Traditional Chinese Architecture
Traditional Chinese architecture reflects the beliefs and character of the people
Chinese architecture varies greatly from Western traditions. Even if you’re not an architecture buff, the imposing arches and gates, picturesque temples and mind-blowing palaces of Chinese architecture will account for much of your time in China.
In many ways Chinese architecture reflects traditional Chinese beliefs and ethics – the importance of symmetry and balance reflect Chinese views of the cosmos.
Individual buildings can rarely be fully appreciated except as part of a larger whole – perfectly imitating the Chinese belief in the primacy of the larger group – society and the family as whole – over the individual.
And Chinese buildings and building complexes are often self contained and inward looking, focusing on the centre, with only one door and few windows on the outside – a little like China has often been herself.
In the West most buildings were stone, whereas traditional Chinese architecture relied on strong timber columns, beams and brackets to support the recognisable flare-tipped roofs. Walls, even when made of stone, were not designed to be weight bearing.
Hence the Chinese phrase ‘the walls may collapse but the house – never’. The wooden frame needed to be protected from the elements, and is also easier to paint than stone walls, hence the colourful nature of Chinese buildings.
Chinese architecture promotes balance and is symmetrical along a North South axis, with secondary buildings positioned on wings either side of the main ones, a fine example of this being the Forbidden City where each of the main buildings lie on the North – South axis. This principle was so important that entire cities were designed to be entirely symmetrical, just take a look at an aerial photograph of Beijing.
Chinese architecture tends to group buildings together in neat, inward-looking clusters. Individual buildings are rarely fully visible, instead appreciation is taken of the group of buildings as a whole. The basic unit is rectangular, with groups of rectangular buildings together forming another neat, larger, self-contained rectangle.
Chinese architecture focuses on the horizontal axis – impressive buildings are wide, not high, and visually the most important parts of buildings like the Forbidden City are their huge platforms and roofs, not the vertical walls and columns.
Graceful, tapered, overhanging roofs, often in several tiers, are an important feature and reflect the importance of the building and the wealth of its owner. Roofs are highly decorative with glazed tiles, and colourfully painted beams and brackets.
The recognisable curved roofs of oriental architecture reflect a Buddhist belief that ghosts move in straight lines (and hence will bounce off a tapered roof), as does the presence of a ‘ghost wall’ just inside the entrance of some homes. The ghost wall forces anyone coming in to veer slightly to either side, something which a ghost would not be able to do.
The doctrines of feng shui are widely reflected in Chinese architecture, for example in the use of curves, south facing aspect and symmetricality.
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Wonder at the Great Wall, be awed by the magnificent Forbidden City, drink in the scenery from a boat on the Summer Palace’s Kunming Lake.