City, Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.

Dougong Structure of A Hall of Forbidden City, Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum. 

Stone, however, had been a common material in traditional architecture too, but was mainly used in:

 

  • Building sturdy city walls, such as the Great Wall, to defend people living inside;

 

  • Constructing important roads for royals or in big cities;

  • Buildings that are required to be firm and long-lasting, such as bridges and religious pagodas;

 

  • Building mausoleum.

 

In ancient China, death was considered another form of eternity; therefore, one's tomb should be firm, solid, and can last eternally.

Stone Wall of the Mausoleum of Wanli Emperor Zhu Yijun (1573 — 1620)

Stone Wall of the Mausoleum of Wanli Emperor Zhu Yijun (1573 — 1620)

 

Types Of Traditional Chinese Buildings By Functions.   

 

Generally speaking, Chinese buildings serve one single function. 

 

Based on their functions, ancient Chinese architecture could be divided into 9 types:

 

  • Defense systems, such as the Great Wall and city walls.

 

  • Imperial buildings, such as the Forbidden City and government administrative offices.

 

  • Mausoleums, such as The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor with Terracotta Army.

 

  • Worship buildings for people to hold sacrificial ceremonies or for the memorial, such as the Temple of Heaven and folk Ancestral Halls.

 

 

  • Academy, such as Baiudong Academy constructed by the great philosopher Zhu Xi

 

  • Recognition architecture to praise one's great achievement or virtues, such as Paifang in Huizhou city.

 

 

  • Folk residents have the most diversities, based on geological differences. 

Military Building the Shanhai Pass Built in 1381 on East of the Great Wall

Military Defense Building the Shanhai Pass Built in the Year 1381 on the Great Wall of the Ming Dynasty

 

Main Architectural Styles Of Residential Buildings In Different Regions. 

Despite strict hierarchical regulations in ancient China, civilian residents varied in different areas, because of geological and climatic reasons.

Traditional Northern Style Buildings in Ancient City Pingyao

Traditional Northern Style Buildings in Ancient City Pingyao.

Traditional Southern Style Buildings in Ancient City Huizhou

Traditional Hui Style Buildings in Huizhou, the Middle and East of China.

Yaodong or House Cave in Shaanxi and Shanxi Provinces

Yaodong or House Cave in Shaanxi and Shanxi Provinces, the Middle and Northwest of China.

Traditional Yurt in Inner Mongolia

Traditional Yurt in Inner Mongolia, the North of China.

Tulou Building of in Southeast China the Fujian Province

Tulou Building in Fujian Province, Southeast China, Photo by Yuanmu.

Stilted Dwelling in Ancient Town Phoenix

Stilted Dwelling in Ancient Town Fenghuang in Hunan Province, Photo by Jianmi.

Traditional Architecture Huo Er Wu in Lingnan Area (Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces in Southern China)

Huo Er Wu in Lingnan Area, the Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces in Southern China.

Siheyuan, Traditional Architecture in Beijing and Shanxi Province

Siheyuan, Traditional Architecture in Beijing and Shanxi Province, Middle-Northern China, Photo by Chen Xuan.

Ancient Stone Building Complex of the Taoping Qiang Stockaded Village in Jiuzhaigou.

Ancient Stone Building Complex of the Taoping Qiang Stockaded Village in Jiuzhaigou, Northwest China.

 

Structural Classifications Of Chinese Buildings. 

  • Dian: The main architecture of a building complex, mostly in royal palaces, used for the grandest ceremonial or religious purposes.

Central Building of the Royal Forbidden City Built in 1420

Tai He Dian or Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Imperial Forbidden City 

  • Tang: Residence of most honorable masters, also could be used for the family to hold celebration activities.

 

Tang is usually the most important building complex for folk architecture or the second most important one in imperial palaces.

Leshou Tang in Summer Palace, Bedchamber of Empress Dowager Cixi

Leshou Tang in Summer Palace, Bedchamber of Empress Dowager Cixi, Photo by Aisheyingde Dayanzi. 

  • Ting: To hold meetings or banquets, usually spacious, bright, and well decorated.

Luxurious Nanmu Hall or Wufeng Xianguan in East Part of Lingering Garden

Luxurious Nanmu Hall or Wufeng Xianguan of Lingering Garden, Photo by 97Lang. 

  • Lou: Multilayer buildings, usually used as bedrooms or studies.

Jianshanlou (the King Li Xiucheng's Office) and ancient tree of Humble Administrator’s Garden

Jianshan Lou of Humble Administrator’s Garden, Photo by Yin Qimin.

  • Ge: Multilayer buildings, with smaller rooms and windows in four directions; usually used as a library, study, or place to enshrine religious deities.

Foxiang Ge of Summer Palace

Foxiang Ge of Summer Palace

  • Pavilion or Ting: To rest and appreciate the view, usually small and exquisite buildings with roofs and pillars.

Singing Pavilion or Shuxiao Ting of Lingering Garden

Singing Pavilion or Shuxiao Ting of Lingering Garden, Photo by Baiqiangxiade Huayuan.

  • Xie: A building next to or on the water, usually with railings, the place to appreciate the water view and to rest.

Lotus Surrounding Furong Xie (Lotus Pavillon) of Humble Administrator’s Garden, Photo from Official Site of Zhuozheng Garden.

Furong Xie of Humble Administrator’s Garden, Photo from Official Site of Zhuozheng Garden.

  • Gallery or Lang: Long corridor with roof, to connect buildings, with both functional and ornamental value.

 

They are beautiful structural elements and shelter people from rain, snow, wind, and sunshine. 

Calligraphy Inscriptions on the Long Corridor of Lingering Garden

Long Corridor of Lingering Garden Decorated with Calligraphy Inscriptions, Photo by Ying Zhigang.

  • Tai: Tall stage-like architecture, used to observe or appreciate the beautiful views. 

Ancient Astronomical Observatory Built by Guo Shoujing.

Ancient Astronomical Observatory the Guanxing Tai, Built by Guo Shoujing in 1276-1279 on Mount Song.

  • Que: A pair of buildings in front of the imperial palaces, mausoleums, or temples, thrived in Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) and had been the representative of imperial authority. 

Que Buildings in Fresco on Mausoleum of Prince Yide, Grandson of Empress Wu Zetian (624 — 705).

Que Buildings in Fresco on Mausoleum of Prince Yide, Grandson of Empress Wu Zetian (624 — 705). 

  • Fang: Also named Paifang, evolved from Que and popularized since the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), used to memorize exceptional accomplishments, or to praise highly valued virtues.

Xu Guo Archway, or Xu Guo Shifang, Constructed in 1584 Under Command of Wanli Emperor

Xu Guo Archway, or Xu Guo Shi fang, Constructed in 1584 Under the Command of Wanli Emperor, to Praise Exceptional Achievements of the Grand Secretariat Xu Guo.

  • Huabiao: A column set by King Yao (about 2377 BC — 2259 BC) to collect suggestions and complaints from civilians.

 

Later Huabiao evolved into a pair of columns decorated with Mythical Creatures around Imperial Palaces, as representative of a reminder for emperors to stay diligent and caring for civilians. 

Ancient Huabiao in Front of the Imperial Forbidden City.

Ancient Huabiao in Front of the Imperial Forbidden City, Constructed from 1406 to 1420.

  • Ta: Ta, also named pagoda, is used to place Buddhist religious statues or valuable relics, to adjust a place's Fengshui, or to suppress evil spirits and monsters.

Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian or Pagoda of Fogong Temple

Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian or Pagoda of Fogong Temple, Constructed in 1056 and 67.31 Meters High, the World's Oldest and Tallest Wooden Pagoda, Photo by WOHO.

 

Hierarchy And Cultural Elements In Roofs Of Ancient Chinese Buildings.

Roofs of traditional architecture are one of the most explicit ways to represent the strict hierarchy.

 

Ranking from high to low, there are 5 major styles of roofs of ancient Chinese buildings.

Five Major Roof Styles of Ancient Chinese Architectures

Five Major Roof Styles of Ancient Chinese Buildings, Picture from Deng Zhenyu and Sheji Mulu.

  • Wu Dian Ding or Hipped Roof, with five ridges and four slops.

 

The most honorable style that exclusively used by royals and large temples. The double-layer is even more supreme, the highest level in ancient Chinese architecture. 

Double-Layer Wu Dian Ding or Hipped Roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony of the Forbidden City

Double-Layer Wu Dian Ding or Hipped Roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, also the Largest Hall of the Forbidden City; Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.

  • Xie Shan Ding or Hip-and-gable Roof, with nine ridges. 

 

Mostly used in important buildings of palaces, gardens, and temples; double-layer ones are more honorable than single-layer ones. 

Xie Shan Ding or Hip-and-gable Roof of Ancient Nanchan Temple on Mount Wutai

Xie Shan Ding or Hip-and-gable Roof of Ancient Nanchan Temple on Mount Wutai, Built in the Year 782, Photo by Tiantianquan.

  • Xuan Shan Ding or Overhanging Gable Roof, with one main ridge and four vertical ridges that extend out of the gable walls.

 

The roofs of these houses were built to protect people from rain, and have been widely used by civilian residents in rainy southern places. 

Xuan Shan Ding or Overhanging Gable Roof of Ancient Shuanglin Temple in Pingyao

Xuan Shan Ding or Overhanging Gable Ceramic Tiled Roof of Ancient Shuanglin Temple in Pingyao.

  • Ying Shan Ding or Flush Gable Roof, with one main ridge and four vertical ridges that flush with two gable walls.

 

This architectural style is more efficient in fireproof and has been used by civilians in drought northern places. 

Ying Shan Ding or Flush Gable Roof Dwellings in Ancient City Pingyao.

Ying Shan Ding or Flush Gable Tiled Roof Dwellings in Ancient City Pingyao.

  • Cuan Jian Ding or Pavilion Roof, architecture with a cone roof and a pointed top.

 

It is widely used in buildings like pavilions and pagodas and doesn't have any hierarchy restrictions.  

Three Layer Cuan Jian Ding or Pavilion Roof of Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, on Qigu Altar of the Temple of Heaven

Three Layer Cuan Jian Ding or Pavilion Roof of Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, on Qigu Altar of the Temple of Heaven, Photo from yktour.

Mythical Creatures on Roof of Traditional Chinese Building


On the roofs of traditional Chinese buildings, there are some mythical creatures guarding, whose numbers also follow a strict hierarchy. 

The emperor's supreme hall has ten, and his other buildings have nine, while others' should deduct the number based on their hierarchy, like the queen's with seven, officials with five or three, etc.  

Mythical Creatures and Leading Deity on Roof of Hall of Supreme Harmony of the Forbidden City

Ten Mythical Creatures and Leading Deity on Roof of Hall of Supreme Harmony of the Forbidden City, Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.

Ten Mythical Creatures on Roof of Traditional Chinese Architecture Are: 

  • Phoenix, the symbol of virtue and peace;

  • Lion, represents power, bravery, and dignity;

  • Heavenly horse, the incarnation of honor and benevolent;

  • Sea horse, the symbol of auspiciousness and loyal;

  • Xiayu, a mythical creature with the power of calling for wind and rain;

  • Suanni, a son of the dragon, a creature of blessing and leadership;

  • Xiezhi, the mythical creature of law and justice;

  • Douniu, a type of dragon that could fight and suppress floods.

  • Hang Shi: A creature that looks like a monkey with wings, and holding a magic weapon that can defeat demons and evil spirits. It is also believed as the incarnation of the Deity of Thunder, which could protect the building from thunder and storm.

 

Of all ancient Chinese buildings, only the supreme hall in the imperial Forbidden City, the Tai He Dian or Hall of Supreme Harmony, has Hang Shi on the roof.

In the front is a deity riding on a phoenix, who leads those creatures and guards those palaces. 

 

Decorations of Ancient Chinese Architectural Designs.

In ancient China, the strict hierarchy regulations regarding architectural scale, feature, use of colors, and patterns, however, didn't limit people's creativity in decoration.  

 

Many types of ornaments have been used to beautify buildings, most of them developed into exquisite arts, such as brick carving, wood carving, fresco, roof and beam painting, caisson, colored glaze, sculptures, eaves tile design, couplets, window and doorway designs, and so on. 

Most of them are still popular and widely used in modern architecture in China now. 

 

Click to Read Decorations of Traditional Chinese Buildings on:

 

 

 

 

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