Ancient Chinese Architecture
China boasts some of the greatest cultural continuity in the world. Artistic, linguistic, and cultural motifs that first appeared thousands of years ago still hold important places in the nation today. This makes it an interesting place to study things like architecture. China's architectural record dates back to roughly the 3rd century BCE, but it's apparent that we're dealing with some pretty ancient ideas. Now, obviously different imperial dynasties had different tastes, so the arts do change slightly between different eras. We won't be able to discuss every style of architecture in China's long history, but we can look at some major themes--themes that have defined China for quite a long time.
When looking at the major themes of ancient Chinese architecture, one of the most important is material. While many ancient civilizations built heavily in stone, the ancient Chinese preferred to work in wood. This is why our knowledge of Chinese architecture does not predate the 3rd century BCE, despite China's civilization being roughly 5,000 years old. Wood deteriorates over time. So, why did the Chinese use this material? After all, they were gifted at stone construction, as famously evidenced by their defensive walls.
Chinese architecture relied on wood largely because of the versatility of the material. Wood is lighter than stone, which allowed the ancient Chinese to build larger structures at a very early date. It's also flexible. Wooden structures can bend and move without breaking, which again allowed the Chinese to create massive structures that would not buckle or collapse. The use of wood over stone made Chinese architecture structurally different than the buildings of other ancient cultures. The weight of the structure was almost entirely placed on the internal columns, with no weight resting on the walls. A system of interlocking brackets between the column and crossbeam of the ceiling, called a dougong, also helped disperse the weight of the structure. The dougong system is completely unique to this region, and it's one of the most definitive elements of ancient Chinese architecture.
The next major theme of Chinese architecture is the layout. Chinese aesthetics were very consistent and existed within a unified system of art, so Chinese structures were defined by the same rules as paintings, sculpture, and even music. Two of the most fundamental elements of this aesthetic are symmetry and balance. Basically, the completed work must feel balanced, with various visual elements carrying different artistic weight. As a result, the basic layout was that of a complex. The complex was like a canvas, and each structure within it related to others as if objects in a painting. Symmetry and balance were attained by dividing the complex along a central axis. Buildings on opposite ends of the central axis often mirrored each other, with courtyards separating them. The basic layout was used in everything from entire cities, to imperial palace complexes, to single homes. The home of a wealthy elite, for example, may feature a large courtyard in the middle, with the rooms on all sides mirroring each other in design and function. Everything was designed according to this consistent aesthetic.
Of course, we can't talk about the balance and symmetry of Chinese architecture without talking about Chinese philosophy. Ancient Chinese societies were heavily influenced by philosophical agendas, which sought to promote not just an ideal life but an ideal society as well. One of the biggest to impact architecture was Taoism, an ancient Chinese philosophy that advocated for a life built in harmony with the energies of the universe. Taoist doctrines saw all of life within a connected spiritual pursuit for balance, and architecture played a role. The symmetry and balance of Chinese architecture was meant to help promote cosmic and spiritual balance, as was the directionality of structures. Ancient Chinese buildings do not emphasize height. Instead, they emphasize their horizontal traits, making them appear long and low to the ground. Even the characteristically curved roofs draw the eye down towards a solid, grounded base.
Around 200 BCE, Buddhism arrived in China from India and brought Indian aesthetics with it. Buddhist pagodas emphasized their vertical elements, with multi-faceted buildings representing various elements of Buddhist philosophies. By roughly 600 CE, both Buddhist and Taoist elements were important parts of Chinese architecture, often working together in distinct composite styles that sought harmony through multiple elements.
Finally, let's look at the distinctive design motifs of Chinese structures. The consistent artistic styles and design elements were very important parts of Chinese society. Architectural elements include the sloped roof, overhanging eaves with upwards-lifting corners, and a staggering amount of ornamentation. Both the exterior and interior of the structure were expected to feature carvings in the columns and beams, paintings or wall hangings, and other decorations. Color also played a major role in this, and striking colors emphasized certain architectural elements. Of course, all of this ornamentation still had to feel balanced and harmonious, which is no easy feat. The result was a distinct and splendid architectural tradition. No wonder they maintained it for so long.
Ancient Chinese society was complex and sophisticated. This is clear through their architectural traditions, which can be defined through a series of traits maintained over centuries. For one, ancient Chinese architecture was predominantly based in wood, not stone. This allowed for larger, more flexible structures. They also placed all weight on support columns, not walls, dispersed by a system of interlocking brackets called a dougong. Chinese architecture stressed an aesthetic of symmetry and balance, largely thanks to the philosophical influences of Taoism, which also emphasized the horizontality of the structure. Buddhism impacted architectural traditions as well after it arrived in China. Chinese architecture also featured high amounts of ornamentation, all of which still fit within a consistent, balanced aesthetic. It's an architectural heritage China still boasts about today, and I think we can all understand why.
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Architecture, Culture, and Innovation
Now you know many of the most important elements of ancient Chinese architecture. But there is still a lot more to learn! Divide the following prompts between your classmates and have each student become an expert on a particular part of this lesson. If you are taking this course alone, choose the element that interests you the most. Present your findings in a powerpoint or persuasive essay.
Chinese culture is unusual in that it has existed continuously for thousands of years. Think of some other cultures that have similarly long histories, especially if they also have architectural records dating back thousands of years. India, Turkey, Greece, and Italy are good examples. How do these countries' architectural traditions mirror those found in China? Are there any similarities among the types of construction found in these long-standing societies? Why or why not?
Ruins of ancient civilizations exist all over the world. Look at the ruins of ancient architecture found in places like Zimbabwe, Peru, and Egypt. Many of these construction styles are no longer in use, while those used in China are still thriving. Why do you think this is the case? What is different about the architecture in these countries, as well as the history of the countries over the last several thousand years? Why were these cultures less continuous than Chinese culture?
Architecture and Culture
This lesson explains how Chinese architecture reflects Chinese culture. Think of the architecture in your own country, or in other countries around the world. What aspects of your country's values, traditions, philosophy, culture, religions, and history appear in its architecture? How have those values changed over time, and is that reflected in your country's architecture?
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