Ancient China Architecture

The architecture of ancient China was really impressive. It was characterized by walled compounds, wooden columns, raised pavilions, smooth yellow roof tiles, and carefully arranged gardens.

The streets of the cities and towns and the use of space were also meticulously planned.

Most of the ancient buildings have been ruined over time, but a couple of them survive, and the rest can be reconstructed based on clay models, written documents, and illustrations on in contemporary artifacts.

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Key Features of Ancient Chinese Architecture

Main features of Chinese buildings didn’t change much through history. The structure and types of materials were the same for centuries.

  • Chinese used wood rather than a stone in their houses and buildings. The roof was made of polished ceramic tiles.
  • Temples, towers, and public halls were not only much taller and more adorned than common houses. They were constructed on raised platforms of compacted earth, which were then faced with stone and brick.
  • Buildings and houses were painted in bright colors. Roof tiles were yellow; pillars were bright red, and various decorative parts were green.
  • Protection from earthquake damage was always very important. That’s why the Chinese avoided using nails. Instead, the junctions between different parts were flexible, interlocked with mortises and tenons.
  • The roofs were gabled and tiled, supported by wooden posts. The corners of the roofs were curved out and up.
  • Some Buddhist temples used the same way of construction. The main temple would be raised on a high platform, and minor buildings would be placed symmetrically around it.However, most temples were pagodas, built under the direct influence of Indian architecture. The pagoda buildings were high towers with multiple stories and a curved roof.

    Chinese pagodas had up to twelve stories. However, those stories could not be used – their only purpose was to make the building more grandiose.

  • Chinese architecture did not change much over the years. One of the few changes was to make the roof structure lighter and to heighten the supporting pillars. That way, the proportion of height against width gave the buildings a more elegant appearance.

    Also, roof corners became a lot more curved. Roof brackets were designed to carry the weight of different decorative figures such as dragons.

Model of a Chinese Siheyuan in Beijing

Urbanism

City and town planning has always been of great importance for the Chinese. The cities of Luoyang and Chang’an, both of which served as capitals for a long time, are a great example of ancient Chinese urbanistic planning.

  • The landscapes of large cities were arranged like nets of precise rectangles, with wide avenues and minor streets that crossed each other at right angles.A high, sloping wall would surround the entire area, which was large up to 8,000 hectares. The only way to enter the city was through towered gates. The city of Luoyang had 12 such gates.
  • Royal palaces and other buildings of great importance were aligned on a north-south axis, while less important ones were on the east and west sides. The main entrance of important buildings was always in the south.

Earthenware architecture models, Eastern Han Dynasty

Interior

  • The position of rooms within a building was also very important. There was a hierarchy between rooms. Those that were closer to the entrance were more public. The further we went toward the back of a building, the rooms would be more private.The visitors were received in public rooms. People also conducted their businesses in those areas. On the other hand, access to inner chambers was restricted.
  • The most important area in an imperial palace was the emperor’s living quarters, and that’s where the inner court was located.
  • After the Han Dynasty, to movement from the outer to inner areas of the imperial palace complex involved crossing a number of courtyards in between. The entrance to each area was more limited than the previous one.

Private Homes

  • The small homes of ordinary people were not nearly as lavish as public buildings. Those were made of rough stones, dried mud, and wood. Their shape could be oval, square, or rectangular. The roofs were made of reed or straw and reinforced by wooden poles.
  • In villages, homes were usually grouped in five in one shared yard. Sometimes those houses were pretty large, up to 16 x 15 meters.
  • The interiors of private homes had raised surfaces for beds. The floor surface was sometimes covered with clay. Most homes had storage pits.
  • In areas such as the lower Yangtze River that was prone to flooding, houses were built on high stilts.
  • In imperial cities, houses were surrounded by high walls, while in rural regions – especially those that were warmer – homes had rooms that were open toward the fields or street.

Other Architectural Works

  • The Chinese built cave shrines, such as the Longmen Grottoes and the Yungang Caves, which were Buddhist places of worship.These shrines were typically built as a rectangular room cut into the rock, and many holes cut into the walls.
  • The Great Wall of China was a Chinese architectural miracle. It was built during the reign of Shi Huangti of Qin, at the end 3rd century BCE.The 5,000 long wall was constructed to serve as a shield against aggressive nomadic tribes that were trying to invade the northern frontier.

Q&A

What was the typical color of roofs in Ancient China buildings and homes?

It was yellow.

What kind of buildings was influenced by Indian architecture?

It was the Buddhist pagoda.

Was everyone allowed to enter inner rooms of people’s homes?

No, the entrance to inner rooms was restricted.

The entrance to important public buildings typically faced which side of the world?

It faced the south.

What is the greatest monument of ancient Chinese architecture?

It is the Great Wall of China