Chinese Architecture — Traditions, Characteristics, Functions, and Styles
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.
Characteristics Of Traditional Chinese Architecture.
Strict Hierarchy Rules
Throughout ancient Chinese history, the hierarchy had been strictly followed and highly valued by Confucianism.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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, 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.
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;
In ancient China, death was considered another form of eternity; therefore, one's tomb should be firm, solid, and can last eternally.
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 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.
Yaodong or House Cave in Shaanxi and Shanxi Provinces, the Middle and Northwest of China.
Traditional Yurt in Inner Mongolia, the North of China.
Tulou Building in Fujian Province, Southeast China, Photo by Yuanmu.
Stilted Dwelling in Ancient Town Fenghuang in Hunan Province, Photo by Jianmi.
Huo Er Wu in Lingnan Area, the Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces in Southern China.
Siheyuan, Traditional Architecture in Beijing and Shanxi Province, Middle-Northern China, Photo by Chen Xuan.
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.
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.
Ting: To hold meetings or banquets, usually spacious, bright, and well decorated.
Lou: Multilayer buildings, usually used as bedrooms or studies.
Ge: Multilayer buildings, with smaller rooms and windows in four directions; usually used as a library, study, or place to enshrine religious deities.
Pavilion or Ting: To rest and appreciate the view, usually small and exquisite buildings with roofs and pillars.
Xie: A building next to or on the water, usually with railings, the place to appreciate the water view and to rest.
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.
Tai: Tall stage-like architecture, used to observe or appreciate the beautiful views.
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.
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.
Huabiao: A column set by King Yao (about 2377 BC — 2259 BC) to collect suggestions and complaints from civilians.
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, 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Chinese Dragon or Loong, represents the emperor, paramount imperial authority;
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.
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