The people of China have been expressing their cultural beliefs through architecture as long as civilization has been in existence. Their core principles of structural design have remained relatively static over thousands of years; only the ornamental attributes have been altered. Chinese culture has had such a great influence on the majority of Asia that similar styles of architecture can be seen in Vietnam, Japan, and Korea. It is said that the only reason for which their architectural techniques have remained unchanged throughout four-thousand years of repeated infiltrations by foreign bodies is because architecture is so closely intertwined with the very fabric of Chinese culture itself. In this article, we will discuss the chief components of Chinese architecture, as well as take an in-depth look at its history.
The architecture in China typically features five components that define its existence. The first is called Architectural Bilateral Symmetry, which, in layman’s terms, means balance. It is intended that buildings appear equal on both sides of the center; to accomplish this, an even number of columns is used to create an odd number of exterior panels. Enclosure is an additional feature of Chinese architecture; this is when a courtyard is established in the middle of a ring of buildings. This is typically only found in Northern China; Southern China uses a slightly different structure which is called a ‘skywell’. A skywell is created by the intersections of tightly-spaced buildings and is traditionally used to regulate temperature and collect rainwater. The importance of buildings is another key feature; this is known as Hierarchy. More important buildings are situated so that their doors face the front of the property, lesser important buildings face toward the sides, and the least important buildings face to the rear of the property. Conversely, placing a building in the rear of the property or in a relatively private location is considered to be highly respectful as a place for the elderly or ancestral worship. When this is done, the living quarters for servants, storage areas, and the kitchen are placed along the sides of the property so that the courtyard setting can be maintained. Horizontal Emphasis also contributes to the architectural style; this is when the wealthy tend to build very wide structures in order to indicate their importance; this disagrees with the Western tradition of building up and out to signify wealth. Mythology also plays a large part in the architecture of the region. For instance, screen walls face the main entrance of the house to ward off evil things that travel in straight lines. Also, talismans that represent good fortune are displayed in many places to bring about prosperity and evade negative energy. It is also important to make certain the the rear of the structure faces the north to deflect cold winter winds; the building should have water in front of it, too.
The buildings themselves are beautifully crafted entities that are typically built without the use of nails or glue. This is accomplished through the use of large, load-bearing timbers and doweling and joint-work that create an incredibly snug fit. Curtains and door panels are used to enclose a building, or to hide load-bearing walls in the construction of high-class buildings. Gabled roofs are essentially the ‘only roof’ in existence because they are the preferred style over flat roofing. The most economical type of roof is a straight-inclined roof which is common in the architecture of lower-classes. Multi-inclined roofs are used in wealthy architecture, whereas the largest roofs, known as ‘sweeping’, are usually seen only in temples and palaces, although they are also sometimes included in the homes of the extraordinary wealthy.
There are three main types of buildings that are prevalent in Chinese architecture. These are composed of commoner, imperial, and religious structures. Commoner structures are built in a manner so that a shrine sits in the center of the house, surrounded by bedrooms for the elders and the other necessary rooms such as a kitchen, living room, dining room, and quarters for the younger members of the family. Imperial structures are typically built with yellow roof tiles and red wood to symbolize their importance. Also, these buildings are the only ones that are allowed to have nine space between two columns. Religious structures are the final classification of Chinese architecture. These generally follow the imperial style in that they have a front hall which holds a statue of a Bodhisattva, and a great hall beyond that which contains the statues of the Buddhas.
We know little about the origins of Chinese architecture because much of the evidence prior to the Shang and Zhou Dynasties has disappeared due to floods, biodegradation, war, or time itself. During these two dynasties, however, it is presumed that roofed buildings were implemented, although no concrete findings from the time period have been found. It is during the Han Dynasty that the modern Chinese style of roofing came into being. Over the course of several hundred years, the glazed tiles that were used for roofing improved in design and durability, and bricks began being used more often, albeit if only on religious and imperial structures. Buildings began to define the Chinese people; the larger or more ornate the building, the wealthier its inhabitants were. This caused Chinese society to become increasingly stratified by social class.
The Tang Dynasty, which is referred to as ‘China’s Golden Age’ due to the economic and political stability of the time, allowed all forms of art to flourish. This is when many advances in brick-making and structural stability were made, and buildings of all kinds were constructed. For nearly 100 years following this time, however, China fell in disrepair. Political and economic instability, war, and government corruption caused society to nearly move backwards in their technological evolution; the monetary system was reduced to bartering and many prominent structures were destroyed. After this period of destruction, however, Chinese architecture flourished once again. Great structures were erected – pagodas, palaces, pavilions, and multi-story buildings all shared in the diversity of the new architectural style. This technique focused on smaller, better designed, more beautifully crafted structures over large, omnipotent buildings. The Ming and Qing Dynasties marked the end of imperial rule in China; they did not, however, discontinue their building efforts. These two dynasties allowed for structures to be built on a massive scale – cities expanded, defensive walls were constructed, standards were put in place. The Great Wall of China became successively greater, and it took on an appearance in which its name was more than just a name, it was a defining characteristic of the era. The Ming Dynasty moved the country’s capital to Beijing, and created the now famous ‘Forbidden City’, a place of architectural beauty reserved for royal nobles. As a sort of last stand, the Qing Dynasty created the Terra cotta Army as a sign of their architectural prowess. Since that time, Chinese architecture has remained relatively stagnant, although minor alterations have been made here and there in reference to building materials and design.
Chinese architecture is, in essence, a thing of the past. While it has undergone minor changes during the last four-thousand years, much of the underlying methodology was instituted during the high rule of imperial dynasties. It is during that time that glazed tile, brick, and joint-work came into its own as a respectable entity for building things with. Perhaps in the future the architectural styles of China will change as rapidly as they did in the past, or perhaps they will remain as they are today. As the old adage states, ‘Only time will tell’.