Wood Carving and Chinese Architecture

Wood Carving

 The archaeological excavations show that the essential techniques of woodcarving had been pretty much complete at the time prior to Qin dynasty (221–207 BC). Carving in intaglio (yinke 阴刻), in relief (yangdiao 阳雕, either raised 浮雕 or piercing through 镂空), and in the round (lidiao 立雕) all reached a highly developed state.

Introduction of Wood Carving and Chinese Architecture

Carving Skills

And in furniture, the woodcarving skills came into full play. Edifices of traditional wood structures were another arena for woodcarvers to fully wield their talents; thus came the popular set-phrase, or almost cliché, to describe highly decorated buildings as diaoliang huadong (雕梁畫棟, carved beams and painted pillars, for extreme, elaborate luxury).

 Aside from furniture and buildings, carving skills are also showcased in wood sculptures of religious figures. Buddhism thrived during the Six Dynasties (220–589) and subsequent Sui (581–618) and Tang periods (618–907) ; there were robust activities in the carving of wood statues. The works from the period could be found and seen today. As for wood statues made in North Song (960-1126), from what have been able to survive, those of Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音) in various postures are most admired. They are either sitting in lotus posture, or performing abhaya (“no-fear”) mudra, or standing, or in meditation, all with comely and fitting bearing and serene composure, a true statement representative of the marvels of the highly skillful woodcarving art at the time.


The Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) placed a very high value on the “Hundred Crafts”. Artisans of superb workmanship were accorded a respectful title “Maestro Artisan (也可兀闌)”. The new institution of jianghu (匠戶, Artisan Household) registry allowed the carving skills passing from the father to the son for generations, until well into Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Woodcarving as a craft, however, still belonged under other professions such as architecture, furniture, and religious statues making. After mid-Ming, the carving arts became an independent craft category in its own right. However, many carving artists though famous for one single craft never confined themselves to that one single medium during their lifetime. For example, renowned bamboo carvers Zhu Ying (朱纓) and Pu Cheng (濮澄) both carved on wood as well. Rhinoceros horn expert Bao Tiancheng (鮑天成) also did his art on ivory and red sandalwood. Into the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), there was a woodworking workshop, even one specifically called Canton woodworking workshop, installed under the Workshops of the Imperial Household Department (內廷作坊). The talented carvers nevertheless devoted most of their time to ivory carving, with wood carving only as a side job. It was the same outside the palace; no artisans could afford carving wood alone as an art or craft. It had to be part of furniture making or wood-framed structure building, or at the best carried out in rendering religious statues.

Ideal Material

Wood of fine grain is the prerequisite for successful fine carving. After polishing, it has to be fine to the touch, i.e. smooth and soft. The most ideal material is boxwood (黃楊木). In addition, Qienan (伽楠) incense wood (aloeswood, 沉香木) and sandalwood (檀香木) are known for their nice aroma, whereas ebony’s (烏木) appeal is in its hues and sheen. Gnarled wood (癭木) gets its name from its many knots, lumps, and snarls. Woodcarving artisans took advantage of this interesting natural form and subtly fashioned it into original artwork, with minimum and “invisible” knife work.

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