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Evolution and History of Chinese Architecture

Evolution and History of Traditional Chinese Architecture
Evolution of Chinese architecture reflects changes in the beliefs of the people

The earliest examples of ‘Chinese architecture’ are the cave dwellings which many people still inhabit today on the flat yellow plains of Northern China.

Modern cave-dwellings are more often than not equipped with electricity and a TV, but there’s no need for air conditioning since the caves are naturally cool in summer and warm in winter.

Next, people developed simple ‘nest dwellings’ which consisted of a hole dug into the ground and then roofed over with thatch, earth and poles.

In the wet South architecture developed along South-East Asian lines with houses built on platforms raised above the ground on bamboo poles. You can still see this kind of architecture today in minority areas like Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna.

Chinese people developed simple architectural techniques like mortise and tenon joints around 7,000 years ago. By the time of the Xia and Shang dynasties (~2205BC-~1766BC and ~1766BC-~1050BC) the well off were living in houses with walls of packed earth, raised above the earth on mounds of more compact earth.

The bodies of humans and animals have been found in the foundations of these buildings due to the demand for human sacrifice. Slaves generally still lived in nest-dwellings.

Chinese architecture was becoming more sophisticated by the time of the Zhou dynasty (1122-256BC). By this time earthenware roof tiles were used and plaster made from soil, sand and lime was applied to compacted-earth walls.

We can also see the emergence of elements such as the courtyard style of building and of feng-shui, both of which still influence Chinese architecture today.

The best known achievement of Chinese architecture, the Great Wall of China, was started under the Qin dynasty (221-206BC) which followed the Zhou dynasty. The Qin, with a reputation for martial prowess and tyrannical government, built huge palaces to awe their disobedient subjects.

The Han dynasty (206BC-220AD) followed the Qin dynasty, and this period saw the entry of Buddhism into China. Buddhism brought new architectural styles with it, and saw the construction of Buddhist pagodas.

Chinese architecture developed further under the Tang dynasty (618-907AD), with the use of brick walls, glazing and sculpture to give a much more decorative effect. The Song Dynasty (960-1279AD) saw styles become more elegant and intricate.

The multi-eaved roofs seen on Chinese temples today began to appear at this time, and interior decoration was taken to new heights with great care being taken over carving on doors, windows and internal features.

The Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271 – 1368) brought little in the way of architectural innovation with them when they swept down from their steppe on horseback.

Instead, like many other ethnic groups that invaded China, they chose to reproduce the architectural styles that preceded their invasion – a cunning ploy to draw attention away from their lack of Chinese-ness.

The Ming and Qing dynasties saw traditional Chinese architecture reach its peak, with the construction of the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City, all in Beijing.

Recommended Chinese culture articles:

Traditional Chinese Architecture: Evolution and History, Chinese Siheyuan Courtyards

Chinese Religion: How To Tell Chinese Temples Apart, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism

Beijing Arts: Chinese Opera, Acrobatics, Tai Chi, Chinese Gardens

Beijing Society: Er Nai, Lucky Numbers, Chinese Etiquette, Drugs in China

Chinese History: Chairman Mao Zedong, Eunuchs, Chinese Emperors, Ancient History Timeline, Concubines, 20th Century Timeline


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