Traditional Chinese Architecture jiànzhù

Qing dynasty, Qing tombs, Hebei
Ruins of the Eastern Royal Tombs of the Qing dynasty, Zunhua, Hebei. Feng shui is particularly important in the placement of tombs, note the mountain in line with the north-south axis.

The chief feature of traditional Chinese architecture has been its stability; styles did not change much over the centuries. In Europe, styles came in and out of fashion and so it is easy to guess the date of a building to within a century, this can not be done so easily in China.

Many of the 'ancient' buildings in China date back no further than the Ming dynasty, few of earlier date have survived reflecting the mainly wooden construction. As most tombs were underground there is little to see of ancient memorials. Tourist sites that are described as ‘Han’ or ‘Tang’ dynasty have, although retaining the original design, been completely rebuilt in the last few centuries. It is thought that the oldest building to be seen of actual Tang dynasty date and design is located in Japan not China.

Proper placement of a building in the landscape has always been important. Traditionally a Feng Shui consultant would advise on the most auspicious position and outlook. Generally the building faces south and so receives the most warmth and light.

Courtyard houses ( sìhéyuàn)

Beijing, hutong, courtyard, architecture
Courtyard houses Si He Yuan (siheyuan) is a classical architectural style. The narrow streets between the courtyard houses are called Hutongs.

The traditional design is based around a courtyard. Chinese houses ( zhái yuàn) normally comprised a main residence flanked on two sides by walls and smaller rooms to form an enclosed courtyard. The windows and doors open onto the courtyard ( tíng) rather than the exterior. It was designed for the occupation of an extended family, typically three generations. The courtyard houses siheyuan are surrounded by narrow lanes in Beijing laid out as a grid network called hútòngs and areas of ancient housing are often called hutongs because of this. Elsewhere the lanes are called longtangs and grew up as winding networks with no overall symmetry.

Larger and grander houses have courtyards nested within courtyards. The courtyard is flanked on all sides by halls linked by covered walkways láng. The evidence that this style of architecture goes back at least to the Han dynasty comes from clay models of houses that have been found in tombs, so the courtyard design is over two thousand years old. In southern China the buildings rose to two floors, while in the north typically only one story. There was a belief that the good spirits flew not far above the ground and so high buildings would block their path. The prime dwelling space was on the first floor of the south facing building. It was here that the senior members of the extended family (the paternal grandfather and grandmother) usually lived. In the most prosperous families, each family group would occupy a separate courtyard.

house, Qing dynasty, family
A Mandarin's House, Beijing. 1874. [Note how women and children occupy the upper floor, men the ground floor]. Image by Google Cultural Institute from The J. Paul Getty Museum available under a Creative Commons license . This would be the main south facing building in the courtyard. Note the garden just in front of the chief man of the house

The main gateway entrance into the courtyard house had two red doors; it was located on the eastern part of the south side conforming to the rules of feng shui. Immediately behind the entrance was a solid wall 照壁 zhào bì that denies direct view or access to the courtyard, in Feng Shui terms it was to keep out evil spirits (and cold winds too). The largest example of a wall of this type is the Nine Dragon Wall in Beijing made with colored glazed tiles. In high status houses the buildings are linked by covered walkways and the servant quarters lie to the north of (behind) the main building. They may also have been watch towers at the corners.

window lattice
Ancient lattice windows

As the use of window glass was pretty much unknown in China, windows were covered in waxed paper or thin silk in winter and left uncovered in summer. The window frames were decorated with intricate, wooden geometric lattice-work designs. The design motifs can be used to date and locate a building as they changed with time and region. The internal walls and screens within the building were not load-bearing and could be easily moved and rebuilt to reflect the needs of the family. Brick was used for city walls and fortifications in China but not used in house construction they used wattle and daub walls instead, they are easy to modify and are earthquake resistant.

House construction in China

As China is subject to violent earthquakes it was not safe to build in stone or build tall buildings. It has only been with the use of re-enforced concrete that high-rise building has been possible. Sturdy wooden pillars can better withstand earthquakes better than stone walls. Indeed in a relatively recent earthquake, only the traditionally built temple survived unscathed.

Qing dynasty, Shanxi, house
Detail of the Qing dynasty Chang Mansion at Jinzhong, Shanxi Note the dougongs at the top of the pillars

Each building ( jiàn zhù) around the courtyard was laid on a solid stone or brick base. The base may be raised a couple of feet to prevent flooding. On the base are placed the main wooden supporting pillars set onto stone pads. The pillars are tenon jointed by cross-beams in both directions. Traditionally an even number of columns are used to provide an odd number of bays. The bays between the pillars was a standard jiān length and a 'jian' was used as a measure of distance.

Although the wooden pillars have no capitals the pillars are attached to the roof with elaborate wooden brackets ( dǒu gǒng). These dougongs became more elaborate over the centuries and they can be used to date a building. The bracket arm length was a standard proportion of the whole building and all the timbers were cut on multiples of this unit size. High status buildings used pillars made from nán mù wood - a tough straight conifer from southern China. The interior and exteriors walls are not structurally important or load bearing, it is the pillars that take all the weight of the roof.

In terms of color scheme for the house, the base was white and the pillars red with blue eaves and for Imperial buildings it was topped by yellow tiles.

Roof

Guangdong, roof, architecture
Traditional wooden roof structure in Yuyin cottage (built around 1800), Guangzhou, Guangdong

The traditional roof is constructed by laying diminishing lengths of roof timbers fixed on top of each other with purlins at the ends. The whole roof rested on a series of orthogonal timbers that ran between the evenly spaced pillars. The timber was jointed rather than nailed together. A cantilever arrangement was used to support over-hanging eaves. The whole roof was covered with alternating lines of concave and convex terracotta tiles, although in earlier days rural areas used thatch. The ceiling beneath could be flat or vaulted. In the design of roofs there is a key division between northern and southern China. In the north, roofs have to cope with a heavy burden of snow while in the south more shade is needed so southern roofs are more curved and elaborate. These roofs may have the eaves so curved that the corners point upwards (flying eaves) and reach the same height as the top of the roof. It is likely that roofs in Burma and Thailand influenced this style.

Buddhism , temple , roof, Sichuan
Historic drum tower and prayer hall with distinctive flying eave roofs at Wenshu Buddhist temple, Chengdu. The high flying eave is characteristic of central and southern China.

The roof ridges often have clay figures of deities and animals including dragons and a man riding a hen; these brought luck to the house and its occupants. The more prestigious the house the more creatures that are on the roof ridge. There is more than one legend that tries to explain the end figure, the man riding on a hen ; it probably symbolizes 'impossibility' as a man can't ride a hen, and a hen can't fly; so the figure is therefore doubly rooted there and protects the roof and house. Alternatively it may commemorate the tale of Prince Min of Qi , a cruel tyrant tied to the end of the roof 2,200 years ago. Other figures can include the chīwěn 螭吻 hornless dragon on the ridge protecting the building against fire (as dragons control water), phoenixes, qilin and other mythical beasts may feature as well. In the Ming dynasty there was a standard ordering of the protective animals: hen; dragon; phoenix; lion; unicorn; horse and qilin. High status houses have decorated finials at the end of each row of roof tiles as well as a pair of dragons on the ridge of the roof.

Shanxi, temple, Mongol dynasty, roof, architecture
Roof of the Grand Master Dou temple of Taiyuan, Shanxi. The temple was rebuilt in the 1343CE.
Forbidden City, Beijing, roof, architecture
Glazed animal sculptures on the palace roof of the Forbidden City, Beijing. Note the man riding a hen at the end.

Chinese Gardens

Jiangsu, Suzhou, Sui dynasty, garden
Classic Chinese garden in Suzhou of Song dynasty style

For all but the poor the center of the courtyard was laid out to garden. While the buildings are geometrically regular, the gardens are irregular offering a naturalistic vision of the countryside beyond. This represents a quest for yin-yang balance where the regular and geometric walls and buildings are yang while the garden is yin. Winding paths; glazed plant pots; water and rocks are important elements of the traditional garden. Strangely shaped, irregular rocks have been collected and showcased in gardens for centuries. There is variation across the regions of China in the garden design and there is scope for individuality in design too. The city of Suzhou in Jiangsu is famous for its ancient gardens. However, for poorer folk the garden was a patch of ground for growing vegetables and herbs for the pot.

The informal and naturalistic garden Chinese designs heavily influenced European garden design, Europe had for a long while chosen geometric and symmetric designs totally different to the Chinese model.

Chinese gardens do not have areas laid out to grass lawns. This is partly due to the dry climate but mainly because a mass of green would not create a pleasing balance. The absence of space for real trees is made up for with pén jǐng (bonsai) trees growing in containers.

A feature of the grander gardens is a moon gate yuèmén which is a circular gateway that offers an impressive and inviting entrance to the garden.

garden, Foshan, Guangdong, architecture
Moon gate in Qinghui garden, Foshan city, Guangdong

Town Planning

Xian, city wall, moat
The Ming dynasty moat and wall of the city of Xi'an

Over many centuries Chinese towns were laid out to a standard plan. They used a grid pattern with the whole town surrounded by a high earth wall and often also a moat. The wall was considered so important for the community that the character for 'city' chéng is the same as the one for 'city wall'. The wall acted as a defense against nomadic incursion and also flooding; it is made from hard clay that is faced and topped with specially made large bricks. A wall typically tapered from 40 feet [12 meters] up to 25 feet [8 meters] in width and over 60 feet [18 meters] high.

Entry to the town was through gates often aligned to the compass points. The walls had grand, brick corner towers with cannon mountings for defense. Some had buttresses built against the wall at regular intervals for extra protection and solidity. The gate towers were three story buildings of wood with tiled roofs and as they stood on the high wall were about 100 feet [30 meters] above the ground. The town interior had only a few multi-story buildings near the center and so the town lay completely hidden behind the city wall. The design of the town places the important buildings along the principal, long avenues rather than on a few central key buildings at the center.

Yunnan, house, architecture
Ancient roofs at Lijiang, Yunnan. The lack of high buildings is characteristic of old Chinese towns; most of the houses are in the form of courtyards.

In the north there were two axes dividing the city into four quarters with four gates where they met the outer wall. The gates of the larger cities tend to be grander and taller. The city gates were locked at night. In the Han dynasty large towns were symmetrically sub-divided into districts of a hundred houses; each district had its own wall and its own gates. The market area was normally to the north surrounded by the houses of the merchants while farmers lived near the gates. All gates were guarded at night and a curfew imposed - everyone had to be back in their own district. Normally rich and poor lived close together and were not segregated. Within the district the layout was unplanned and over centuries created a random assortment of houses of different sizes and ages, separated by meandering narrow lanes, in Shanghai called longtangs . In Beijing they were laid out as a strict rectangular grid and called hutongs.

Ningxia, drum tower, gateway
Yinchuan Drum Tower, Ningxia Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

Near the center were the Drum and Bell Towers, which rise to two or three floors so the sound could be heard over the whole town. One of the best surviving examples of these are at Xian, Shaanxi. A drum tower stood over the central crossroads and so could quickly limit any disturbance or external attack to just one quarter of the city. The drum was sounded at sunset and midnight to mark the passage of the night. The time was measured out at night by the burning of calibrated incense sticks or a clepsydra (water clock). In Beijing it was struck 108 times (9x12 times). The bell tower sounded out at 7pm and 5am each day, again it was rung 108 times, it signaled when people should go to bed and get up in the morning. In those days with no electric light only the very dedicated would study by oil lamp into the night.

Cities in the south had smaller defenses, with lower walls and narrower gates reflecting the reduced fear of nomadic raids and the mountainous terrain.

During the Tang dynasty when China had the largest cities in the World, the same layout was used but on a grander scale. Luoyang the capital covered 19 sq miles [49 sq kms] with major avenues 500 feet [152 meters] in width. The city enclosed areas for recreation and farming not just housing.

Yamen yá men

One of the grandest houses of the town built in the courtyard style was the yamen ( yámén) where the administrator (or magistrate) lived and worked. As this was an Imperial appointment and the official was usually relocated from far away (as a measure against corruption) he lived at the yamen with his family for a term of three years. It was to this house that people would come for help and seek justice. The courtyards may include the prison cells and a main hall for holding audiences.

Shanxi, Sui dynasty, gateway
Memorial gateway at Yuci old town in Shanxi of Sui dynasty style

Rural housing

The housing of the rural peasants were scattered over the countryside on the smallholdings that the families farmed. In the low lands these were made of blocks of baked clay, or wicker-work plastered with clay. The roofs were of straw or sometimes turf. The peasants kept pigs, ducks and chickens around the house.

In the loess lands of Shaanxi and Gansu many people lived in caves dug into the soft loess cliffs. They are warm in winter and cool in summer.

In the cold north heating was usually provided by a brick built kàng, over the flue of a wood burning stove. Beds were made on top of the kang for the night and seats during the day.

Historic Beijing

Ming dynasty, Forbidden City, view, Beijing
View of the Forbidden City, Beijing from the peak of Jingshan Hill. This view gives the impression of the overall design of courtyards within courtyards laid out symmetrically across a north-south axis.

When Beijing became the national capital during the Yuan dynasty the city was laid out from scratch. The overall design by Liu Bingzhong was based on the ancient Zhou dynasty text Kao Gong Ji The Records of Examination of Craftsman as a grid of 9x9 avenues with two or three gates on each side rather than one. The City Wall had nine story pavilions over each gateway housing a defensive guard and cannon. Each gate was used for a specific purpose; the ‘Gate of Virtue and Victory’ on the west of the north side Dé shèng mén for the dispatching of armies; ‘Gate of Certain Peace’ on the east of the north side ān dìng mén (for carrying for transporting night-soil out to the fields and sewage farms; ‘Eastern Upright Gate’ on the north of the east side Dōng zhí mén which carried in wood transported on the Grand Canal; ‘Gate of the Rising Sun’ in the middle of the east side Cháo yáng mén through which grain was transported from the Grand Canal into the city granaries; ‘Gate of Sublime Learning’ on the east of the south side Chóng wén mén through which wine was transported; ‘Gate of the Righteous Sun’ in the middle of the south side Zhèng yángmén for the Emperor's sole use; ‘Gate of Majesty of Arms’ on the west of the south side Xuān wǔ mén through which condemned criminals were sent for execution; ‘Gate of Abundance’ on the south of the west side Fù chéng mén for the import of coal for heating and ‘Due West Gate’ on the north of the west side 西 Xī zhí mén for the import of fresh water for the Emperor's use. In later years additional gates were added.

For all about Beijing and its many attractions please see our Beijing guide.

The Forbidden City formed the inner block with its own moat and wall, forming a city within the city and so is doubly protected. To provide the very best feng shui, the material dug from the moat was built up to form Jingshan or Coal Hill to the north of the Forbidden City. The enclave has four gates; one on each side and a defensive tower at each corner. The gates are the wǔmén (Meridian Gate) on the south (where the calendar was proclaimed and military forces reviewed); shénwǔmén (Gate of Military Genius) to the north; dōngmhuáén (Eastern glorious Gate) near the southern end of the east wall and 西 xīhuámén (Western glorious Gate) near the southern end of the west wall. The Imperial Forbidden City admirably demonstrates the nesting of courtyards within courtyards on a vast scale.

During the Qing dynasty the Inner City surrounding the Forbidden City was occupied by the Manchu nobility divided into eight districts according to their banner system of clans.

The main city avenues were 118 feet [36 meters] in width; streets were 59 feet [18 meters] in width and lanes (hutongs) were 30 feet [9 meters] wide. The individual districts were continually rebuilt over time which caused them to become meandering and narrow that gives them their characteristic charm.

Only a few parts of Beijing's original city wall and moat can be seen today, with the inner ring-road now following the line of the old walls which were demolished in the 1950s, but Beijing has greatly expanded beyond the original planned size. In the early days of the Peoples Republic much of the traditional housing was replaced by modern blocks of apartments. A small proportion of the old-style housing has been formally protected. These old 'hutong' districts are now popular with tourists.

Forbidden City, tower, architecture
Wall and Moat with corner guard post defend the Forbidden City, Beijing. Provided the double walled defense of the Imperial buildings.

Modern Chinese Design

European architecture came into China with the Jesuit Missionaries in the late Ming dynasty. They brought with them the latest engineering and architectural designs. This developed further in the early Qing when the missionaries built a windmill and a fountain for Emperor Kangxi. Emperor Qianlong also had palaces built in the European style. However this was probably more to do with collecting 'exotic' building styles rather than influencing traditional architecture. A few of the stone buildings of the Old Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan) built in the late 18th century to early 19th, reflect this trend. They were storehouses for European paintings, scientific instruments and gifts of all kinds from other exotic lands. Some of the gardens took elements of European style.

Since the foundation of the Peoples Republic the first architectural influence was from the USSR (Russia). During the 1950s many gloomy, square, brick and concrete buildings were built under the guidance of Russian architects and planners. Since the 1980s a modern, international design style has permeated throughout most of China.

university, Beijing, library, architecture
Music Hall, Tsinghua University, Beijing Copyright © Dreamstime see image license
Guangxi, Nanning, architecture, modern housing
Modern housing with elements of traditional architecture at Nanning, Guangxi
Chongqing, skyscraper
New, modern office buildings in Chongqing, 2014

Other constructions

Chinese Tombs

Since Shang dynasty times Chinese tombs have mainly been underground. The format reflects the design of houses, because of the belief that a tomb is a house for a continuation of life after death. It was laid out to offer familiarity of layout and was provisioned with food, tools and everything else a living person might need.

Feng Shui is extremely important for the location of the tombs. From the Han dynasty onwards a central chamber is surrounded by a tumulus (mound). It has a long sacred or spirit way leading to it lined with statues, steles (inscribed stones often a eulogy) and pillars.

Tang dynasty, Yang Guifei, Shanxi, tomb
Tomb of Yang Guifei at Xianyang, Shanxi province, China. Also known as Yang Yuhuanshe is one of the Four Beauties of ancient China. She was the consort of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty during his later years and was instrumental in his downfall.

Archways

Decorative archways have been a feature of Chinese architecture for centuries; they commemorate prominent officials; women (particularly widows) and Imperial figures. They are built of stone and have one; three or five arches.

A 牌坊 páifāng (or 牌楼 pái lóu for the grander gates) was often built at the entrance to the tomb often with white marble uprights and winglike projections (often decorated as clouds). The lintel would be inscribed with the accomplishments of the deceased.

Paifang, Ming dynasty, architecture
Two 'paifang's within a Ming dynasty courtyard complex
Beijing, lantern, Spring Festival, Qianmen, people
Qianmen street, Beijing decorated for Chinese New Year 2011 Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

Bridges

The oldest single span stone bridge in the world is at Zhaozhou (Anji), Hebei (605-617) demonstrating that the Chinese had mastery of curved arches from an early date. The use of arches is restricted to bridges and gateways and is not normally used in domestic buildings. Other bridge types were the simple flat beam and suspension bridge.

Temples and Churches

grand canal, Zhejiang, bridge
Bridge over the Grand Canal, Hangzhou

The traditional Chinese temple is constructed as a grander form of the normal private house. The same architect and builders would construct temples as ordinary houses. They are of courtyard form with the main buildings in the front with the domestic quarters behind. They were made taller than private houses. Temples are more associated with Confucianism ( miào) than Daoism that has less need for temples. The enclosure is often protected by guardian stone lions shī.

Buddhism , Dali, Yunnan, temple
Chongsheng Temple, Dali, Yunnan
Shanxi, Sui dynasty, pagoda
Sui dynasty pagoda at Jinci, Shanxi (reconstructed 1751CE)

Although the many-storied pagoda ( ) is associated with Buddhism, its origin seems to be with earlier Han towers rather than from India. Pagodas act as storehouses of sacred relics or commemorate a sacred place and always have an odd number of stories - often nine or seven. They are certainly one of the most quintessential features of the Chinese landscape; paintings and porcelain often show a pagoda as a shorthand for saying 'this is a Chinese landscape'. They are often built when the flow of qi was weak according to Feng Shui. They normally have a double exterior wall with a staircase running up between them.

Early pagodas were built of wood and have not survived, it is only the stone built pagodas that can still be seen today. A twelve sided brick pagoda from 523CE is at Songshan temple, Henan. An early example with seven stories is the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (雁塔 dàyàntǎ) at Xi'an that was founded in 652 to be partially rebuilt in 704. Near the Shaolin Temple in Henan is a collection of small (a few feet high) pagodas called tǎlín - 'forest of pagodas' as memorials to individual monks.

The Dagoba (Dāgaba) comes from the Tibetan form of Buddhism in the form of squat stupa built for housing sacred texts. They came into fashion during the Qing dynasty when all things Tibetan were the vogue. The best known example in China is the large White Dagoba in Beihai Park, Beijing.

Beihai Park, Beijing, dagoba
Beihai Park, Beijing. The best known dagoba in China.

Islamic mosques in western China follow the Central Asian/Persian style. Further to the East where Han people predominate, Hui people in central and Eastern China have built mosques in the traditional Chinese temple style.

Christian Churches used to be built by western missionaries and so were built in European style with little reference to the local vernacular.

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