The Arts






Chinese architecture refers to a style of architecture that has taken shape in Asia over the years. Over the centuries, the structural principles of Chinese architecture have remained largely unchanged, the main changes being on the decorative details. Since the Tang Dynasty, Chinese architecture has had a major influence on the architectural styles of Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.

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 (usually government) buildings, with only limited success. Moreover, the pressure for Western-style urban development throughout contemporary China means that traditional Chinese buildings are fast disappearing.


The Hall of Supreme Harmony within the Palace Museum (Forbidden City) grounds in Beijing.
Allen Timothy Chang (張華倫), 2003
Fig 1

There are certain features common to Chinese architecture, regardless of specific region or use.

The most important is its emphasis on the horizontal, in particular a heavy platform and a large roof that floats over this base, with the vertical walls de-emphasized. Thus, in contrast to Western architecture, which tends to grow in height and in depth, Chinese architecture stresses on 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. This of course does not apply to pagodas, which in any case are relatively rare. These ideas have found their way into modern Western architecture, for example through the work of Jĝrn Utzon (see page 221 of Weston (2002)).

Shanghai's Longhua Temple inner courtyard.
Rolf Müller, 2004
Fig 2

Another important feature is its emphasis on symmetry, which connotes a sense of grandeur; this applies to everything from palaces to farmhouses. One notable exception is in the design of gardens, which tends to be as asymmetrical as possible. Like Chinese scroll paintings, the principle underlying the garden's composition is to create enduring flow, to let the patron wander and enjoy the garden without prescription, as in nature herself.

Chinese buildings can be built with either red or gray bricks, but wooden structures are the most common; these are more capable of withstanding earthquakes, but vulnerable to fire. The roof of Chinese buildings are usually curved; there are strict classifications on different types of gables, in the same vein as the classical orders of column designs of Europe.

The privileging of certain colors, numbers and cardinal directions in traditional Chinese Architecture reflected the belief in a type of immanence, where the nature of a thing could not be attributed to a transcendent God or principle but was irreducible from the thing itself. Although the Western tradition gradually developed a body of architectural literature, in China little was written, 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, so a reproduction of the "ideal" city never existed. Beijing as reconstructed throughout the 15th and 16th century remains the best example of traditional Chinese town planning.

Classification by Structure

Chinese classifications for architecture include:

Imperial Architecture

The yellow roof tiles and red walls are visible in this Forbidden City image of a building under snow.
Fig 3

There were certain architectural features that were reserved for the Emperor of China. The most noticeable were the yellow roof tiles; yellow was the Imperial color, so 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, 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.

The Chinese dragon, an emblem reserved for the imperial regime, were heavily used on imperial architecture - on the roofs, on the beams and pillars, and on the doors. Only the buildings used by the imperial family were allowed to have nine gan (space between two columns); only the gates used by the Emperor could have five arches, with the center one, of course, being reserved for the Emperor himself.

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 number) and reason why The Forbidden City in Beijing is said to have 9,999.5 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 sitting Imperial buildings is a form of solar worship found in many ancient cultures, where the notion of Ruler is affiliated with the Sun.

Commoner Architecture

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 stories, the length of the building and the colors used depended on the owner's class.

Longhua Pagoda in Shanghai built during the Three Kingdoms.
Rolf Müller, 2004
Fig 4

Religious Architecture

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. 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.




Weston, Richard. 2002. Utzon : inspiration, vision, architecture. Hellerup: Blondal.


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