The basic feature of Chinese architecture is rectangular units of space joined together into a whole. Temples in ancient Greece also employed rectangular spaces, but overall effect had austere tendencies. By contrast, the Chinese style combines rectangular shapes varying in size and position according to importance into an organic whole, with each level and component clearly distinguished. As a result, traditional Chinese style buildings have an imposing yet dynamic exterior.
Ancient Chinese architecture enjoys a long history and great achievements, and created many architectural miracles such as the Great Wall. In the process of its development, superior architectural techniques and artistic design were combined to make unique Chinese architecture one of the three greatest architectural systems.
The combinations of units of space in traditional Chinese architecture follow the principles of balance and symmetry. The main structure is the axis, and the secondary structures are positioned as two wings on each side to form the main rooms and yard. Residences, official buildings, temples, and palaces all follow these basic principles. The distribution of interior space reflects Chinese social and ethical values. For example, in traditional residential buildings, members of a family are assigned living quarters based on the family hierarchy. The master of the house occupies the main room, and the elder members live in the compound in the back. The younger members live in the wings to the left and right, those with seniority on the left and the others on the right.
Another characteristic of traditional Chinese architecture is its use of a wooden structural frame with pillars, beams, and earthen walls surrounding the building on three sides. The main door and windows are in front. Chinese have used wood as a main construction material for thousands of years. Wood to the Chinese represents life, and “life” is the main idea that Chinese culture strives to communicate. This feature has been preserved up to the present.
Based on the structure of the wooden beams and pillars, traditional Chinese rectangular buildings are divided into several rooms. In order to cover the structure with an over-hanging roof, the Chinese invented a special type of support bracket, called dougong. It’s a system of brackets inserted between the top of a column and a crossbeam, which not only supports the structure but also is an attractive ornamentation.
Roofs usually slope down on both sides in a simple fashion. However, many traditional Chinese buildings have curved eaves, which is a symbol of Chinese culture. While the building itself is relatively plain and straightforward, the ridge and upward-curving eaves of the roof introduce a more intricate aspect. This is analogous to the Chinese national character which is by nature plain and straightforward but full of vitality.
Three special architectural features resulted from the use of wood material. The first is that the depth and breadth of interior space is determined by the wooden structural frame. The second is the development of the technique of applying color lacquers to the structure to preserve the wood. These lacquers were made in brilliant, bold colors, and became one of the key identifying features of traditional Chinese architecture. The third is the technique of building a structure on a platform, to prevent damage from moisture. The height of the platform corresponds to the importance of the building. A high platform adds strength, sophistication, and stateliness to large buildings.
Timber framework decides that color is the main ornament used on ancient Chinese architecture. In the beginning, paint was used on wood for antisepsis while later painting became an architectural ornament. In the feudal society, the use of color was restricted according to social status. Since yellow was deemed noblest color and green the second, they were often used on palace painting. The sundry color murals found on a traditional Chinese building range from outlines of dragons and phoenixes, depictions of myths to paintings of landscapes, flowers and birds. Cleary these color murals have both symbolic and aesthetic significance. One notable architectural development in southern China, particularly in Taiwan, is fine wood sculpture. Such sculptures coupled with murals give the structure an elegant and florid effect under the background of white granite basement.