Chinese Architecture - Ancient China
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Chinese Architecture

china house
A traditional Chinese house

February 2017 - Most people in ancient China could not afford to live in fancy houses. They lived in small houses made of mudbrick, with only one room and a dirt floor, just the way most people in the Roman Empire or West Asia or Africa lived, and the way most people in the world still live today. In Northern China, the doors of these houses usually faced south, to keep out the cold north wind.

Rich people had fancier houses, and people also built fancy temples and palaces. All ancient Chinese architecture was built according to strict rules of design that made Chinese buildings follow the ideas of Taoism or other Chinese philosophies.

Forbidden City
Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City (Beijing, 1450 AD)

The first design idea was that buildings should be long and low rather than tall - they should seem almost to be hugging you. The roof would be held up by columns, and not by the walls. The roof should seem to be floating over the ground. The second design idea was symmetry: both sides of the building should be the same, balanced, just as Taoism emphasized balance. Even as early as the Shang Dynasty, about 1500 BC, Chinese buildings looked pretty much like this, with curved tile roofs and long rows of pillars. The palaces of the Zhou Dynasty, and then the Chin Dynasty, continued in this same style.

White Pagoda
White Pagoda (Chengde)

The biggest change in Chinese architecture came during the Han Dynasty, in the 200s BC, when the new religion of Buddhism first came to China from India. Many Chinese Buddhists began to build pagodas to keep sacred things in. At first these pagodas were related to Indian buildings called stupas.

When Buddhism became more important in China in the 500s AD, during the Three Kingdoms period, architects began to build special Buddhist temples.

But under the Sui Dynasty , in the early 600s AD, the ideas of symmetry and balance that were important in Taoism became more important again. But people wanted more Buddhist pagodas too. Under the Tang dynasty, architects designed even fancier Buddhist pagodas, with eight sides. One famous eight-sided stone pagoda is the White Pagoda at Chengde.

Under the Song Dynasty, about 1000 AD, people wanted their pagodas to be tall and thin, with high spires. To make them fancier, they had complicated wooden lattices all around them.

While the Mongol Yuan dynasty ruled China, about 1200-1300 AD, they built great palaces at Beijing, with many huge halls. The great architectural accomplishment of the Ming dynasty in the 1400s was to build the Forbidden City, a huge palace where the emperors lived. But the Forbidden City's buildings still follow pretty much the same architectural rules as the palaces of the Shang Dynasty, three thousand years earlier.

Learn by doing: build a Chinese temple or a pagoda out of Lego or in Minecraft
More about Shang Dynasty architecture
More about Chinese houses
More about Buddhism in China

Bibliography and further reading about ancient Chinese architecture:

Shang History
Shang Art
Shang Dynasty Architecture
Ancient China


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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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