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Ancient Chinese architecture forms an important component of the construction designs in modern-day China and the world in general. It is regarded as one of the world’s architectural systems.1 It entails a long-standing history from primitive society to the time of the Han Dynasty. For instance, concepts of ancient Chinese architecture are evidenced by the remains of the Shang Dynasty that lasted from 16th century BC-771 BC. In contemporary times, the architectural concepts of ancient China can still be in different structures. However, there have been many changes that have integrated traditional concepts with western architecture. The following paper discusses the concepts of ancient Chinese architecture and their influences on contemporary designs that are more aligned with western concepts and techniques.
Features of Ancient Chinese Architecture
The main characteristic of ancient Chinese architecture was the timber framework that was decorated by paintings and carvings. The timberwork entailed the use of wooden posts, lintels, and beams. The partitioning was by use of walls that did not bear the weight of the whole house. The concept of weight distribution is a unique architectural feature that can still be found in modern Chinese structures. The timber structures had special features in which simple techniques such as tenons were used to guarantee the endurance of the structure. For example, in order to ensure the strength of the wooden structures, the materials were laid down and joined in a skillful manner to ensure aseismatic capability.2 This was due to the fact that most parts of China were prone to earthquakes; hence, the need for structures that could resist the shock waves. The concept has been a center of attention for modern-day researchers who want to understand the mechanism that informed the system and its applicability in resisting earthquake.
The physical aspects of the Chinese architectural system entailed a court layout in which the architects concentrated on ensuring a unique spatial distribution of various components and a great emphasis on the integration of the structure with the external environment.3 The building normally comprised of three parts which included the podium, main body and pitch roof. Concerning the general layout, the auxiliary parts such as halls and porches were combined symmetrically along the north axis and enclosed at least a private courtyard. Tou-Kung was a kind of special bracket that was used as a decorative and structural element. The element of Tou-Kung can be found in some modern buildings. However, they have been enhanced technologically in which other materials other than timber are used. During the ancient times it symbolized the hierarchical organization of the structure. The north axis concept implied that the main structures were placed on the central axis of the court while the less important structures were placed at the left and right sides of the central axis.4 The final effect was the realization of the symmetrical layout.
Despite the use of timber as the main material and the general layout, there were differences in the architectural styles. They varied based on the purpose of the structure. Some of the common styles for included imperial, ancient Chinese residences, garden and the religious architectures. The imperial architecture entailed special designs for palaces, mausoleums and gardens. The imperial architecture normally used the axial symmetry layout. This implied that the buildings in the central axis were tall and splendid while the rest were small and simple; this was to signify the incarnate supremacy of the occupant. Concerning the religious architecture, the structural designs included Buddhist, Taoist, Islamic mosques, Chinese temples and Confucius temples architectures. Even though the styles are different in the layout, one commonality with them was the precision used in the joinery to achieve the bilateral symmetry.5 However the gardens were asymmetrical, which created the principle of enduring flow.
The structural components of beams, columns and purlins were joined by mortises and tenons which resulted in flexible structures. Another important architectural design found in the ancient Chinese structures was Dougong. This was a system of brackets which were inserted between the top column and the crossbeam. Dougong’s main feature was the interlocking of the wooden brackets.6 The system evolved into a unique structural network used to join columns and the pillars to the frame of the roof. The peak of this structural design was during the Tang and Song periods. The pieces of the wood were fitted together by using joinery. There was no use of fasteners or glue; instead, it relied on precision and high quality carpentry. It is important to note that there were many architectural styles of the ancient Chinese buildings and each had unique features.
Influence on Modern Architecture
The modern architecture has been dominated by western architectural techniques and forms. Despite westernization, the elements of the ancient Chinese architecture are reflected in some modern building concepts. This is the case in the layout and spatial utilization in which the structures are integrated to the surrounding.7 However, the use of timber as has diminished and replaced with use of glass, metal, and concrete. One of the influences that can be found in western architecture is the high precision in joinery, bilateral symmetry, and balance.8 A good example relates to the pavilion located at the Shanghai World Expo 2010, the structure has the shape of oriental crown, which depicts the ancient architecture. It depicted precision and balance that supported the oriental crown shape.
In the modern architecture, some other important elements extracted from the Chinese construction include colonnades, foundation supports, and cornices. These elements have become important aspects of the modern day architecture. This is unlike the masonry system of the ancient western architecture.9 Some structures where the ancient Chinese architectural concepts have been incorporated include the National Grand Theater of China (The Egg), Jian Zhen Memorial, and Xiangshan Campus of China Academy of Fine Arts. Concerning ‘The Egg,’ the layout of the house entails a great deal of emphasis of how the structure interacts with the surrounding. The concept of central axis is also used in the arrangement the opera house, theater, and concert hall. Also, the shape of the building is conical resembling some of the ancient Chinese roofing styles in which weight was evenly distributed. The other modern building that was significantly influenced by ancient Chinese architecture is the Jian Zhen Memorial. It was designed and constructed using the style of tang dynasty (167). A key feature entailed the joinery in which tenon technique was used. On the other hand, the ancient architectural concept for respect of site, terrain, and space was the main influence on the layout Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Fine Arts.
Chang, Yung. Illustrated Book of Beijing Architectures: A Very Brief History of Modernity. Beijing: China City Press, 2004.
Hinsbergh Gavin. “Ancient Chinese Architecture.” China Highlights. Web.
Hongxing, Xu. Analysis of Seismic Characteristics of Chinese Ancient Timber Structure. Nianjing: College of Civil engineering of Southeast University, 2008.
Li, Xiao. “The Aesthetic of the Absent the Chinese Conception of Space.” Journal of Architecture 1, no. 87 (2002):1-7.
Qian, Guo. Development Trend of the Architectures with Chinese Characteristics under the Impact of Western Culture. Shanxi: Atlantic Press, 2015.
Wu, Hui. Thoughts on Chinese Contemporary Architectures. Tianjin: Tianjin University, 2008.
- Guo Qian, Development Trend of the Architectures with Chinese Characteristics under the Impact of Western Culture (Shanxi: Atlantic Press, 2015), 166.
- Xu Hongxing, Analysis of Seismic Characteristics of Chinese Ancient Timber Structure (Nianjing: College of Civil engineering of Southeast University, 2008), 2.
- Yung Chang, Illustrated Book of Beijing Architectures: A Very Brief History of Modernity (Beijing: China City Press, 2004), 12.
- Ibid., 13
- Hinsbergh Gavin, “Ancient Chinese Architecture,” China Highlights, Web.
- Xu Hongxing, Analysis of Seismic Characteristics of Chinese Ancient Timber Structure (Nianjing: College of Civil engineering of Southeast University, 2008), 3.
- Xiao Li, “The Aesthetic of the Absent the Chinese Conception of Space,” Journal of Architecture 1, no. 87 (2002), 3.
- Hui Wu, Thoughts on Chinese Contemporary Architectures (Tianjin: Tianjin University, 2008): 17.