If you’ve ever looked at the traditional Chinese architecture of any ancient building you could be deceived into thinking it all looks the same.
From colorful artwork to gilded animals, symmetrical design with a deeper meaning, and ornate curved roof corners, it can be very confusing to the Western eye. You might be left wondering What does it all mean?
This is a great question – and one which is best addressed by learning a little about the characteristics of ancient Chinese architecture because it’s in that deeper study we’ll find the answers to other intriguing questions.
Why are traditional Chinese houses (and palaces) built within compounds?
Why is symmetry so important in Chinese architecture?
Why is wood use so prevalent in Chinese buildings?
We know that if it’s your first visit to China, all the pagodas, temples, and imperial palaces can blend into an architectural blur.
Westerners might agree that Chinese history and traditions are fascinating – and it’s true; it is. What they may not realize is ancient Chinese architecture is integral to China’s culture and traditions – and it endures today, some 4,000 years after the first principles were developed.
Ready to learn a little about the characteristics of Chinese architecture?
Let’s do this!
Understand these 7 characteristics of Chinese architecture and know what you’re looking at
It’s said that while Chinese architecture drew influences from India and its Buddhism, in fact, Chinese architecture has inspired architecture and design in neighbouring countries, particularly in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
These influences are evident in the characteristics of Chinese architecture and that’s what we cover here. Although there are many unique elements to Chinese architecture, we’ll cover just seven. That way, when you’re traveling China on your first China tour, you’ll have a handle on the basics, allowing you to enjoy a more enriching experience through your understanding.
#1 Special roof molding
Look upon just about any traditional building of significance in China and you’ll notice the distinctive wing angle warping of the roof.
Ancient Chinese books describe this style of roof as ‘flying like a bird’ and while this is a poetic description, the curved design is very practical in nature too. In fact, the upturned corner is ideal for buildings that are supported by columns rather than walls, as the majority of traditional Chinese buildings are.
Like many aspects of Chinese architecture, the functional aligns to more esoteric considerations. In this instance, the curved roof arose from the Buddhist belief that it could ward off evil spirits, which were thought to only travel in straight lines.
Curved roof tips are very traditionally Chinese, however, they aren’t found on every ancient Chinese building. They are most commonly on prominent imperial and religious buildings, rather than houses owned by commoners.
#2 Tall building platform (taixie 台榭 )
Another peculiar feature of Chinese architecture is the use of a taixie or high platform. This is where a wooden or stone frame is built around an earthen core, thereby providing support for a tall structure.
Through his study of Chinese architecture, Sicheng Liang identified that traditional Chinese buildings are characterized by three integrated levels: the platform base, body of the house and the rooftop. The platform or