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  • 4/17/2004

Chinese Architecture

Chinese architecture is fairly distinctive amongst world architectures.  It just looks oriental even if you are not sure. Temple architecture has not changed substantially since the 7th Century or the Tang Dynasty.  Planning is still based on the principles of feng shui along with yin/yang, but designed has slowly evolved over the centuries.

Traditional buildings are sited as to be in harmony with nature and to receive chi from auspicius directions.  Chi is most vibrant in areas which face the sea with mountains to the rear.  Ideally, an auspicieous site corresponds with one of the 4 taoist quadrants so that North (the Black Turtle) is the highest, the left and East (the Azure Dragon) is higher than the right or West (the White Tiger), and the South (the Red Bird) is lowest facing a pond, slow river, or large body of water. You really need a geomancer to figure this out, and there are all sorts of feng shui gadgest to help rectify any bad chi in the building.

The distinctive roof of Chinese architecture is has a great deal of symbolism involved. Symbolism is present in the colors eave decoration, roofing material, and roof top decorations. A roof usually has a wavy tiling that runs horizontally, and vertical round ridges that run up and down.  The vertical ridges are symbolic of bamboo which represents youth and longevity. Gold/yellow is an auspicious (good)  material, so the imperial roofs are an gold/yellow in colour. Green roofs symbolize bamboo shafts which in turn represent youth and longevity.

chinese architecture

This eave and the roof decorations are from the Wong Tai Sin temple complex in Kowloon. From left to right the roof decorations are a dragon, bell underneath, then a man on a chicken, various guardian beasts, and a carp.  The carp is an animal that brings success.  The more important the building, the more guardians it would have.  The number of roof levels also signified the importance of the building.  These roof guardians are to protect the building from evil spirits, fire, etc.

chinese architecture

This eave is from the roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony in theForbidden City inBeijing.  A much more important building, it has more guardians.  Again, there is a man on a chicken, various guardian beasts, then xing she (winged demon leaning on a sword - only roof like this in theForbidden City), and a dragon.  The dragon symbolizes royalty and power.

chinese architecture
chinese architecture

These two pictures show green and gold/yellow eaves. Note the bamboo looking ridges running up and down. The end caps are also a flower in the green, and always a dragon in the yellow.

Guardian Lions - You usually find a pair of these in front of more important buildings.  The lions are made of stone or bronze are situated on both sides of the main entrance gate or doorway.  The lion on the left is supposed to be female and has a cub under her paw. The lion on the right is male and has a pearl under his paw.  The picture below shows the female, left statue of a pair.

chinese architecture


The (Chinese word for "palace" is gong. However, it may refer to anyone of several different meanings.

In the earliest Chinese writings it meant no more than an ordinary house. After the founding of the Qin Dynasty (221- 207 B. C.), gong came gradually to mean the group of buildings in which the emperor lived and worked. At about the same time, Chinese palaces grew ever larger in scale. The Efanggong of the First Emperor of Qin measured "5 li (2 1/2 km) from east to west and 1,000 paces from north to south". The Weiyanggong of the Western Han Dynasty (206 B. C.-24 A. D. ) had, within a periphery of 11 kilometres, as many as 43 halls and terraces. The Forbidden City of Beijing, which still stands intact and which served as the imperial palace for both Ming and Qing emperors (1368-1911) covers an area of 720,000 square metres and embraces many halls, towers, pavilions and studies measured as 9,900 bays. It is one of the greatest palaces of the world. In short, palaces grew into a veritable city and is often called gongcheng (palace city).

Apart from the palace, other abodes of the emperor are also called gong. The Yiheynan Park used to be the Summer Palace; the Mountain Resort at Chengde and the Huaqingchi thermal spa near Xi"an were both 2inggong or "palace on tour. " Then there is another type of gong called zhaigong, where the emperor prepared himself abstinence before he offered sacrifice at grand ceremonies. There is one such zhaigong on the grounds of Beijing"s Temple of Heaven.

Inside a great gong, certain individual buildings may also be called gong. The Qing emperors used to live at Qianqinggong (Palace of Heavenly Purity) in the Forbidden City, whereas the living quarters of the empresses were at Kunninggong (Palace of Female Tranquility). The imperial concubines of various ranks inhabited the six gongs or palace quadrangles on either side of the central axis of theForbidden City. When the monarchs or their spouses died, they were buried in digong (underground palaces).

The name gong is also used for religious buildings of great dimensions. The Potala in Lhasa is a gong to the Chinese; the lametemple ofBeijing is Yonghegong. The temples of Taoist priests are generally called sanginggong (palace of triple purity).

For thousands of years, the word gong was reserved exclusively for naming imperial and religious buildings. With the passage of time and political changes, many of the old gongs have been opened to the general public for sightseeing. Furthermore, a number of buildings have been named gong or palace. For instance, Taimiao of theImperialAncestralTemple in Beijing has been renamed the "Working People"sPalace ofCulture". On West Chang"an Jie, a comparatively new building serves as the "Cultural Palace of National Minorities". Similar gongs or palaces have been built in many cities of the country for the cultural, scientific and recreational activities respectively for workers and children.

chinese architecture

The Number "Nine" andImperial Buildings(Jiu yu Huangjia Jianzhu)

It may not be common knowledge among Western visitors that the number "nine" carried a special significance in old China. Ancient Chinese regarded odd numbers as being masculine and even numbers as being feminine. "Nine", which is the largest single digit number was taken to mean the "ultimate masculine" and was, therefore, symbolic of the supreme sovereignty of the emperor. For this reason, the number "nine" (or its multiples) is often employed in palace structures and designs. A noticeable example is the number of studs on palace gates. The studs are usually arranged in nine rows of nine each, totaling eighty-one. This is even true of the marble gates of the “underground palace" of the Dingling Mausoleum in Beijing: 81 (or 9 X 9) studs carved out of the stone. If visitor go to the Temple of Guan Yu in Luoyang, he will also find on the red gate nine rows of nine wooden studs each.

Ancient palaces generally consist of nine courtyards or quadrangles which is the same as the Temple of Confucius in Qufu. Shandong Province - a magnificent architectural complex worthy of an imperial household and testifying to the importance attached to the great sage by the courts of various dynasties.

The buildings of the Forbidden City of Beijing are traditionally measured as having a total floor space of 9,900 bays. Some even say 9,999 bays but this may be an exaggeration. The picturesque towers guarding the four corners of the palace compound each have 9 beams and 18 columns, and the three famous screen walls had nine dragons on each.

The number "nine" was sometimes combined with "five" to represent imperial majesty. The great hall on Tiananmen is 9 bays wide by 5 bays deep.

There is a seventeen-arched bridge in the Summer Palace of Beijing. This too, has much to do with "nine". Count the arches from either end or you will find that the largest span in the middle is the ninth.

An extreme example of the "game of nine" is perhaps the Circular Mound Altar (Huanqintan) in theTemple ofHeaven. Site for the Ming and Qing emperors to worship Heaven, the altar is arranged in three tiers. The upper terrace is made up of nine concentric rings of slabs. The first ring or the innermost circle consists of nine fan-shaped slabs, the second ring 18 (2 X 9) slabs, the third 27 (3 X 9). . . until the last or ninth ring which is made up of 81 or 9 X 9 slabs.

The number "nine" is not only used on buildings. The New Year dinner for the imperial house was composed of 99 dishes. To celebrate the birthday of an emperor, the stage performances must comprise of 99 numbers as a sign of good luck and longevity.

chinese architecture

Dragon andPhoenix (Long yu Feng)

The dragon and the phoenix are the principal motifs for decorative designs on buildings, clothing and articles of daily use in the imperial palace. The throne hall is supported by columns entwined by gilded dragons, the central ramps on marble steps were paved with huge slabs carved in relief with the dragon and phoenix, and the screen walls display dragons in brilliant colors. The names in the Chinese language for nearly all the things connected with the emperor or the empress were preceded by the epithet "dragon" or "phoenix". Thus "dragon seat" for the throne, "dragon robe" for the emperor"s ceremonial dress, "dragon bed" for him to sleep on, and "phoenix carriage", "phoenix canopies" and so on were used for imperial processions. The national flag of China under the Qing Dynasty was emblazoned with a large dragon. The earliest postage stamps of China were called "dragon-heads" because they showed a dragon in their designs. Even today, the dragon is sometimes adopted as the symbol of Chinese exhibitions held abroad or the cover designs of books on China printed by foreign publishers. "The Giant Dragon of the East" is becoming a sobriquet for the country.

chinese architecture

Storeyed Building(Lou)

When the Chinese speak of a lou, they refer to any building of two or more storeys with a horizontal main ridge. The erection of such buildings began a long time ago in the Period of the Warring States (475-221 B. C.), when chonglou ("layered houses") was mentioned in historical records.

Ancient buildings with more than one storey were meant for a variety of uses. The smaller two-storied buildings of private homes generally have the owner"s study or bedroom upstairs. The more magnificent ones built in parks or at scenic spots were belvederes from which to enjoy the distant scenery. In this case, it is sometimes translated as a "tower". A Tang Dynasty poet upon his visit to a famous riverside tower composed a poem, two lines of which are still frequently quoted "To look far into the distance, go up yet one more storey".

Ancient cities had belled and drum towers (zhonglou and gulou), usually palatial buildings with four-sloped, double-caved, glazed roofs, all-around verandas and colored and carved dougong brackets supporting the overhanging eaves. They housed a big bell or drum which was used to announce time and the local officials would open the city gates at the toll of the bell early in the morning and close them with the strike of the drum in the evening.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties (14th to 20th century), in front of each city gate of Beijing stood an archery tower which formed a defense fortification. Two of them can still be seen today, at Qianmen and Deshengmen gates. Also in Beijing, a "corner tower" still remains relatively intact at the south-eastern corner of the old Inner City. It is put under state protection as a cultural relic, being the only one left in the ancient capital.

The art of constructing tall buildings was already highly developed in China during ancient times. Many multiple-storeyed towers of complex structure had wholly wood frameworks fixed together with dougong brackets without the use of a single piece of metal. Yueyang Tower in Hunan and Huanghelou (Tower of the Yellow Crane) in Wuchang are masterpieces among ancient towers.

Chinese Architecture

Storeyed Pavilion(Ge)

The Chinese ge is similar to the lou in that both are of two or more storey buildings. But the ge has a door and windows only on the front side with the other three sides being solid walls. Ge are usually enclosed by wooden balustrades or decorated with boards all around.

Such storeyed pavilions were used in ancient times for the storage of important articles and documents. Wenyuange for instance, in the Forbidden City of Beijing was in effect the imperial library. Kuiwenge in the Confucius Temple of Qufu, Shandong Province was devoted to the safekeeping of the books and works of painting and calligraphy bestowed by the courts of various dynasties. Visitors to the city of Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, can still see Tianyige, which houses the greatest private collection of books handed down from the past. Monasteries of a large size normally have their own libraries built in the style of a ge and called cangjingge to keep their collections of Buddhist scriptures. Some of the ge, notably those erected in parks, like other pavilions or towers (ting, tai and lou), were used for enjoying the sights.

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