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Chinese Architecture

Chinese architecture has existed as an indigenous style for as long as we have records for with principal characteristics that have stayed unchanged since prehistoric times with the major changes coming in the decoration. Korea, Vietnam and Japan have been majorly influenced by Chinese architecture since the Tang Dynasty. The cost vs space ratio has seen a decline in the number of Chinese buildings being constructed in the cities with a move towards western high rise towers but in the vast expanse of the countryside traditional methods are still used.

Chinese Architectural Features: Architectural Bilateral Symmetry

Chinese architecture places an emphasis on balance through articulation and bilateral symmetry. This is found everywhere from tiny village homes to the grandest of palaces including the Forbidden City. Extensions or additions to a property would see the new buildings placed either side of a main structure in order to keep this symmetry. Chinese gardens however don’t tend to follow these principals as they are meant to represent the flow of energy.

Chinese Architectural Features: Enclosure

While western housing usually has a building with an open garden or yard surrounding the outside of the building, Chinese architecture has essentially the opposite features. In Northern China, for example Beijing, you will commonly see “Siheyuan” or courtyard property. These have a central courtyard area that is surrounded by buildings that are joined directly or by verandas. These are usually South facing in order to pick up us much sunlight as possible while keeping the harsh Northern winds out.

In Southern China you see more of a “sky well” a much smaller open space like a kind of skylight that is much more enclosed than the space in the North and enables the hot air to escape while minimizing the heat gathered from the sun and drawing the cold air up from the lower levels, keeping the building cooler.

Chinese Architectural Features: Hierarchy

The importance of a building can be seen from the placement of that building within a complex. If the door of a building faces the front of a property it would be considered more important than one facing the side. The further you move out from the central building the less important that building is with the servants generally living in the buildings on the periphery of the property.

Chinese Architectural Features: Horizontal Emphasis

In Chinese architecture the width of a building is considered important not the height with a large overhanging roof. While important buildings in the West would look to have high ceilings to show power, Chinese buildings will stretch out. This is best demonstrated by looking at the Forbidden City. This doesn’t apply to pagodas which are found in religious complexes.

Chinese Architectural Features: Mythical Concepts

Since early times elements of Chinese belief such as Feng Shui have been a major part of the layout and construction of Chinese buildings. This has included the use of various different techniques such as Screen Walls facing the entrance of a house to stop evil spirits which were believed to only move in straight lines and Symbols of luck and good fortune to encourage the flow of “qi” energy through the building. Other practices include making sure the back of the property faces raised landscape and making sure there are water sources such as pools and ponds within the property.

Chinese Construction Style: Structure

Buildings were generally built on raised platforms, these could be made of stone for those from the upper class while they would be made of rammed earth for the commoners.
Large trimmed logs were used as columns and beams to make the frame of the building.
Dowelling was used instead of glue and nails to join the structure together allowing the wooden frame to flex in case of earthquakes and to absorb any shockwaves.

Most higher class buildings used panels or curtains as walls with less load-bearing walls. Non religious and government buildings would increasingly have stone walls due to a continual reduction over time of access to timber.

There were 3 main types of roofs, with flat roofs being uncommon. These are Straight inclined, the cheapest type of roof and standard for commoners. There were multi inclined roofs for the wealthier commoners and some palaces and finally the Sweeping roofs that you would mainly see in the homes of the most wealthy, palaces and temples that curved and raised up in the corners. These would often be decorated along the ridges and would be painted gold for the imperial and green as a sign of longevity and youth.

Chinese Construction Style: Materials

Due to most of the older constructions in China being wooden, most have not survived and the oldest pagoda in existence today, the Songyue Pagoda, dates back to 523. It has survived for the simple reason that brick was used in its construction and this was to become an increasingly normal practice from the Tang Dynasty onwards. Before the Great Wall was renovated into a stone wall it had originally been built using rammed earth. The stone and brick seen nowadays came from the Ming dynasty.

Chinese Architectural Types: Commoner

Commoners housing generally followed a set pattern whether they were bureaucrats or farmers. In the centre you’d have a shrine for deities and ancestors with the elders of the house having their rooms on either side. The side rooms would be for the younger members of the family, these were know as “guardian dragons. All buildings were regulated by the authorities and you would know the social status of someone by the length, colour and height of the building.

Chinese Architectural Types: Imperial

Certain architectural features were only available to the Emperor such as yellow roof tiles with gold and yellow being imperial only colours. The Forbidden City in Beijing still has mostly yellow roof tiles. The Temple of Heaven, on the other hand, has a blue roof as it symbolizes the sky. The roofs were supported by brackets that were only otherwise used on the largest of religious buildings. You may notice on China tours the use of black in pagodas as it is believed that this colour attracted the gods to earth. Numerology was also important in Imperial construction with the Forbidden City said to have 9,999.9 rooms, just a fraction short of the 10,000 rooms of heaven.

Chinese Architectural Types: Religious

Buddhist architecture tended to follow the imperial style but also had pagodas where they would keep relics and texts. The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian houses the scriptures brought by the eminent Buddhist monk Xuanzang. Older pagodas had four sides with newer ones having eight.
Quite differently, Daoist architecture followed the commoners style with the entrance on the side though due to Feng Shui.

Chinese Architectural Types: Modern

The communist period from 1949 to 1979 built huge swaths of bland, functional and pragmatic architecture across China’s cities.

There are a few showcases from this period such as Beijing’s Great Hall of the People which is a radical departure from traditional Chinese architecture and was heavily influenced by the large communist edifices found in Russia.

Much of what was built during this period was based on the concept of work units where workers lived and worked within the same complex. This meant that cities had a mix throughout of factories and residential which later led to many issues with pollution. The breakdown of the work unit system since 1979 has led to huge changes in the landscape of cities with industrial facilities moving out and large residential and office districts being built in their place. Little of this new architecture confirms to any sense of tradition providing a huge break with the past both visually and culturally. Any visitor to China is likely to be overwhelmed (positively or negatively) by this transformation.

In recent years as the wealth has accumulated so has the creation of huge prestige projects such as Beijing’s National Theatre and the CCTV tower. To underline the break with the past most of these new landmarks have been designed by foreign architects – something unthinkable in the past. The Olympic games of 2008 provided perhaps the most iconic building of this new China – the Bird’s Nest stadium (Swiss architects!)

Contributed by Phil Stanley & Headseast


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