Traditional Chinese Roof Architecture

Traditional Chinese Roof Architecture

Traditional Chinese architecture is not only as old as Chinese civilization with 5,000 years of history but unique in the world, particularly when the roof system is concerned, both in terms of its multi-layered dougong structure – a set of interlocking wooden brackets that supports the massive roofs – and its visual style in shape, size and color. Most Chinese roofs had large overhangs that were not just for an artistic effect but also functioned as guard from the rain and sunlight. 

Introduction of Traditional Chinese Roof Architecture

Chinese roof decoration / roof charms / roof-figures:

  • Each figure protects the building in a different way. 

  • Imperial yellow glaze reserved for the emperor.

  • The number of animals, between the two figures indicates the importance of the building. The maximum number of beasts is nine.

  • At the tail of the procession will be an imperial dragon, representing the authority of the state.

  • Roof animals have been part of the decorations on roofs at least since the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). Many of the figures were also found in Han funerary objects buried with the deceased to protect and feed them in the next life.

  • Examples: 
  • Dragon called a chiwen. Protects the building from fire by controlling the rain and the sea.. Dragons are associated with water in Chinese mythology and thus have the power to extinguish fire with rain.  It is the primary symbol of the imperial throne. The chiwen is one of the nine sons of the dragon king.
  • Man riding a chicken 
  • Man riding a phoenix
  • Phoenix – Phoenix is the king of birds and controls the wind and air. Bring happiness and good luck.
  • Lion – King of the beasts and the most powerful of the animals. The lion protects the country and the imperial rule, indicates the power of the owner.
  • Heavenly horse – Can run like the wind and travel thousands of miles in a day.
  • Sea horse – Has control over water to protect buildings from fire.
  • Bull  –  Dispels evil and fights the enemy with its horns.
  • Goat-bull  
  • Fish – Wind-and storm-summoning

Classic Chinese Residential Roofs

Overhanging Gable Roof

Overhanging gable roof for residential buildings in southern China

The overhanging gable roof is the most common residential roof type in south of Yangtze River where the climate is humid and warm. The wide eaves are designed to keep the upper parts of the timber structure from the rain.

Flush Gable Roof

Traditional flush gable roof for residential buildings in northern China

The flush gable roof is the most common residential roof style used in the north of Yangtze River where the climate is relatively cold and dry.

Roof with High Firewalls

Traditional Chinese residential roof with high firewalls

The firewalls at both ends could be in various height and shape. The residential buildings with this type of roof are commonly seen in windy Anhui and Zhejiang provinces in southern China.

Single Slope Roof

Traditional Chinese single pitch roof

This type of roof is often seen on residential buildings in Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces in northern China where the climate condition is quite windy and cold with heavy snowfall in winter.

Gable and Single Slope Roofs

Traditional Chinese multi-hip roof

Multi-gable roofs are commonly used on multi-storey residential buildings in Zhejiang Province in China’s humid southeast coastal region where it rains frequently.

Gable and Single Slope Roofs

Traditional Chinese multi-facade hip roofs for residential building

This type of roof is quite common on the residential buildings in southern China.

Multi-Eave Gable and Hip RoofsTraditional Chinese multi-leveled hip roofs

Multi-eave gable and hip roofs are commonly seen on the residential buildings in hot and humid southern China.

Gable Roofs for Stilt Houses

Traditional Chinese roof for stilt houses in mountain areas

Roofs for stilt houses in mountain areas in China’s subtropical southwest

3 Features of Chinese Roof Architecture

1. Timber Jointing Systems

Joints were favored over metal fixings. The interlocking and overlapping columns and crossbeams made the roofs not just strong, but also interesting to look at.

2. Graceful Curved Shapes

The upturned eaves on roof corners are the most identifiable mark of Chinese roof architecture. The upturned roof design appeared during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and were the standard type used until the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279).

3. Round tiles

Rounded tiles were most commonly used with profiles of arcs and semicircles. The most popular way to interlock rounded tiles was to place rows of cupped tiles on the roof, then rows of arched tiles spanning between them, their edges inside the cupped tiles.

4 Classic Types of Roofs

There were many kinds of roofs in ancient Chinese architecture. Different roof forms were used for different types of buildings. Here are the four main types in order of hierarchy.

1. Hip Roofs

Hip roofs (庑殿顶 wǔdiàndǐng or 四阿顶 sìādǐng), with all sides sloping, were the classiest traditional roof style, used for special constructions.

There were two kinds of hip roof: single-eave and double-eave. Double eaves were only used in royal palaces and Confucian temples during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties. The roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City is the best example.

2. Resting Hill Roofs

‘Resting hill’ or Xie Shan roofs (歇山顶 xiēshāndǐng), with two curving sides, were second in importance to hip roofs. They were mainly used for important halls, temples, gardens, and other official buildings.

There were two styles of Xie Shan roof: mono-eave and double-eave. The Hall of Preserving Harmony in the Forbidden City has a resting mountain roof with double eaves.

3. Hanging Hill Roofs

Hanging hill roofs (悬山顶 xuánshāndǐng) have two straight, overhanging slopes. They were third grade roofs, after hip roofs and resting mountain roofs.

They were one of the most frequently used roof designs for more well-to-do premises in China. The most obvious feature is eaves overhanging the gable walls by three-tenths of the wall height.

4. Hard Hill Roofs

Hard hill roofs (硬山顶 yìngshāndǐng) had a main ridge and raised sloping ridges on the gable walls. It was a very simple style with two slopes facing front and back.

Considered a low-grade roof style in China, in the Ming and Qing dynasties hard hill roofs were mostly used in common buildings.