Ancient Chinese Architecture
Walled compounds, raised pavilions, wooden columns and paneling, yellow glazed roof tiles, landscaped gardens, and a careful application of town planning and use of space are all notable features of the architecture of ancient China, with many of them still playing an important part in modern architecture across East Asia. Architects were influenced by ideas from India and the Buddhism which originated there, but the buildings of ancient China remained remarkably constant in fundamental appearance over the centuries, inspiring much of the architecture of other neighboring East Asian states, especially in ancient Japan and Korea. Unfortunately, few ancient Chinese buildings survive today, but reconstructions can be made based on clay models, descriptions of contemporary texts, and depictions in the art such as wall paintings and engraved bronze vessels.
Chinese architecture remained remarkably constant throughout the history of the country. Beginning in the Yellow earth region, the same types of materials and structure were employed for centuries . Wood was always preferred rather than stone, and the roof material of choice was glazed ceramic tiles. The most typical building, at least for larger structures for the elite or public use such as temples, halls, and gate towers, was built on a raised platform made of compacted earth and faced with brick or stone. The earliest examples date to the Shang dynasty (c. 1600 - 1046 BCE) and as time goes on they become larger with more levels added to create an impressive stepped terrace. Examples of earth foundations at Erlitou sites, which date to between c. 1900 and c. 1550 BCE, range in size from 300 square meters to 9,600 square meters and often include underground ceramic sewage pipes.
The most common building type had regularly spaced timber posts which were strengthened by horizontal cross-beams. In order to better protect the building from earthquake damage, very few nails were used, and joins between wooden parts were made to interlock using mortises and tenons which gave a greater flexibility. The wooden posts supported a thatch roof in earlier architecture and then a gabled and tiled roof with the corners gently curving outwards and upwards at the corners. By the 3rd century CE hip and gable roofs are common. There is no evidence of the dome in Chinese architecture, unnecessary in any case with wooden structures, although stone and brick tombs of various periods do have arched doorways and vaulted or corbelled roofs.
To distribute the weight of the roof on the supporting wooden posts and allow the roof to spread beyond the area of the building itself, the dougong was created which is a bracket joining the top of the post and horizontal roof beam. It is likely that the design of roofs which projected beyond the walls of the building - a feature so typical of Asian architecture - was first intended to protect the wooden columns and their bases from deterioration by exposure to rain. In a desire to create more clear space in the building's interior, fewer columns were used and the roof structure made more complex to spread the weight even further, a feat achieved by combining brackets with cantilevered and transverse beams under the roof rafters. Meanwhile, on the outside, Chinese buildings used bright colors with vermilion paint applied to pillars and balustrades, yellow for glazed roof tiles, and green paint for decorative parts such as the brackets under the eaves.
Buddhist temples followed the same basic formula as described above. Although none survive today, examples may be seen in the 7th-century CE Horyuji temple complex and the Kofukuji complex, both near Nara in Japan, which faithfully copied the temple architecture at Chang’an, the Tang capital. Most temples were built on a precise compass orientation and the buildings set on a raised platform of no less than one meter in height. Subsidiary buildings were arranged symmetrically around the main temple building which could have more than one story, a rarity in Chinese architecture.
The most tangible evidence of influence on Chinese architecture from India is the pagoda building. Derived from the stupa building, Chinese architects made the pagoda structure much more grandiose and added many more stories, often up to twelve. However, the towers were for show only and the different stories were not meant for actual use, hence the reduction in size for each successive story and the absence of any access to them. The often added balustrades on each floor were only part of the illusion that each floor was accessible.
Pagodas were made from wood around a central wooden column, and only later were stone and bricks used, although wood made a comeback when it was realized a greater height was possible using that material. It is likely pagodas were covered in lime plaster to imitate the stone structures they copied from India. The pagoda also provided the idea for monumental towers to mark tombs. These are typically square, multi-storeyed structures often with windows on each level, again to provide the illusion of accessibility and not having any particular function except to impress the viewer from a distance. A good example is the 8th-century CE tomb pagoda of Xuan Zang in Henan province.
Chinese architecture was, in the main, then, remarkably constant. One of the few developments was to simplify the roof beams to make the structure lighter and to increase the height of the supporting pillars to give a more elegant proportion of height against width. Roofs also became much more curved at the corners. Another change was the eventual addition of decorative tiles and figures such as dragons to the ends and ridges of roofs. The extra weight of these roof additions was carried by better design in roof brackets and clustering four on one column, employing more cantilevered beams and using wider column capitals.
Town planning was of particular concern to the Chinese and was best seen in their two longest-serving capitals of Luoyang and Chang’an. There the cities were laid out with wide avenues and smaller secondary streets crossing each other at right angles to create a carpet of precise rectangles. The entire area, some 8,000 hectares in the case of the larger cities, was surrounded by a sloping wall which could be up to 10 meters high. Towered gates gave access to the city, with Luoyang, for example, has 12.
The location of individual buildings was often decided based on the surrounding geography. Many important buildings and royal palaces were aligned on a north-south axis with the main entrance facing south. If a building was composed of different parts joined by intervening courtyards, these were all aligned on the same axis one behind another. Less important structures were built on the east and west sides of the main buildings.
The relationship between buildings and between rooms within those buildings was also important to the Chinese. Architecture could be used to express social and political hierarchies as the historian M. E. Lewis here explains:
From earliest times, Chinese political power was articulated in terms of the authority of the inner over the outer. Temples, palaces, and houses in early China and throughout its history were walled on the outside, and the first buildings encountered after entering the gate were the more public ones where men conducted their business. Here "insiders", that is, members of a family or the ruler and his household would receive people from the outside. As a visitor moved toward the back, buildings became more "inner" and private, and access to them became more restricted. In a residential compound, these buildings would be the private chambers of the men and women of the house. In an imperial palace, these buildings would be the emperor’s living quarters, which in the Han dynasty became the locus of the inner court. (163)