Ancient Chinese Architecture

Architecture means art and science of designing and erecting buildings. Ancient Chinese architecture was categorized into three styles

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Roof TilesImperial Architecture: There were certain distinct features which were solely reserved for buildings that were built for Chinese Emperors. These features were yellow roof tiles and dragons. Yellow colour has always been the imperial colour.

However, Temple of Heaven is an exception. Its rooftop is of blue colour which symbolizes the sky. The second feature is that the Chinese dragons which symbolizes the Chinese nationality, was only used on imperial architecture.

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Commoner’s Architecture: The homes of commoners, bureaucrats, farmers had a different pattern. The centre of the building was a shrine for deities and ancestors which would also be used during festivities. On the two sides of the shrine were bedrooms for elders.

The two wings of the building including the living room, the dining room and the kitchen were for the junior members. The houses were usually built in U shaped with a courtyard suitable for farm work.

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BuddaReligious Architecture: Buddhist architecture followed the imperial style. A Buddhist monastery had a front hall with the statue of Bodhisattva. This was followed by a great hall having statues of the Buddhas. Accommodations for monks and nuns were at the two sides.

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Ancient Chinese architecture was classified based on the structure. The list of classification includes:

1. Gong (traditionally palace): Gong is the Chinese word for palace where imperial family lives. Also other houses of the emperors were referred to as gongs.

2. Lou (Multi-storey Buildings): Lou means any building of two or more floors with a horizontal main ridge. Yueyang Tower in Hunan and Huanghelou (Tower of the Yellow Crane) in Wuchang are masterpieces among the ancient towers.

3. Tai (Terrace): The Tai was an ancient architectural structure. Tai is an elevated terrace with a flat top. Generally built of cement, stone and surfaced with brick, Tai were used as an open side gallery from where one can have a scenic view.

4. Ting (Pavilions): Chinese pavilions were made either of wood, stone or bamboo. These were built in any shape such as hexagon, square, triangle, octagon etc. All pavilions had columns but did not have any walls.

5. Ge (Two storey pavilions): Ge same as Lou means building of two or more storeys. The Ge had door and windows on the front side with the other three sides being walls. Two storey pavilions were usually decorated with boards all around.

6. Ta (Chinese pagodas): Buddhist in China built special Buddhist buildings which were like Indian stupas. These buildings were only to keep sacred things in, like gold treasures and books of Buddhist prayers and pictures of the Buddha. These pagodas were all made of wood. During the Tang Dynasty, around 500 AD, architects built fancier pagodas with eight sides, like the White Pagoda at Chengde or the West and East pagodas at Kunming.

Other structural classifications included Xuan (veranda with windows), Wei (Pavilions or house on terraces) and Wu(Rooms along roofed corridors).

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Chinese architecture is most famous for the Great Wall of China. But there is much more to Chinese architecture than the Wall. It has extravagant temples, rooftops and the underappreciated structure-The Forbidden City.

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The Great WallThe Great Wall of China: The Great Wall of China was built about 2000 years ago by Qin Shi Huang (The first emperor of the Qin dynasty). The famous wall was built between 220-206 BC. The purpose to build The Great Wall was to protect the Chinese empire from invasion of nomadic tribes and military forces. The wall was around 5000 kms long and was 7.5 meters tall. Later on during the Ming dynasty, the Great Wall was enlarged to 6400 kms.

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Temples: One great example of Chinese architecture is the Buddhist temple which can be found scattered around China. Unfortunately, there are not many of these temples left.

The reason being that most of them were torn down because the space was either needed for urban development, or fell apart because of many years of neglect. One tower which still remains is nearly 400 feet high which was erected in the Yung-ning-ssu dynasty.

This temple is located at Toyang and was made at the beginning of the 6th century. The most distinctive kinds of Buddhist buildings in China are the stupas or pagoda. The pagoda was mainly used to house sacred objects .In terms of architecture; the shape of the temples took new forms.

In the second and third century, the structures were basically made out of wood. Their shape took the form of a tetragonal under the Song dynasty. The next dynasty, Tang, decided to have their towers shaped into an octagon.

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Forbidden City: The Forbidden City is located in the middle of Beijing. This was an imperial palace for 24 emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties. This was built in 1406-1420 AD Ancient Chinese Astronomers believed that the Purple Star (Polaris) was in the centre of heaven and therefore the Heavenly Emperor lived in the Purple Palace.

The Palace for the emperor on earth was called the Purple City. It was forbidden to enter the palace without special permission of the emperor. Hence its name 'The Purple Forbidden City', usually called 'The Forbidden City'.

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In 1987, The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.


The Forbidden City is now referred to as The Palace Museum.

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The Forbidden City

Roofs: We may think that ancient roofs would have no importance in Chinese Architecture, but it does play a significant role. Roofs not only protect the house from elements but it has much deeper meaning. For eg. Buddhist temple used to curve their temple roofs because they believed that shape helps to remove evil spirits. The roof of the temple was made of glazed ceramic tiles and had an overhanging eave, distinguished by a graceful upward slope.

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Buddhist Temple with curve roof

Another example of splendid roofs is located inside the wonderful palace, The Forbidden City. There are thirteen tombs all of which have roof tiles which are brilliant yellow, green, and red in colour. Each roof carries figurines and mythical creatures. The most intricate designs on the roof are almost always pointing south-east.

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Chinese architecture has certain distinct features. They are as follows:

• Chinese architecture has always been in harmony with nature. Chinese architecture de-emphasizes vertical walls.
• The country’s architecture is highly symmetrical, which theoretically supports the proper order of things and signifies a sense of stately greatness.
• Chinese architecture has reserved certain designs for people of different status. Aspects of the building such as height, colour, material, and size of the house were all regulated by law according to rank of the family living there.

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