Ancient Chinese Architecture

Lesson Transcript
Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Expert Contributor
Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

One of the most definitive elements of ancient Chinese society is the architecture. In this lesson, we'll explore the main architectural elements of the Chinese tradition and see what made it unique from the architecture of the rest of the world. Updated: 06/05/2020

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.

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  • 0:04 Ancient Chinese Architecture
  • 0:48 Materials
  • 2:13 Layout
  • 3:20 Philosophy
  • 4:44 Design Motifs
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
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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.

Note the symmetrical layout of this complex

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Additional Activities

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.

Living Traditions

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?

Ancient Architecture

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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