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  Styles of Ancient Chinese Architecture

A categorized Chinese architecture will display different architecture styles, which have unique characteristics.

Imperial Architecture:
will feature imperial mausoleums and imperial palaces, which are always splendid and magnificent. Also you will be informed of some cultural facts of the imperial architecture.


Imperial mausoleum architecture
Imperial mausoleum architecture accounts for a major part in ancient Chinese architecture since they usually stand for the highest architectural techniques of the time. Emperors would often force thousands of the nations best architects to build these structures. They would withdraw millions, even billions from the exchequer to fund their tombs. These tombs were always magnificently deluxe and consisted of finest structures of the period. In vicissitude of the history, imperial mausoleums scattered around places which used to be capitals of different dynasties. These mausoleums were usually built against hills or mountains and facing plains. Most imperial mausoleums have broad ways called Shendao (the Sacred Way) at the entrance. Along both sides of the Shendao, there are stone sculptures of men and animals which guard the tombs. Other imperial structures were also built beside the tomb. Under huge hills of clay, splendid and superior structures were constructed with fine facilities such as drainage systems.

Imperial palace
During the long Chinese history, emperors of different dynasties kept building palaces. Since palaces are where emperors live and practice their reign, palaces of different dynasties integrates essences of Chinese architecture. The famous palace complex, Efanggong built by and for Qin Shi Huang Emperor. Can you imagine that its Front Palace, built more than 2,000 years ago, covered 80,000 square meters and could hold 10,000 people? The Weiyanggong of the Western Han Dynasty had more than 40 palaces within a periphery of 11 kilometers. The Forbidden City, also called the Imperial Palace, which was set up under the reign of the Ming dynasty and still stands intact, covers an area of 720,000 square meters and consists of more than 9900 palaces and other structures. It is the grandest and biggest palace in the world.

The Number "Nine" and Imperial architecture
Nine carried a special meaning in ancient China when it was deemed that odd numbers represent Yang while even numbers Yin. Since nine is the largest odd number under ten, it was regarded the extremely lucky number. So, emperors liked to monopolize it to symbolize their superiority. Designs related with nine appeared almost on every imperial structure such as palace. For example, on gates of the Forbidden City, there are 81 gold-plating bronze studs which were arranged in nine columns and nine rows. Ancient palaces usually were designed to be nine-section architectural complex. Based on the same reason, number or size concerning imperial architecture often equals or multiples nine.

Dragon and Phoenix
Dragon and phoenix, called Long and Feng in Chinese respectively, are totems of Chinese people. They were used to represent emperors and their consorts and were the main decorative patterns to be seen on various imperial structures. Palaces, columns, pathways and screen walls were all inscribed or carved or painted with their images.

Buddhist Architecture
Chinese Buddhist architecture consists of temple, pagoda and grotto. Localization starts right after Buddhist architecture was introduced into China with Buddhism during the Han dynasty, interpreting Chinese architectural aesthetics and culture.
As the central structure of spreading Buddhism in China, the temple is where cenobites preceding their religious life. Since emperors of dynasties believed in Buddhism, temples erected like mushrooms, usually splendid like palaces, for many were built under imperial orders. In the Northern Wei Dynasty, there were more than 30,000 temples scattered in the country. Later as architectural techniques improved, glazed tiles, exquisite engravings and delicate paintings were applied in the construction of temples, which came to be more magnificent and splendid.

Chinese Buddhist architecture follows symmetric style strictly. Usually main buildings will be set on the central axis, facing the south. Annexe structures will be on the west and east flanks. Temple gate, Heavenly King Hall, the Main Hall and Sutra Library successively stands on the axis. Dorm, kitchen, dinning hall, storehouse and antechamber usually cluster on the right side while left side remains for the visitors.

Pagoda is also the main integrating part of the Buddhist architecture, with varied styles and strong local flavours. Pagoda followed Buddhism into China around the first century, and developed into pavilion-like pagoda on which one can view scenery after immediate combination with traditional Chinese architecture. Now the highest pagoda existing stands 40 meters high and enjoys a 1400-year lifespan after survival of several earthquakes. Among the 3000 existing pagodas, there are all-timber pagoda, brick pagoda, stone pagoda, bronze pagoda and iron pagoda.

Most Chinese pagodas are multistoried ones. Early pagodas were usually wooden and had quadrangle, hexangle, ocatagonal and twelve sided ichnographies. During the Sui and Tang dynasties, pagodas tended to be stone and brick. In the Liao Dynasty, solid pagoda appeared. After, in the Song, Liao and Jin dynasties, flower pagodas were introduced which were decorated with assorted carved flowers, honeycombed shrines, animals and Buddha and disciple sculptures, looked like flowers. Generally speaking, pagodas became more and more decorative.

Though there are various types of pagodas, they have a common structure, a palace underground. The most famous palace underground lies at the Famen Temple in Xian, Shaanxi.

Another Buddhist architecture is grotto complex which is caves hewn on cliff walls, usually huge projects and with exquisite engravings. It came from India with Buddhism too and boomed during the Northern and Southern dynasty. The famous Mogao Caves, Yungang Grottoes and Longmen Grottoes were all carved then.

Related links:
Famen Temple
Mogao Caves
Yungang Grottoes

Taoist Architecture
Taoist architecture includes various structures according to different functions, categorized as palace for oblation and sacrifice, altar for praying and offering, cubby for religious service, residence for Taoist abbes and garden for visitors.
During the last period of the East Han Dynasty when Taoism was introduced, Taoist ascetics mostly lived in huts and even caves in remote mountains under guidance of their philosophy of nature.

Early Taoist architectures were all traditional.

During the Jin dynasty and the Northern and Southern dynasty, Taoism experienced reforms and was accepted by the rulers. Many Taoist temples were set up in the capital under imperial orders. Taoist architecture reached a rather large scale then.

Taoism reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty and the Song Dynasty, when Chinese timber framed architecture, characterized by high base, broad roof and perfect integration of decoration and function, matured in all aspects. There were strict regulations on size, structure, decoration and use of colour. For the 660 years, Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism influenced each other, so that certain structures in Buddhism and Confucianism architectures were transformed into Taoism architecture. As a result, there remained similarities in designing and grouping among the three systems.

Taoist architecture applies two architectural styles - traditional style and Bagua style.

In the former style, traditional architectural layout, which is symmetric, will be applied. Main halls will be set up on the central axis, while other religious structures on the two sides. Usually, on the northwest corner of the complex, Lucky Land to Meet God will be located. Annexes like dining hall and accommodation will locate at the back or the flank of the complex.

The second is the Bagua style in which all structures surround the Danlu (stove to make pills of immortality) in the center according to Bagua's position request. The center axis from the south to the north is very long and structures flank the axis. The style reflects Taoist philosophy that the human cosmos follows the natural cosmos to integrate energy, qi and spirit.

Most Taoist architectures resort to nature topography to build towers, pavilions, lobbies and other garden structural units, decorated with murals, sculptures and steles to entertain people, fully interpreting Taoist philosophy of nature.

Taoist architectural decoration reflects Taoist pursuit of luck and fulfillment, long lifespan, and eclosion into the fairyland. Taoist architectural motifs are all meaningful. Celestial bodies mean brightness shining everywhere while landscape and rocks immortality. Folding fan, fish, narcissus, bat and deer are used to imply beneficence, wealth, celestial being, fortune and official position, while pine and cypress stand for affection, tortoise for longevity, crane for man of honor. There are many other symbols very traditional and Taoist decorations root deep in Chinese folk residential houses.

Chinese Temples
It is difficult to estimate how many temples there are throughout China. The word temple in English means: a building dedicated to religious ceremonies or worship. So, I included all religious buildings which consisted of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam and other religions into Chinese Temples to write this article.

Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism are three main religions in China. Although they have never acquired such important roles to be considered to dominate the political system in China's history as Christianity or Islam has done to some western countries. However, they do have deep influence on the development of China's politics, philosophy, art and social cultures. Chinese temples, range in size from back-alley Taoist hut to magnificent Tibetan Buddhist Drepung Monastery, the largest and richest monastery, which covers an area of over 200 thousand square meters.

Chinese Buddhist Temples
Chinese Taoist Temples
Confucius Temples
Islam Temples

Garden Architecture
Presents Chinese combination of structures and man-made landscape within natural scenery.

He who builds a garden builds happiness.
Garden architecture, an important part of ancient Chinese architecture is a combination of structures and man-made landscape with natural scenery. It does not only provide lodging but also landscaping with architecture, environment and human in full harmony.


The ancient Chinese garden originated in the Shang and Zhou dynasties, when monarchs began to build parks for their own leisure and pleasure. During the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period, it was a fashion to build gardens. Until the Han dynasty private gardens appeared. After the Jin, and Northern and Southern dynasties, private gardens came into vogue as the rich and powerful sought to express their sentiment in landscaping. During the Tang and Song dynasties, a poetic touch was added to the layout and scenes of a garden, and became a general feature. In the Qing dynasty, garden architecture reached its peak.


There are many classifications according to different criteria. Herein garden architecture falls into four categories.

Imperial gardens: These gardens, usually spacious, exquisite and grandiose, were built for royal families by thousands people. Images of these gardens will linger in one's mind forever. Now most former imperial gardens are in Beijing.

Private gardens: These gardens are usually built in urban areas, neighbored with residences. Since land is expensive in cities private gardens are generally small and simple but delicate and look tasteful and play multiple functions. Most famous private gardens are situated in Suzhou, Jiangsu.

Monastic gardens: These gardens are commonly found in monasteries against quite and verdant mountains. With natural beauty, these gardens are solemn within the sacred atmosphere.

Garden architecture in scenic resorts: These gardens usually occupy large public areas since they are based on the combination of natural scenes and man-made landscape and structures in suburb area or mountains.

General Architecture - Beijing's Hutong and Courtyard
A hutong is a unique form of community that exists only in China. If you are fed up with high buildings and wide streets, enter Beijing's hutongs then. Here, you will find "Hutong Culture" and "Courtyard Culture"."Hutong" literally means a small street or a lane between two courtyards, although the word can also mean a community within the city consisting of hutongs and residences. Shanghai local people call it a "Nong". There are thousands of hutongs in Beijing City. Most of them were built in the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasty (1271-1911). Every hutong has a name. Some hutongs have had only one name since the hutong was formed, but some have had more than five names in the past.

People name each hutong by various means. Some got their names from places such as Inner Xizhimen Hutong; some from plants such as Liushu (Willow) Hutong; some from directions such as Xi (West) hongmen Hutong; some from Beijing idioms such as Yizi (Beijing local people call soap as yizi) Hutong; some from good words such as Xiqing (Happy) Hutong; some from markets for business such as Yangshi (Sheep Market) Hutong; some from temples such as Guanyinsi (Kwan-yin Temple) Hutong, and some are even from the names of common people such as Mengduan Hutong.

There are many different types of hutongs. The most interesting to tour is in the Shichahai area, which is a scenic spot. It includes three lakes. They are Front Sea, Back Sea and West Sea. There are many historic scenes around this area. You can see Bell and Drum Towers, Prince Gong's Mansion and many hutongs. The oldest hutong in Beijing is called Sanmiao Street. It has been there for more than 900 years! The longest is Dongxi Jiaomin Lane. The total length of it is 6.5 kilometers. The shortest one had a name of Yi Chi Street because it was only a little more than ten meters long. Now, it belongs to Meizhuxie Street.

Usually most of Beijing's hutongs are straight. However, if you enter Jiudaowan Hutong, you will probably get lost as you have to turn corners 19 times, so please note not to be lost.

There is an interesting hutong called Qianshi Hutong near Qianmen (Front Gate). The narrowest section in its middle is only 40 centimeters. When two people pass through it face to face, one has to turn back to the exit of the Hutong and let another pass first. Interesting?

You may find that a lot of smaller hutongs have been formed inside bigger hutongs.

A courtyard is like a square. Rooms are built along the four sides of the square. Beijing's courtyards have three sizes - the bigger ones, the middle-sized ones and the smaller ones. The

smaller ones are very simple. Usually, there are several rooms arranged on each of the four sides respectively. They are the north rooms, east and west wing-rooms and south rooms. The older family members live in the north rooms; the young live in the wing-rooms, and a south room is constructed as a living room or study.

The middle-sized ones are a little more complicated than the smaller ones but still obtain all the basic structures. Rooms, corridors, walls are added to this kind of courtyard. Among these, a Chuihua Gate is very important. It divides the whole courtyard into front yard (outer yard) and inner yard. The wing-rooms in the outer yard are smaller than those in the inner yard. They are used as a kitchen or bedrooms for the servants. The south rooms are a gate room, living room or a study and garage.

The bigger courtyard is the most complicated form of courtyard. It consists of more than two small courtyards.

The middle-sized and smaller courtyards are dwellings for the common people while the bigger courtyards were used only by government officials and family members of the government officials.

The doors of all the rooms face the inside of the yard. With the influence of Fengshui, the gate of a courtyard is usually at the east end of the south side. When you enter a courtyard from the gate, you will first face a wall called screen wall. The wall prevents you from seeing the activities inside the courtyard.

In the yard, small brick paths connect every room. Stairs are in front of every room. In the yard, people can entertain themselves by planting trees and flowers, raising fish, resting and doing housework.

Usually, one courtyard is only for one family to live in. A family may include 2 or 3 generations. However, for the poor people, several families live together in one courtyard.

When you have a tour especially to Beijing's hutongs, some travel agencies may arrange with local people to visit their courtyards and rooms. Some travel agencies may also bring you to a kindergarten after you finish your visits to hutongs. In the kindergarten, you can see how the lovely boys and girls study and live. You can also talk with the teachers and the children to feel the development of modern China for yourself. Do not forget to taste the food at a local person's home and to try the pedicabs.


Ppresent Chinese timber framework and painting which are basic characteristics of Chinese architecture.

Architecture Styles:
feature characteristics and charms of: Imperial architecture, Religious architecture (Taoist, Buddhist), Garden architecture and General architecture(Hutong ,Siheyuan).

Architectural Culture:
There is always deep relation between Architecture and Culture: It is certain you will learn some cultural facts in so-called Architectural culture in Fengshui and so-called Cultural architecture in Paifang.

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