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Ancient Chinese Architecture: Architectural Styles

This LibGuide provides a general guide to anyone who has interests in ancient Chinese architecture and its culture and history.

Chinese ancient architecture has its own unique style in world architecture. A very important feature in Chinese architecture is its emphasis on articulation and bilateral symmetry, which signifies balance. Bilateral symmetry and the articulation of buildings are found everywhere in Chinese architecture, from palace complexes to humble farmhouses. It uses different structural materials which include civil construction, brickwork, timber construction and bamboo construction. There are various architectural styles such as the palace, tower, temple, garden and mausoleum which can be generally grouped into imperial architecture, religious architecture, gardens and domestic architecture.

Imperial Architecture

There were certain architectural features that were reserved solely for buildings built for the Emperor of China. One example is the use of yellow roof tiles, yellow having been the Imperial colour; yellow roof tiles still adorn most of the buildings within the Forbidden City. 

Elaborate burial ritual derived not only from the filial tradition of the devotion of the younger generation to its predecessors but also the desire to portray the power of the hereditary imperial throne and the dynasty. Therefore, emperors spared no efforts in building huge tombs for themselves, using vast resources in terms of both manpower and materials. Most of the royal tombs built near the dynasty's capital city.

The most famous is the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, northeast of Xi'an and 1.7 km west of where the Terracotta Warriors were found.

Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

The Mountain Resort in Chengde

The Mountain Resort in Chengde

Qing dynasty map of the resort

Qing dynasty map of the resort


The Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogong Temple

The Pagoda of Fogong Temple was built 85 km (53 mi) south of the Liao Dynasty capital at Datong. The pagoda features fifty-four different kinds of bracket arms in its construction, the greatest amount for any Liao Dynasty structure. A statue of the Buddha Sakyamuni sits prominently in the centre of the first floor of the pagoda, with an ornate zaojing (caisson) above its head (the pagoda is named Sakyamuni Pagoda due to this statue).

The pagoda, which has survived several large earthquakes throughout the centuries, reached a level of such fame within China that it was given the generic nickname of the "Muta".

Confucian Temples

The Confucian temple is a temple for the veneration of Confucius and the sages and philosophers of Confucianism in Chinese folk religion and other East Asian religions. They were formerly the site of the administration of the imperial examination in China and Vietnam and often housed schools and other studying facilities.

Taoist temples

Taoism is a religion with many schools or denominations, of which none occupies a position of orthodoxy. Taoist branches usually build their identity around a set of scriptures, that are manuals of ritual practices. 

Temple at the top of Mount Tai

Traditional Domestic Architecture

Wang Family Compound

It is is the largest of the Shanxi Courtyard Houses. The local Wangs would reach its apex of wealth and power in the 18th century after accumulating riches from business and government position. Over the course of several generations, the compound was built on a grand scale during the period from the reign of the Kangxi Emperor (1661–1722) to the Jiaqing Emperor (1796–1820). By the 19th century, the fortunes of the family declined and some members took to degeneracy, opium smoking, and public corruption. The Wang family was ousted from the family compound during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Qiao Family Compound

It is the residential compound of well-known financier Qiao Zhiyong (乔致庸/喬致庸, 1818—1907), who was the most famous member of the Qiao family. It is famous for being the chief location in the Zhang Yimou film Raise the Red Lantern. A 2006 Chinese television series, Qiao's Grand Courtyard, was also shot here. The series, directed by Hu Mei, chronicles the life of Qiao Zhiyong with some artistic license applied.

The owners of China's Private gardens were usually retired court officials, men of letters, landlords and rich merchants. China's ancient etiquette system enforced restrictions on the lifestyle and spending of the common, and anyone who went against the regulations would be prosecuted. Private gardens could never match the scale and style of imperial gardens.

From the middle of the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty, Jiangnan became a popular focus for private gardens and the trend for landscaped gardens was in vogue for over 300 years. 

Zhuozheng Garden (Humble Administrator's Garden), 

Suzhou The Humble Administrator's Garden is a Chinese garden in Suzhou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most famous of the gardens of Suzhou.

A siheyuan is a historical type of residence that was commonly found throughout China, most famously in Beijing and rural Shanxi. Throughout Chinese history, the siheyuan composition was the basic pattern used for residences, palaces, temples, monasteries, family businesses, and government offices. In ancient times, a spacious siheyuan would be occupied by a single, usually large and extended family, signifying wealth and prosperity. Today, remaining siheyuan are often still used as subdivided housing complexes, although many lack modern amenities.

Siheyuan 四合院

A yaodong (Chinese: 窰洞; pinyin: yáodòng) or "house cave" is a particular form of earth shelter dwelling common in the Loess Plateau in China's north. They are generally carved out of a hillside or excavated horizontally from a central "sunken courtyard"


Fujian Tulou is a property of 46 buildings constructed between the 15th and 20th centuries over 120 km in the south-west of Fujian province, inland from the Taiwan Strait. Set amongst rice, tea and tobacco fields the Tulou are earthen houses. Several storeys high, they are built along with an inward-looking, circular or square floor plan as housing for up to 800 people each. They were built for defence purposes around a central open courtyard with only one entrance and windows to the outside only above the first floor. Housing a whole clan, the houses functioned as village units and were known as "a little kingdom for the family" or "bustling small city." They feature tall fortified mud walls capped by tiled roofs with wide overhanging eaves. The most elaborate structures date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Tulou

Source: UNESCO TV / © NHK Nippon Hoso Kyokai

Architecture Structures and Components

roof of types