Architecture in China and East Asia


This article is an introduction to Chinese and East Asian architecture.

Chinese architecture refers to a style that has shaped East Asia over many centuries. Chinese architectural (and aesthetic) design is based on symmetry, a general emphasis on the horizontal and site layouts that reflect a hierarchy of importance. These considerations result in formal and stylistic differences compared to the West and display alternatives in design.

The Chinese have used stone, brick, and wood for centuries. The Great Wall, begun in the 5th century BCE, was intended to keep nomadic invaders out of Northern China. The stone wall covers 5,500 miles in its entirety. The rigid material takes on a more flexible appearance as it conforms to the contours of the landscape surrounding it. Notice in the image below the use of arches in the towers.

Samxli, 'The Great Wall of China at Badaling', China, begun 5th century BCE, Stone

The Great Wall of China at Badaling, China, began 5th century BCE, Stone.

The Zhaozhou Bridge is an example of efficient design and flawless craftsmanship with materials. Built in 595 CE, it uses stone barrel vaults and arches to gracefully span the Xiao River. Today it is the oldest standing bridge in China. Its best architectural testament lies in a poetic inscription left on the bridge by Tang Dynasty officials 70 years after its construction and reads:

"This stone bridge over the Jiao River is the result of the work of the Sui engineer Li Chun. Its construction is indeed unusual, and no one knows on what principle he made it. But let us observe his marvelous use of stonework. Its convexity is so smooth, and the wedge-shaped stones fit together so perfectly... How lofty is the flying-arch! How large is the opening, yet without piers! Precise indeed are the cross-bondings and joints between the stones, masonry blocks delicately interlocking like mill wheels, or like the walls of wells; a hundred forms (organized into) one. And besides the mortar in the crevices there are slender-waist iron cramps to bind the stones together. The four small arches inserted, on either side two, break the anger of the roaring floods, and protect the bridge mightily. Such a masterwork could never have been achieved if this man had not applied his genius to the building of a work which would last for centuries to come."  — Joseph Needham. The Shorter Science and Civilization in China.

Li Chun, 'Zhaozhou Bridge', China. Stone. 595 CE

Zhaozhou Bridge, China. Stone. 595 CE

Though Chinese stonemason work is celebrated for its preciseness and ingenuity, the use of wood as a primary construction material is the hallmark of traditional Chinese architecture. Wooden timber, usually large trimmed logs, is used as load-bearing columns and lateral beams for framing buildings and supporting roofs. These structural timbers are prominently displayed in finished structures. It's not known how the ancient builders raised the huge wooden columns into position. Columns and roof sections were joined together in mortise and tenon joints without glue or nails.

One innovation developed in Chinese architecture is the cantilever – an extension or overhang without exterior bracing. This was made possible using corbel brackets or dougong – triangular braces that help support heavy loads at the corners. The Chinese engineered the cantilever and bracket system to provide buildings with sweeping roof overhangs that commonly turn upwards at the corners. Cantilevered roofs appear to float above the main structure and reinforce the focus on horizontal symmetry. The Hall of Divine Might, located in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, exemplifies this design characteristic.

Saad Akhtar, 'Hall of Divine Might', located in the Forbidden City, Beijing

Hall of Divine Might, located in the Forbidden City, Beijing

Chinese architecture influenced all of East Asian design over hundreds of years. The same elements and characteristics can be seen in traditional architecture from Japan, North and South Korea, and Vietnam.

Decoration is implicit in Chinese architecture. Bright colors and intricate designs dominate many traditional buildings and enhance the look of exposed timbers. The Sagami Temple in Japan (below) uses elaborate decoration to intensify the visual effect of a complex corner structure of brackets and overhangs.

663highland, 'Sagami Temple', detail, 745 CE, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan

Sagami Temple, detail, 745 CE, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan

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Source: Christopher Gildow,
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Last modified: Wednesday, February 14, 2024, 4:09 PM