Chinese Wooden Architecture

Chinese wooden architecture

Ancient Chinese wooden architecture is among the least studied of any of the world’s great architectural traditions from the western point of view. Although Chinese architectural history reaches far back in time, descriptions of Chinese architecture are often confined to the well known Forbidden City with little else explored by the West. Although common features of Chinese architecture have been unified into a vocabulary illustrating uniquely Chinese forms and methods until recently data has not been available. Because of the lack of knowledge of the roots of Chinese architecture, the description of its elements is often translated into Western terms and architectural theory, losing its unique Chinese meanings. A cause of this deficiency is that the two most important Chinese government architecture manuals, the Song Dynasty Yingzao Fashi and Qing Architecture Standards have never been translated into any western language.

Introduction of Chinese Wooden Architecture

Historical records

Ancient Chinese architecture has numerous similar elements in part, because of the early Chinese method of standardizing and prescribing uniform features of structures. The standards are recorded in bureaucratic manuals and drawings that were passed down through generations and dynasties. These account for the similar architectural features persisting over thousands of years, starting with the earliest evidence of Chinese imperial urbanism, now available through excavations starting in the early 1980s. The plans include, for example, two-dimensional architectural drawings as early as the first millennium AD, and explain the strong tendency for the shared architectural features in Chinese architecture, that evolved through a complicated but unified evolutionary process over the millennia. Generations of builders and craftsmen recorded their work and the collectors who collated the information into building standards (for example Yingzao Fashi) and Qing Architecture Standards were widely available, in fact strictly mandated, and passed down. The recording of architectural practice and details facilitated a transmission throughout the subsequent generations of the unique system of construction that became a body of unique architectural characteristics.

More recently, the dependence on text for archaeological descriptions has yielded to the realization that archaeological excavations by the People’s Republic of Chinaprovides better evidence of Chinese daily life and ceremonies from the Neolithic times to the more recent centuries. For example, the excavation of tombs has provided evidence to produce facsimiles of wooden building parts and yielded site plans several thousand years old. The recent excavation of the Prehistoric Beifudi site is an example.

Three components make up the foundation of ancient Chinese architecture: the foundation platform, the timber frame, and the decorative roof. In addition, the most fundamental feature is a four-sided rectangular enclosure, that is, structures with walls that are formed at right angles and oriented cardinally. The traditional Chinese belief in a square-shaped universe with the four world quarters is manifested physically in its architecture.

Structural features

  • Foundation platform

By the middle Neolithic period, the use of rammed earth and unbaked mud bricks was prevalent. Hangtu (loess), the pounding of layers of earth to make walls, altars, and foundations remained an element of Chinese construction for the next several millennia. The Great Wall of China, built of Hangtu, was erected beginning in the first millennium BC. Sundried mud bricks and rammed mud walls were typically constructed within wood frames. Hard pounded earth floors were strengthened by heating.

Roof and ceiling

In traditional Chinese architecture, every facet of a building was decorated using various materials and techniques. Simple ceiling ornamentations in ordinary buildings were made of wooden strips and covered with paper. More decorative was the lattice ceiling, constructed of woven wooden strips or sorghum stems fastened to the beams. Because of the intricacy of its ornamentation, elaborate cupolas were reserved for the ceilings of the most important structures, such as tombs and altars, although it is not clear what the spiritual beliefs of the early Chinese were, as altars appear to have served as burial sites.[1][page needed] In traditional Chinese architecture, the layered pieces of the ceiling are held together by interlocking bracket sets (斗拱 dǒugǒng).

Elaborate wooden coffers (藻井 zǎojǐng) bordered by a round, square, or polygon frame with its brackets projecting inward and upward from its base were used around the 7th century. Deeply recessed panels shaped like a well (square at the base with a rounded top) were fitted into the ceiling’s wooden framework. The center panel of the ceiling was decorated with water lilies or other water plants. The relationship of the name to water has been linked to an ancient fear that wooden buildings would be destroyed by fire and that water from the zǎojǐngwould prevent or quell the fire’s flames.

Characteristics of Ancient Chinese Wooden Architecture

The wooden buildings of ancient China, whether they are royal palaces or folk houses, whether they are located in the densely populated capitals or thinly populated mountainous areas, follow the same architectural system, which has three basic elements, a huge foundation platform, a timber frame and body, wooden ceiling with decorated roof. Here are the five structure features of Chinese wooden architecture. Firstly, timber is primary materials, and the crossbeam-column structure is commonly used. Secondly, Dougong (brackets inserted between the top of a column and a crossbeam) is the key point. Thirdly, due to the limited size of the timber, a single building can not be as large and spacious as the stone or brick building, so the traditional Chinese architectures are in groups like the Siheyuan courtyard dwellings. Fourthly, the layout complies with the bilateral symmetry. Fifthly, Chinese wooden architectures are refined with the unique colors and decorations such as wooden carving, brick carving, stone carving, colored glaze decoration. 

5 Features of China’s Ancient Wooden Buildings

Architectural bilateral symmetry

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 are 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, the:

  • Courtyard (院): The use of open courtyards is a common feature in many types of Chinese architectures. 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.


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.

Cosmological concepts

Model of a Chinese Siheyuanin Beijing, which shows off the symmetry, enclosed heavy platform and a large roof that floats over this base, with the vertical walls not as well emphasized.

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:
    • 1 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.

Famous Ancient Chinese Wooden Architecture