For over two thousand years, the Chinese have used the same architectural model for both imperial and religious buildings. This has three elements: a platform, post-and-beam timber frames, and non-loadbearing walls. Standard features of building complexes include a front gate, four-sided enclosures or courtyards, and a series of halls in a linear formation running north. Most Chinese buildings were built of wood, but because wooden buildings tend to catch fire, only a few structures remain; the earliest date from the Tang period.
showing the traditional linear layout
In every context, the Chinese hall or tang follows the same pattern: a platform of rammed earth or stone, and timber columns arranged in a grid. The front of the hall always has an odd number of bays. Between the columns and beams are brackets (dougong), cantilevers that support the structure, allowing the eaves to overhang. The timber is brightly painted, the roof aesthetically curved, and tiled or thatched.
Gate of Heavenly Purity
An archetypal Chinese hall, the central doorway and uneven number of bays emphasize the processional element.
Buildings in China conformed to a set of rules about proportions. This uniform architecture created a sense of identity – useful in a large and disparate country.
Storied building (Lou) and storied pavilion (Ge)
Multi-story buildings in China predate pagodas and varied from two-storied private homes to huge seven- or more story towers built to enjoy the scenery. Storied pavilions were used for storage and had doors and windows only at the front. Both types of building kept the standard elements of base, columns, and hanging walls.
The construction of tall buildings relied heavily on the dougong bracket.
These were used for storing important items, such as libraries of Buddhist sutras or colossal statues.
|Storied building||Storied Pavilion||Pagoda||Ornamental archway|
Based on the Indian stupa, the Chinese pagoda, or ta, was developed in the first century AD along with the arrival of Buddhism. Multi-storied pagodas appeared in Buddhist temple complexes (although later they often stood on their own) and were often intended to house a religious statue. They were built of brick, stone, or wood (see History of the Pagoda).
The pailou, or paifang, is a memorial or decorative archway. Made of wood, brick, or stone, and sometimes with glazed tiles, it often bears an edifying inscription. Pailou were erected at crossroads, temples, bridges, government offices, parks, and tombs.
Early defensive walls, like other early architectural forms, were made of earth – either pounded hard by pestles or moistened to make a clay and pressed around reed frames. Later walls were often built using brick. City walls were traditionally square, with the main gate to the south. The Chinese for “city” (cheng) also means “wall.”
City Wall and Gate
The towers on top of walls can vary from small buildings to palatial multi-story structures.
Pingyao city walls
Made of rammed earth and brick, rising 33 ft (10 m) high, the ramparts and watchtowers were an effective defense. The current structure, collapsed in parts, is from the Ming dynasty.
It is interesting to interpret the architectural detail on Chinese buildings. The use of yellow tiles, for example, was reserved for the emperor. The Nine-Dragon Screen, which occurs in the Forbidden City and elsewhere, is also imperial since the dragon symbolizes the yang, or male principle, and by extension the emperor.