History of Chinese Architecture

History of Chinese Architecture

From the circular houses built with mud and wood in the Neolithic period to grand palaces with exquisite roofs to the skyscrapers of today, Chinese architecture has evolved over a long period of time.

Different periods of Chinese Architecture

Neolithic and early antiquity

A model of Jiangzhai, a Yangshao village
Chinese civilizational cultures developed in the plains along the numerous rivers that emptied into the Bohai and Hongzhow bays. The most prominent of these rivers, the Yellow and the Yangtze, hosted a complex fabric of villages. The climate was warmer and more humid than today, allowing for millet to be grown in the north and rice in the south. There was, however, no single “origin” of the Chinese civilization. Instead, there was a gradual multinuclear development between the years 4000 and 2000 BC – from village communities to what anthropologists call cultures to small but well-organized states. 2 of the more important cultures were the Hongshan culture (4700-2900 BC) to the north of Bohai Bay in Inner Mongolia and Hebei Province and the contemporaneous Yangshao culture (5000-3000 BC) in Henan Province.

Earliest examples of ‘Chinese architecture’

The earliest examples of ‘Chinese architecture’are the cave dwellings which many people still inhabit today on the flat yellow plains of Northern China.

Modern cave-dwellings are more often than not equipped with electricity and a TV, but there’s no need for air conditioning since the caves are naturally cool in summer and warm in winter.

Next, people developed simple ‘nest dwellings’ which consisted of a hole dug into the ground and then roofed over with thatch, earth and poles.

In the wet South architecture developed along South-East Asian lines with houses built on platforms raised above the ground on bamboo poles. You can still see this kind of architecture today in minority areas like Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna.

Xia and Shang dynasties

Chinese people developed simple architectural techniques like mortise and tenon joints around 7,000 years ago. By the time of the Xia and Shang dynasties (~2205BC-~1766BC and ~1766BC-~1050BC) the well off were living in houses with walls of packed earth, raised above the earth on mounds of more compact earth.

The bodies of humans and animals have been found in the foundations of these buildings due to the demand for human sacrifice. Slaves generally still lived in nest-dwellings.

Zhou dynasty

Chinese architecture was becoming more sophisticated by the time of the Zhou dynasty (1122-256BC). By this time earthenware roof tiles were used and plaster made from soil, sand and lime was applied to compacted-earth walls.

We can also see the emergence of elements such as the courtyard style of building and of feng-shui, both of which still influence Chinese architecture today.

The best-known achievement of Chinese architecture, the Great Wall of China, was started under the Qin dynasty (221-206BC) which followed the Zhou dynasty. The Qin, with a reputation for martial prowess and tyrannical government, built huge palaces to awe their disobedient subjects.

Han dynasty

The Han dynasty (206BC-220AD) followed the Qin dynasty, and this period saw the entry of Buddhism into China. Buddhism brought new architectural styles with it, and saw the construction of Buddhist pagodas.

Tang and Song dynasty

Chinese arSongchitecture developed further under the Tang dynasty (618-907AD), with the use of brick walls, glazing and sculpture to give a much more decorative effect. The  Dynasty (960-1279AD) saw styles become more elegant and intricate.

Mongol Yuan dynasty

The Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271 – 1368) brought little in the way of architectural innovation with them when they swept down from their steppe on horseback.

Ming and Qing dynasties

The Ming and Qing dynasties saw traditional Chinese architecture reach its peak, with the construction ofthe Temple of Heaven,the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City, all in Beijing.