Ancient Chinese Architecture: History, Characteristics, and Legacies


In its long, characterful history, the Chinese architectural scene has produced plenty of monumental legacies like the Great Wall. Seeing as Chinese design is one of three main architectural systems, it holds a lot of influence and mesmerizing history. Here's a brief guide about ancient Chinese architecture, its symbolic elements and legacies.

Timeline: From Neolithic to Qing Dynasties

The ancient Chinese architecture begin in the neolithic period (before 1600 BC); however, the first record was during the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC). In the neolithic era, there were only two kinds of buildings: circular buildings with a conical roof and square buildings with a pyramidal roof. While the circular house was built above the ground, the latter was constructed half below the surface of the ground.

One thing for sure, the rise and fall of Chinese dynasties play a vital role in civilisation and subsequently, the architecture. Let’s take the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC), that thrived in the period where bricks and roof tiles were introduced as architectural materials. Next, majestic palaces and pavilions were finally made in the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 BC – 220 AD), thanks to the enchanting paintings, ceramics, and silks. During this era, the first emperor's huge mausoleum, the Terracotta Army was also constructed.

The Terracotta Army | Source:

Moving to the Three Kingdoms Period (220–280) and the Six Dynasties (220–589), ancient Chinese architecture encountered another breakthrough. The ruling house started to be fully aware of religious importance, in which religious buildings, such as Buddhist monasteries and temples were erected.

If you were waiting for the Golden Age, we're finally there in the timeline. The Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–907) Dynasties were alive when the use of bricks had become more common. It also influenced neighbouring countries Korea and Japan. To be more specific, the Buddhist pagodas were increasingly popular during this phase.

The Xumi Pagoda of The Tang Dynasty | Source:

Furthermore, the major improvements in its architectural style had been made during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Though the buildings size was considerably smaller than the previous era, they were more increasingly diverse in nature and fascinating. It could be illustrated in extravagant palaces, Buddhist pagodas, and lavish mausoleum. Meanwhile, the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) rule was acknowledged as the important time of the ornate features on roofs, brackets overhangs, and elevated terraces.

The novelty of ancient Chinese architecture reached its peak during last two imperial dynasties, the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) Dynasties. At that moment, the grandeur of the Forbidden City was well maintained and successively rebuilt over the centuries.

The Forbidden City | Source:

Ancient Chinese Architecture Characteristics

It is true that very little ancient architecture still exists since the the Chinese mainly built in timber, which is susceptible to insects, moisture, and fire. Almost all traditional architectural structures were wooden, ranging from the common residences to the halls of the Forbidden City.

Another important feature is the symmetrical layout that reflects upholding the value of harmony in ancient China. Functionally, the larger main edifice in the centre is flanked on all sides by smaller or symmetrical gates to help protect the main building from external attacks, such as heavy wind and enemy arrows.

The Forbidden City | Source:

The exterior part of ancient Chinese architecture is decorated elegantly through beautiful features, like upturned roof corners, stone lions, screen walls, overhanging eaves, different shapes of roofs, and flowers. Also, paintings and carvings add depth and elevate appearances. Not only is the exterior graceful, but the interior of the building is also embellished with painted rafters, carved beams, inscribed boards, couplets hung on the pillars, and wall paintings.

Detailed roof features in ancient Chinese architecture | Source:

Remarkable Legacies of Ancient Chinese Architecture

When you first heard about ancient Chinese architecture, your mind might have arrived at the Great Wall of China. Stretching across rocky mountains from a beach in East China to a desert in the West area, this wall took many many years to be constructed, from before the Sui Dynasty (7 BC – 618 AD), until it was finally completed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

The Great Wall of China | Source:

Thanks to the construction era, terrain, climate and local natural resources, the materials used to built this humongous wall were diverse. Over the years, around 100 million tonnes of wood, stones, sand, and bricks were transported up into the mountains and across the plains. Labourers lined up to pass the baskets and blocks on narrow mountain sites, whereas the traditional tools (ropes and wheel barrows) were utilised on flat paths mountain. Animals, such as horses, oxen, and camels, were also significant for transporting materials in desert areas.

Apart from the monumental wonder of the Great Wall, Chinese architecture also highlighted religious buildings; in which, the adoration of emperors towards religion had encouraged Chinese people to build pagodas. Still standing until today, one best example is Temple of Heaven, a great deal of the world's largest ancient architectures that is used for worship. More interestingly, it became the sacred place of the emperor to pray for the great fortune when winter approaches.

Originated some 5,000 years ago, the Temple of Heaven is composed of two main buildings, namely the Circular Mound Altar and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. As Chinese architecture promotes symbolism, the circular building design of both sites symbolises the harmony and unity between heaven and human. Today, people still enjoy visiting The Temple of Heaven for simple retreat or conducting traditional activities, such as tai chi and mahjong.

Temple of Heaven | Source:
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Awal Hidayat