Discovering China


  • China's People
  • Language and Script
  • Chinese Literature
  • Religion and Philosophy
  • The Power of Qi
  • Architecture
  • Chinese Inventions
  • Traditional Arts
  • Modern Arts
  • Festivals
  • The Climate of China
  • The History of China

  • Tiled imperial dragon
    Tiled imperial dragon

    For over two thousand years, the Chinese have used the same architectural model for both imperial and religious buildings. This has three elements: a platform, post-and-beam timber frames, and non-loadbearing walls. Standard features of building complexes include a front gate, four-sided enclosures or courtyards, and a series of halls in a linear formation running north. Most Chinese buildings were built of wood, but because wooden buildings tend to catch fire, only a few structures remain; the earliest date from the Tang period.

    Aerial view of the Forbidden City, showing the traditional linear layout
    Aerial view of the Forbidden City,
    showing the traditional linear layout


    In every context, the Chinese hall or tang follows the same pattern: a platform of rammed earth or stone, and timber columns arranged in a grid. The front of the hall always has an odd number of bays. Between the columns and beams are brackets (dougong), cantilevers that support the structure, allowing the eaves to overhang. The timber is brightly painted, the roof aesthetically curved, and tiled or thatched.

    Gate of Heavenly Purity
    Gate of Heavenly Purity

    Gate of Heavenly Purity

    An archetypal Chinese hall, the central doorway and uneven number of bays emphasize the processional element.

    Standard Hall

    Buildings in China conformed to a set of rules about proportions. This uniform architecture created a sense of identity – useful in a large and disparate country.

    Storied building (Lou) and storied pavilion (Ge)

    Standard Hall
    Standard Hall

    Multi-story buildings in China predate pagodas and varied from two-storied private homes to huge seven- or more story towers built to enjoy the scenery. Storied pavilions were used for storage and had doors and windows only at the front. Both types of building kept the standard elements of base, columns, and hanging walls.

    Storied building

    The construction of tall buildings relied heavily on the dougong bracket.

    Storied Pavilion

    These were used for storing important items, such as libraries of Buddhist sutras or colossal statues.

    Storied building Storied Pavilion Pagoda Ornamental archway
    Storied building Storied Pavilion Pagoda Ornamental archway


    Based on the Indian stupa, the Chinese pagoda, or ta, was developed in the first century AD along with the arrival of Buddhism. Multi-storied pagodas appeared in Buddhist temple complexes (although later they often stood on their own) and were often intended to house a religious statue. They were built of brick, stone, or wood (see History of the Pagoda).

    Ornamental archway

    The pailou, or paifang, is a memorial or decorative archway. Made of wood, brick, or stone, and sometimes with glazed tiles, it often bears an edifying inscription. Pailou were erected at crossroads, temples, bridges, government offices, parks, and tombs.

    City wall and gate
    City wall and gate
    Pingyao city walls
    Pingyao city walls

    City Walls

    Early defensive walls, like other early architectural forms, were made of earth – either pounded hard by pestles or moistened to make a clay and pressed around reed frames. Later walls were often built using brick. City walls were traditionally square, with the main gate to the south. The Chinese for "city" (cheng) also means "wall."

    City Wall and Gate

    The towers on top of walls can vary from small buildings to palatial multi-story structures.

    Pingyao city walls

    Made of rammed earth and brick, rising 33 ft (10 m) high, the ramparts and watchtowers were an effective defense. The current structure, collapsed in parts, is from the Ming dynasty.

    Architectural details


    It is interesting to interpret the architectural detail on Chinese buildings. The use of yellow tiles, for example, was reserved for the emperor. The Nine-Dragon Screen, which occurs in the Forbidden City and elsewhere, is also imperial since the dragon symbolizes the yang, or male principle, and by extension the emperor.


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