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Architecture of China

Chinese architecture is one of the world's most historic and impressive art forms. Unlike so many other nations, China has had a long and powerful history, giving them the money to build massive and long-lasting stone and brick structures and monuments. Despite this, most traditional architecture is built from wood, including many modern day temples. This has led to a mix of survival among their many architectural ruins as some dynasties have left behind vast amounts of buildings, while others have built almost exclusively in wood and their structures have been lost to time.

Chinese Architecture - Great Wall of China
Great Wall of China

The earliest Chinese architecture has been destroyed or fallen apart over time as this dates back thousands of years; some of which can be seen in archeological dig sites. This includes buildings from the Shang, Zhou, and Qin Dynasties. The Qin however have left behind more than these earlier dynasties as some walls and tombs remain from the 300s and 200s BC.

Among the most impressive feats in the world, two were created by the Qin: the first Qin Emperor created his funerary palace and guards, today commonly known as the Terra Cotta Warriors in the city of Xi'an. Although these nearly 7,000 Terracotta warriors are not architecture in its truest form, the yet unexcavated palace is and these warriors are symbolic of the power, wealth, and prestige of the country at the time, giving people today insight into how the people lived and in what structures they lived during this time. The Qin also built numerous sections of the Great Wall of China, although most of it was later destroyed or fell apart (most sections of the Great Wall were renovated by the Ming in the 1300s and again in recent times in tourist sections).

Chinese Architecture - Xi'an's Terra Cotta Warriors
Terra Cotta Warriors

Under the Han Dynasty, which arose in the 200s BC, the basis of later temples was created. Called the "Ming-t'ang" or Spirit Hall, this temple is believed to be the original inspiration for later Chinese temples, including the famed Temple of Heaven in Beijing. It was also the Han Dynasty that began to build heavily in stone and brick.

In the 200s AD the Three Kingdom arose and left little behind that has lasted. The next dynasty, the Jin Dynasty also left little behind. This ended with the Sui Dynasty in the 500s AD. The Sui built their capital in K'ai (later named Ch'ang-an) during this time and in the capital was a huge palace structure that Beijing's Forbidden City loosely modeled. They also left behind a large number of funerary palaces and monuments, but all of these constructions have since been lost and today are archeological sites at best.

Chinese Architecture - Beijing's Temple of Heaven
Temple of Heaven

The Sui and the next dynasty, the Tang were considered great temple builders, but again few remains from this time. The Nan-ch'an Temple's main hall in Wu-t'ai was built by the Tang as was the Fo-kuang Temple. The Tang's longest lasting architecture (or Tang-inspired architecture) is in Nara, Japan, not in China.

The Song rulers (960-1279) were also great builders, but what is believed to be their highlights, their capitals of Pien-ching and Hang-chou, were destroyed. Despite this, there are a number of remains that survive to the present. The Kuan-yin Hall in Chi-hsien (900s) and the Hua-yen Temple in Ta-t'ung (modern day Shansi; 1000s) are the best examples, with the library room in the Hua-yen temple often considered the finest example of Song Dynasty architecture. Pagoda building was also common under the Song Dynasty and K'ai-feng's tall pagoda (1000s) is the prime surviving example from this time period.

The Song Dynasty also added a slight curve to the roof of their buildings so the corners slightly round up at the bottom edges, a common feature in Chinese architecture in the following centuries. In fact, during the Song time a number of new and experimental techniques and styles were introduced with some, like the arched roof, being incorporated into later styles, while others were forgotten.

Chinese Architecture - Beijing's Forbidden City
Forbidden City

The Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) left almost nothing behind, including the loss of the Great Palace of Kublai Khan, which was placed in the country's new capital, Beijing. Of the few remains, the Drum Tower and the Whit Pagoda in Beijing are both from this rule.

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) built many buildings that survive to the present, including the Forbidden City in Beijing (begun in the 1400s), which is one of the most impressive and densely built upon lands in the country. Every structure is monumental in detail, technique, and often also in size as it contains nearly 9,000 rooms and was home to the Emperors for years. This time period also represented a shift to heavily painted buildings, which is impossible to miss in the Forbidden City. The Ming Dynasty also built the Temple of Heaven (1500s; rebuilt in the 1890s), which is an all wood circular temple built upon a square marble base; this building contains no nails and is again heavily painted.

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) built relatively little although they regularly updated numerous buildings, including the Forbidden City. They also built the Emperor's Summer Palace (1700s) in Beijing (although at the time it fell outside the city walls). The Qing Dynasty was also well known for creating gardens a part of their landscape and integrated it strongly with their architecture to work with buildings.

Chinese Architecture - Hong Kong
Hong Kong

With the communist takeover in China following World War II the architecture has changed dramatically, with the greatest change being the loss of numerous historic pieces. Under Mao the government demanded that thousands of pieces of architecture be destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The buildings erected in their place have generally been simple factories or housings units that are focused on efficiency and use over aesthetics.

Chinese Architecture - Tibet's Potala Palace
Potala Palace

However, for much of this time Hong Kong and Macau remained outside Chinese power and their architecture better reflects their rulers than it does China. Macau was ruled by Portugal and there are significant indications of this past relationship. Hong Kong was ruled by the British and grew into a massive modern city as it boasts some of the country's finest modern and post-modern architecture with a modern skyline that competes with New York and the best of the world.

A final note about the massive country's architecture is that the ethnic Chinese were not the only rulers of every part of China as its borders stand today. Numerous ethnic groups controlled various parts of the modern country in the past and these regions reflect the local people and their architecture, not China's. For this reason there are numerous alterations on Chinese architecture and in some places a completely different style. However, these people rarely built structures that have lasted or are noteworthy; the exception to this though is Tibet. The Tibetans have a unique architecture not seen elsewhere in China and this is best represented by their masterpiece, the Potala Palace (1649) in Lhasa.

This page was last updated: March, 2013