Ancient Chinese Architecture

Ancient Chinese Architecture

China boasts some of the greatest cultural continuity in the world. Artistic, linguistic, and cultural motifs that first appeared thousands of years ago still hold important places in the nation today. This makes it an interesting place to study things like architecture. China’s architectural record dates back to roughly the 3rd century BCE, but it’s apparent that we’re dealing with some pretty ancient ideas. Now, obviously different imperial dynasties had different tastes, so the arts do change slightly between different eras. We won’t be able to discuss every style of architecture in China’s long history, but we can look at some major themes–themes that have defined China for quite a long time. Chinese architecture has a time-honored history and great achievement. Chinese ancient architecture is one of the important parts of art appreciation.   

Introduction of Ancient Chinese Architecture

Development of Chinese Ancient Architecture

In the Paleolithic Age, men lived on fishery and hunting, and were sheltered in trees and caves. In the Neolithic Age, men engaged in raising animals and farming, and settled down by digging caves and by building simple houses with twigs and lumber, thus commencing their architectural activities.

During the 3,000 years of the feudalist society, Chinese ancient architecture formulated gradually its unique system, coupled with a considerable progress in urban planning, garden designing, and house construction technique. In 221 B.C., the First Emperor of the Qin Empire mobilized the resources of the country to do construction works on a massive scale, including A’Fang Palace, the Emperor’s Mausoleum, the Great Wall and the Dujiangyan Water-Conservancy Project. From then on, many more massive construction works of lasting fame were carried out in the history of China.


When looking at the major themes of ancient Chinese architecture, one of the most important is material. While many ancient civilizations built heavily in stone, the ancient Chinese preferred to work in wood. This is why our knowledge of Chinese architecture does not predate the 3rd century BCE, despite China’s civilization being roughly 5,000 years old. Wood deteriorates over time. So, why did the Chinese use this material? After all, they were gifted at stone construction, as famously evidenced by their defensive walls.

Chinese architecture relied on wood largely because of the versatility of the material. Wood is lighter than stone, which allowed the ancient Chinese to build larger structures at a very early date. It’s also flexible. Wooden structures can bend and move without breaking, which again allowed the Chinese to create massive structures that would not buckle or collapse. The use of wood over stone made Chinese architecture structurally different than the buildings of other ancient cultures. The weight of the structure was almost entirely placed on the internal columns, with no weight resting on the walls. A system of interlocking brackets between the column and crossbeam of the ceiling, called a dougong, also helped disperse the weight of the structure. The dougong system is completely unique to this region, and it’s one of the most definitive elements of ancient Chinese architecture.


The next major theme of Chinese architecture is the layout. Chinese aesthetics were very consistent and existed within a unified system of art, so Chinese structures were defined by the same rules as paintings, sculpture, and even music. Two of the most fundamental elements of this aesthetic are symmetry and balance. Basically, the completed work must feel balanced, with various visual elements carrying different artistic weight. As a result, the basic layout was that of a complex. The complex was like a canvas, and each structure within it related to others as if objects in a painting. Symmetry and balance were attained by dividing the complex along a central axis. Buildings on opposite ends of the central axis often mirrored each other, with courtyards separating them. The basic layout was used in everything from entire cities, to imperial palace complexes, to single homes. The home of a wealthy elite, for example, may feature a large courtyard in the middle, with the rooms on all sides mirroring each other in design and function. Everything was designed according to this consistent aesthetic.

Architectural types

Commoner’s Architecture:
The homes of commoners, bureaucrats, farmers had a different pattern. The centre of the building was a shrine for deities and ancestors which would also be used during festivities. On the two sides of the shrine were bedrooms for elders.

The two wings of the building including the living room, the dining room and the kitchen were for the junior members. The houses were usually built in U shaped with a courtyard suitable for farm work.

Religious Architecture:
Golden statue Buddhist architecture followed the imperial style. A Buddhist monastery had a front hall with the statue of Bodhisattva. This was followed by a great hall having statues of the Buddhas. Accommodations for monks and nuns were at the two sides.


A sancai (tri-colored) ceramic mansion from the Tang dynasty(618–907), excavated from a Tang era tomb at Zhongbu village in the western suburbs of Xi’an.

The rectangular compound shown above has two sections of courtyards. The buildings on the axle line include central entrance, four-pointed pavilion, mountain-shaped front hall, artificial mountain and ponds, eight-pointed pavilion and mountain-shaped retiring quarters. The two sides of the central axle are arranged with corridor rooms symmetrically.

Architectural bilateral symmetry

The Wonderland of Fanghu in the Old Summer Palace.It was destroyed by the Anglo-French Allied Forces in 1860.(Fanghu is one of the wonderlands on the sea in Chinese myths.It is the same as Fangzhang.“方壶”,同“方丈”,是中国传说中海上三仙山之一。)

A very important feature in Chinese architecture is its emphasis on articulation and bilateral symmetry, which signifies balance. Bilateral symmetry and the articulation of buildings are found everywhere in Chinese architecture, from palace complexes to humble farmhouses. When possible, plans for renovation and extension of a house will often try to maintain this symmetry provided that there is enough capital to do so. Secondary elements have positioned either side of main structures as two wings to maintain overall bilateral symmetry. The buildings are typically planned to contain an even number of columns in a structure to produce an odd number of bays (間). With the inclusion of a main door to a building in the center bay, symmetry is maintained.

In contrast to the buildings, the Chinese gardens tend to be asymmetrical. The principle underlying the garden’s composition is to create enduring flow. The design of the classic Chinese garden is based on the ideology of “Nature and Man in One”, as opposed to the home itself, which is a symbol of the human sphere co-existing with, but separate from nature. So, the arrangement is as flexible as possible to let people feel they are surrounded by and in harmony with nature. The two essential elements of the garden are hill stones and water. The hill stones mean the pursuit of immortality and water represents emptiness and existence. The mountain belongs to yang (static beauty) and the water belongs to yin (dynamic wonder). They depend on each other and complete the whole nature.


In much of traditional Chinese architecture, buildings or building complexes take up an entire property but enclose open spaces within themselves. These enclosed spaces come in two forms,

  • Courtyard (院): The use of open courtyards is a common feature in many types of Chinese architecture. This is best exemplified in the Siheyuan, which has consisted of an empty space surrounded by buildings connected with one another either directly or through verandas.
  • “Sky well” (天井): Although large open courtyards are less commonly found in southern Chinese architecture, the concept of an “open space” surrounded by buildings, which is seen in northern courtyard complexes, can be seen in the southern building structure known as the “sky well”. This structure is essentially a relatively enclosed courtyard formed from the intersections of closely spaced buildings and offer small opening to the sky through the roof space from the floor up.

These enclosures serve in temperature regulation and in venting the building complexes. Northern courtyards are typically open and facing the south to allow the maximum exposure of the building windows and walls to the sun while keeping the cold northern winds out. Southern sky wells are relatively small and serves to collect rain water from the roof tops. They perform the same duties as the Roman impluvium while restricting the amount of sunlight that enters the building. Sky wells also serve as vents for rising hot air, which draws cool air from the lower stories of the house and allows for exchange of cool air with the outside.


A tomb mural of Xinzhou, dated to the Northern Qi (550-577 AD) period, showing a hall with a tiled roof, dougong brackets, and doors with giant door knockers (perhaps made of bronze)

The projected hierarchy and importance and uses of buildings in traditional Chinese architecture are based on the strict placement of buildings in a property/complex. Buildings with doors facing the front of the property are considered more important than those facing the sides. Buildings facing away from the front of the property are the least important.

South-facing buildings in the rear and more private location of the property with higher exposure to sunlight are held in higher esteem and reserved for elder members of the family or ancestral plaques. Buildings facing east and west are generally for junior members or branches of the family, while buildings near the front are typically for servants and hired help.

Front-facing buildings in the back of properties are used particularly for rooms of celebratory rites and for the placement of ancestral halls and plaques. In multiple courtyard complexes, central courtyards and their buildings are considered more important than peripheral ones, the latter typically being used as storage or servants’ rooms or kitchens.

Horizontal emphasis

Classical Chinese buildings, especially those of the wealthy, are built with an emphasis on breadth and less on height, featuring an enclosed heavy platform and a large roof that floats over this base, with the vertical walls not well emphasized. Buildings that were too high and large were considered unsightly, and therefore generally avoided. Chinese architecture stresses the visual impact of the width of the buildings, using sheer scale to inspire awe in visitors. This preference contrasts Western architecture, which tends to grow in height and depth. This often meant that pagodas towered above all other buildings in the skyline of a Chinese city.

The halls and palaces in the Forbidden City, 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. These ideas have found their way into modern Western architecture, for example through the work of Jørn Utzon.

Chinese architecture from early times used concepts from Chinese cosmology such as feng shui (geomancy) and Taoism to organize construction and layout from common residences to imperial and religious structures. This includes the use of:

  • Screen walls to face the main entrance of the house, which stems from the belief that evil things travel in straight lines.
  • Talismans and imagery of good fortune:
    • Door gods displayed on doorways to ward off evil and encourage the flow of good fortune
    • Three anthropomorphic figures representing Fu Lu Shou (福祿壽 fú-lù-shòu) stars are prominently displayed, sometimes with the proclamation “the three stars are present” (三星宅 sān-xīng-zhài)
    • Animals and fruits that symbolize good fortune and prosperity, such as bats and pomegranates, respectively. The association is often done through rebuses.
  • Orienting the structure with its back to elevated landscape and ensuring that there is water in the front. Considerations are also made such that the generally windowless back of the structure faces the north, where the wind is coldest in the winter.
  • Ponds, pools, wells, and other water sources are usually built into the structure.
  • Aligning a building along a north/south axis, with the building facing south and the two sides facing east and west respectively.

Four Characteristics of Ancient Chinese Architecture

The detailed elements, colonnades, sandalwood, foundation supports and cornices extracted from Chinese ancient architectures have become the modern architectures languages. Compared to masonry structure system of western ancient architecture, Chinese ancient architecture has its own system. The top four characteristics are as following:

1. Wood-based. Wood-based structure architecture has many advantages: the protection structure and supported structure are separated, therefore, the architecture has nice earthquake resistance, and the materials are easy to get. While it also has some disadvantages such as: easy to get fire, and suffer termite damage, so it’s keeping time is shorter than masonry structure architecture. In China, masonry structure is used in pagoda. The metal used in architecture is bronze, such as Bowen Palace in forbidden city, Golden Temple at WuDangshan Temple, Bronze Hall of the Taihegong Taoist Temple.

2. Staging system is the main principle in wood-based structure architecture: four columns and sandalwoods consist of a room. Generally speaking, Chinese ancient architecture always has an odd number of rooms, such as three rooms, five rooms, seven rooms, nine rooms. The larger numbers of rooms the architecture has, the class of the architecture is higher, for example, the Taihe Temple in Forbidden City has eleven rooms, and it’s the existing architecture at the highest level. Actually, the shape of roof of Chinese official architecture is large, and magnificence is the most obvious characteristic of ancient Chinese architecture.

3. Dou-gong is the critical part of the timber frame. It has special external frame: many layers of stylobate, colorful curving-slope roof, courtyard type buildings. From the culture relics being unearthed from mausoleum of Han Dynasty, we can find the courtyard type buildings appear in more than two thousand years of paintings. And the magnificent Forbidden City of Ming and Qing Dynasty adopted the complicated enclosed forms.

4. Chinese ancient architecture embodies Chinese ritual system thoughts. And Chinese ancient architecture stresses the hierarchical idea, pattern, scale, color, structure; all of these have strict regulations. To some extent, it developed the architectural form; meanwhile, it restricted the development of architecture. Besides, the ideology of the unity of heaven and man is also demonstrated in the development process of Chinese ancient architecture, which promotes the mutual coordination and integration of architecture and nature.