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Chinese architecture is a style of architecture that has taken shape in East Asia over many centuries. The structural principles of Chinese architecture have remained largely unchanged, the main changes being only the decorative details. Since the Tang Dynasty, Chinese architecture has had a major influence on the architectural styles of Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.
The architecture of China is as old as Chinese civilization. From every source of information—literary, graphic, exemplary—there is strong evidence testifying to the fact that the Chinese have always enjoyed an indigenous system of construction that has retained its principal characteristics from prehistoric times to the present day. Over the vast area from Chinese Turkistan to Japan, from Manchuria to the northern half of French Indochina, the same system of construction is prevalent; and this was the area of Chinese cultural influence. That this system of construction could perpetuate itself for more than four thousand years over such a vast territory and still remain a living architecture, retaining its principal characteristics in spite of repeated foreign invasions—military, intellectual, and spiritual—is a phenomenon comparable only to the continuity of the civilization of which it is an integral part.— Liang, Ssu-ch'eng, 1984
Throughout the 20th Century, Western-trained Chinese architects have attempted to combine traditional Chinese designs into modern architecture (usually government), with only limited success. Moreover, the pressure for urban development throughout contemporary China required higher speed of construction and higher floor area ratio, which means that in the great cities the demand for traditional Chinese buildings, which are normally less than 3 levels, has declined in favor of modern architecture. However, the traditional skills of Chinese architecture, including major and minor carpentry, masonry, and stonemasonry, are still applied to the construction of vernacular architecture in the vast rural area in China.
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, Chinese gardens are a notable exception which tend to be asymmetrical. The principle underlying the garden's composition is to create enduring flow.
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:
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.
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 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.
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. This contrasts Western architecture, which tends to grow in height and depth. Chinese architecture stresses the visual impact of the width of the buildings.
The halls and palaces in the Forbidden City, for example, 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. This of course does not apply to pagodas, which are limited to religious building complexes.
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:
The use of certain colors, numbers and the cardinal directions in traditional Chinese architecture reflected the belief in a type of immanence, where the nature of a thing could be wholly contained in its own form. Although the Western tradition gradually developed a body of architectural literature, little was written on the subject in China, and the earliest text, the Kaogongji, was never disputed. However, ideas about cosmic harmony and the order of the city were usually interpreted at their most basic level, so a reproduction of the "ideal" city never existed. Beijing as reconstructed throughout the 15th and 16th century remains one of the best examples of traditional Chinese town planning.
Unlike other building construction materials, old wooden structures often do not survive because they are more vulnerable to weathering and fires and are naturally subjected to rotting over time. Although now-nonexistent wooden residential towers, watchtowers, and pagodas predated it by centuries, the Songyue Pagoda built in 523 is the oldest extant pagoda in China; its use of brick instead of wood had much to do with its endurance throughout the centuries. From the Tang Dynasty (618–907) onwards, brick and stone architecture gradually became more common and replaced wooden edifices. The earliest examples of this transition can be seen in building projects such as the Zhaozhou Bridge completed in 605 or the Xumi Pagoda built in 636, yet stone and brick architecture is known to have been used in subterranean tomb architecture of earlier dynasties.
In the early 20th century there were no known fully wood-constructed Tang Dynasty buildings that still existed; the oldest so far discovered was the 1931 find of Guanyin Pavilion at Dule Monastery, dated 984 during the Song. This was until the architectural historians Liang Sicheng (1901–1972), Lin Huiyin (1904–1955), Mo Zongjiang (1916–1999), and (1902–c. 1960s) discovered that the Great East Hall of Foguang Temple on Mount Wutai in Shanxi was reliably dated to the year 857 in June 1937. The groundfloor dimensions for this monastic hall measures 34 by 17.66 m (111.5 by 57.9 ft). A year after the discovery at Foguang, the main hall of nearby Nanchan Temple on Mount Wutai was reliably dated to the year 782, while a total of six Tang era wooden buildings have been found by the 21st century. The oldest existent fully wooden pagoda that has survived intact is the Pagoda of Fogong Temple of the Liao Dynasty, located in Ying County of Shanxi. While the East Hall of Foguang Temple features only seven types of bracket arms in its construction, the 11th century Pagoda of Fogong Temple features a total of fifty-four.
The earliest walls and platforms in China were of rammed earth construction, and over time brick and stone became more frequently used. This can be seen in ancient sections of the Great Wall of China, while the brick and stone Great Wall seen today is a renovation of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).
Chinese architecture has been influential in varying degrees in the development of the architecture of many neighboring Asian countries. Chinese architecture has had a major influence on the architectural styles of Korea, Vietnam, and Japan, where the East Asian hip-and-gable roof design is ubiquitous. In Sri Lanka, Chinese architecture has played a significant role in shaping Sri Lankan architecture, alongside influences from Indian and Southeast Asian architecture. The Kandyan roof style, for example bears many similarities to the East Asian hip-and-gable roof technique which as its origins in China. In Thailand, certain Chinese techniques were adopted by Thai artisans after trade commenced with the Yuan and Ming dynasty. Certain temple and palace roof tops were also built in Chinese-style and Chinese-style buildings can be found in Ayutthaya a nod towards the large numbers of Chinese shipbuilders, sailors and traders who came to the country. In Indonesia, mosques bearing Chinese influence can be found in certain parts of the country. This influence is recent in comparison to other parts of Asia and is largely due to the sizable Chinese Indonesian community.
The Chinese-origin guardian lion is also found in front of Buddhist temples, buildings and some Hindu temples (in Nepal) across Asia including Japan, Korea, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Cambodia and Laos.
Chinese classifications for architecture include:
The houses of commoners, be they bureaucrats, merchants or farmers, tended to follow a set pattern: the center of the building would be a shrine for the deities and the ancestors, which would also be used during festivities. On its two sides were bedrooms for the elders; the two wings of the building (known as "guardian dragons" by the Chinese) were for the junior members of the family, as well as the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen, although sometimes the living room could be very close to the center.
Sometimes the extended families became so large that one or even two extra pairs of "wings" had to be built. This resulted in a U-shaped building, with a courtyard suitable for farm work. Merchants and bureaucrats, however, preferred to close off the front with an imposing front gate. All buildings were legally regulated, and the law held that the number of stories, the length of the building and the colours used depended on the owner's class. Some commoners living in areas plagued by bandits built communal fortresses called Tulou for protection.
There were certain architectural features that were reserved solely for buildings built for the Emperor of China. One example is the use of yellow roof tiles, yellow having been the Imperial color; yellow roof tiles still adorn most of the buildings within the Forbidden City. The Temple of Heaven, however, uses blue roof tiles to symbolize the sky. The roofs are almost invariably supported by brackets ("dougong"), a feature shared only with the largest of religious buildings. The wooden columns of the buildings, as well as the surfaces of the walls, tend to be red in color. Black is also a famous color often used in pagodas. It was believed that the gods are inspired by the black color to descend to the earth.
The Chinese 5-clawed dragon, adopted by the first Ming emperor for his personal use, was used as decoration on the beams, pillars, and on the doors on Imperial architecture. Curiously, the dragon was never used on roofs of imperial buildings.
Only the buildings used by the imperial family were allowed to have nine jian (間, space between two columns); only the gates used by the Emperor could have five arches, with the centre one, of course, being reserved for the Emperor himself. The ancient Chinese favored the color red. The buildings faced south because the north had a cold wind.
Beijing became the capital of China after the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, completing the easterly migration of the Chinese capital begun since the Jin dynasty. The Ming uprising in 1368 reasserted Chinese authority and fixed Beijing as the seat of imperial power for the next five centuries. The Emperor and the Empress lived in palaces on the central axis of the Forbidden City, the Crown Prince at the eastern side, and the concubines at the back (therefore the numerous imperial concubines were often referred to as "The Back Palace Three Thousand"). However, during the mid-Qing Dynasty, the Emperor's residence was moved to the western side of the complex. It is misleading to speak of an axis in the Western sense of a visual perspective ordering facades, rather the Chinese axis is a line of privilege, usually built upon, regulating access—there are no vistas, but a series of gates and pavilions.
Numerology heavily influenced Imperial Architecture, hence the use of nine in much of construction (nine being the greatest single digit number) and the reason why the Forbidden City in Beijing is said to have 9,999.9 rooms—just short of the mythical 10,000 rooms in heaven. The importance of the East (the direction of the rising sun) in orienting and siting Imperial buildings is a form of solar worship found in many ancient cultures, where there is the notion of Ruler being affiliated with the Sun.
The tombs and mausoleums of imperial family members, such as the 8th century Tang Dynasty tombs at the Qianling Mausoleum, can also be counted as part of the imperial tradition in architecture. These above-ground earthen mounds and pyramids had subterranean shaft-and-vault structures that were lined with brick walls since at least the Warring States (481–221 BC).
Generally speaking, Buddhist architecture follows the imperial style. A large Buddhist monastery normally has a front hall, housing the statue of a Bodhisattva, followed by a great hall, housing the statues of the Buddhas. Accommodations for the monks and the nuns are located at the two sides. Some of the greatest examples of this come from the 18th century Puning Temple and Putuo Zongcheng Temple. Buddhist monasteries sometimes also have pagodas, which may house the relics of the Gautama Buddha; older pagodas tend to be four-sided, while later pagodas usually have eight sides.
Daoist architecture, on the other hand, usually follows the commoners' style. The main entrance is, however, usually at the side, out of superstition about demons which might try to enter the premise (see feng shui.) In contrast to the Buddhists, in a Daoist temple the main deity is located in the main hall at the front, the lesser deities in the back hall and at the sides.
The tallest pre-modern building in China was built for both religious and martial purposes. The Liaodi Pagoda of 1055 AD stands at a height of 84 m (276 ft), and although it served as the crowning pagoda of the Kaiyuan monastery in old Dingzhou, Hebei, it was also used as a military watchtower for Song Dynasty soldiers to observe potential Liao Dynasty enemy movements.
Lianhuashan (lit. "lotus flower mountain") Temple in Dalian
Chinese urban planning is based on fengshui geomancy and the well-field system of land division, both used since the Neolithic age. The basic well-field diagram is overlaid with the luoshu, a magic square divided into 9 sub-squares, and linked with Chinese numerology.
Although mostly only ruins of brick and rammed earth walls and towers from ancient China (i.e. before the 6th century AD) have survived, information on ancient Chinese architecture (especially wooden architecture) can be discerned from more or less realistic clay models of buildings created by the ancient Chinese as funerary items. This is similar to the paper joss houses burned in some modern Chinese funerals. The following models were made during the Han Dynasty (202 BC – AD 220):
During the Jin Dynasty (265–420) and the Six Dynasties, miniature models of buildings or entire architectural ensembles were often made to decorate the tops of the so-called "soul vases" (hunping), found in many tombs of that period.
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