Architectural drawing of a Chinese building by William Chambers, 1757.

Chinese architecture—from the Great Wall to the Forbidden City—has long distinguished itself from building traditions in other parts of the world. Its breadth of design encompasses not only individual buildings like pagodas, palaces, and temples but also cities, gardens, and tombs—complex interconnected structures built according to court-produced plans.

From as early as Neolithic times, wood has been a dominant material in Chinese aboveground construction. The timber frame is considered to be China’s major contribution to world architectural technology, and its design is unparalleled in its flexibility and ability to withstand earthquakes. Other important features of ancient Chinese architecture include the raised platform and the decorative roof.

The Chinese use of wooden support systems in architecture can be traced back about seven millennia to the mid-Neolithic period. The structure was formed by a system of interlocking wooden supports, employing mortise and tenon joinery. The load-bearing timber frame supported the structure while the walls were used to separate enclosures. The oldest example of this timber frame was discovered in Zhejiang Province at the Hemudu site, which dates to about 5000 BCE. Semisubterranean structures that utilized wooden beams and pillars to support thatched roofs have also been uncovered from the mid-Neolithic period.

One critical element of the Chinese wooden structure is the bracket set, or dougong—a group of wooden interlocking components that attached pillars and columns to the roof without the use of aids in joinery. Dougong became widely used by the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE) and continued to evolve into a complex system of interlocking parts by the Tang (618–907 CE) and Song (960–1270) dynasties.

The dougong sits on top of a column and under a cross-beam and is made of a double bow-shaped arm, called a gong. The gong supports blocks of wood, called dou, on either side. The brackets are stacked in layers and support the load of the roof. Hierarchical restrictions in feudal China allowed the use of these brackets only in the most important buildings, such as palaces and temples. The more important the building, the greater the complexity and number of bracket layers.

Because the dougong structure allows the weight of the roof to be supported by pillars instead of walls, it is highly resistant to earthquakes. Where brick and mortar walls would collapse, the basic framework of the building would remain intact. Hence, it is said that “Chinese houses will stand even when their walls collapse.” These bracket sets have allowed many ancient buildings in China to survive for hundreds of years.

The use of rammed earth and unbaked mud bricks was also in use by the mid-Neolithic period. Layers of earth were pounded together to form foundations, walls, and alters. Sections of the Great Wall of China were built using layers of rammed earth. Homes were often built using sun-dried mud bricks to form walls that were then built around the wooden frame. Floors were made of pounded earth that was hardened through heating.

In traditional Chinese architecture, nearly every part of a building was decorated. In ordinary buildings, ceilings were often decorated using wooden strips that were covered with paper. Latticed ceilings were made using strips of wood or sorghum stems that were woven and attached to the beams. More elaborate ornamentation was reserved for the most important buildings, such as temples, tombs, and altars. As with other structural elements of traditional Chinese architecture, roofs and ceilings were constructed without the use of nails but were held together using bracket sets.

The Chinese architectural tradition can be separated into early, middle, and late periods. The early period stretches from Neolithic times through the Bronze Age (around 2000 BCE) to the period of disunion known as the Three Kingdoms (220–265 CE) and into the North and South dynasties (220–589 CE). The middle period begins around 580 CE under the Sui dynasty (581–618 CE) and continues through the Tang (618–907 CE) and Song (960–1279) dynasties. Historians of Chinese architecture disagree on when the late period began. Many consider the period of Mongolian rule during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) to be a transitional period. The late period of premodern architecture is considered to have lasted from the fourteenth through the nineteenth centuries.

In this evolution, the years 1103 and 1734 stand out as benchmarks. Those are the dates when two complete and extant court-sponsored building manuals were issued: Yingzao fashi (Building Standards) and Gongbu gongcheng zuofa zeli (Engineering Manual for the Board of Works). These technical treatises provided architectural standards for builders, architects, craftsmen, and engineers. From these writings, it is known that even though general principles of Chinese construction changed little over long periods of time, there were specific differences between the construction of important, or high-ranking, architecture and more humble structures.

Three features distinguish the Chinese building tradition from those of most other parts of the world. First, Chinese architecture includes not only buildings such as pagodas and temples but also cities, gardens, and tombs. Second, traditional Chinese buildings were usually constructed as part of a complex of structures that were joined physically by covered walkways and spatially by courtyards. Third, the name of an architect was rarely associated with a building. Designs for palaces, cities, imperial monasteries, and imperial gardens were produced at court. The pay scale for workers and the allotment of building materials were standardized. Builders were craftsmen, and a modular system made it possible for a group of craftsmen and builders to erect a timber frame based on proportional units.

Early Architecture

Most of our knowledge of Chinese architecture before the first millennium CE has come from archaeological excavations. Some sites have been studied for nearly eighty years, such as Anyang, which served as the capital of the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE) from approximately 1300 to 1050 BCE. Others have been discovered and excavated more recently. Several sites dating to Neolithic times have been uncovered, such as Banpo in Shanxi Province, Chengziyai in Shandong Province, Hemudu in Zhejiang Province, and Niuhuliang in Liaoning Province. One of the most impressive findings from these sites is that each, despite representing a different Neolithic culture, revealed common characteristics. For example, each included evidence of four-sided structures defined by exterior columns, a great hall or temple, platforms or walls made using the terre-pisé method (also known as the rammed-earth method), and each was probably enclosed by an outer wall.

From the Anyang site and two others in Henan Province, we know that Shang cities were enclosed by walls as long as seven kilometers around, that large structures may have been palaces, that residential buildings were constructed on raised foundations, and that tombs of immense proportions were dug underground and were faced with wooden walls. Buildings presumed to be funerary shrines or temples stood above ground on top of the burial chambers.

The earliest evidence of imperial gardens and pleasure palaces comes from the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE). However, information about these gardens and palaces is known only through literary sources. Perhaps more importantly, the Zhou dynasty represented a crucial period in the history of Chinese urbanism. During this period, major cities and capitals were surrounded by walls. Many cities included a wall-enclosed palace city inside the outer wall. This feature was to become a trademark of Chinese imperial planning, preserved even in the last great capital, Beijing’s Forbidden City.

Zhou cities were laid out according to three distinct plans. One plan placed the palace area near the center of the outer wall, another located it in the north center, and a third put it adjacent to the outer city. This last type is sometimes referred to as a double city. The two walls often reflected more than one building period. Texts from the Zhou dynasty describe the ideal ruler’s city and ritual halls. The earliest existing remains of imperial ritual halls, however, are from the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE).

Remains of aboveground buildings and extensive information about funerary architecture exist from the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE) to the fall of the Han dynasty four hundred years later. The most impressive architectural achievement of the age, however, was the Great Wall. The history of the Great Wall begins in the Warring States period, a time of disunion in China when seven powerful states competed for control of the country. Most of these states built walls along their borders, where they stationed troops to defend against their enemies. At the time, the combined length of the walls totaled about 5,000 kilometers.

In 221 BCE, the ruler of the Qin state, Qin Shi Huangdi, defeated the other six states and unified the country. Known as the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi ordered that the various sections of wall be connected and further sections built in order to strengthen his new rule and defend against invaders from the north. When the work was completed, the wall stretched from today’s Liaoning Province in the east to Lintao, Gansu Province, in the west. Construction of the wall continued sporadically from the Qin dynasty through the sixteenth century.

During the Qin dynasty and before, the wall was constructed of local materials, often earth packed between board frames. As a result, the early portions of the wall did not include fortresses, and bricks were not used in the construction of gates. Large pieces of stone were also used to build sections of the Qin wall, and detritus was collected and used to fill the gaps between them.

Remains of the wall from the Qin, Han, and Zhou dynasties still exist in Dunhuang City in Gansu Province, Yulin City in Shanxi Province, and Baotou City in Inner Mongolia. Sections built by the Zhou during the Warring States period were constructed using stamped earth between wooden frames, and the layers of earth can still be clearly seen.

Most of the freestanding architecture that remains from the Han period is a form of gate tower called que. These multistory, narrow structures stood in pairs at the entrance to tombs and on either side of gateways to cities and palace complexes. They were also mimicked in structures atop the corners of walls that enclosed palaces and cities. Additional evidence of the que form is preserved in the many relief sculptures that once lined the walls of Han tombs, especially in the provinces of Sichuan, Henan, and Shandong. The form is also evident in tomb murals from almost every part of China.

The burial chambers of the Qin emperor and of the emperors and empresses of the Han dynasty remain unopened, but hundreds of Han tombs have been excavated. From them, archaeologists have learned that while common people were buried in simple pits, wealthy citizens, aristocrats, and members of the royal family were buried in tombs with as many as nine or ten rooms. These underground palaces were constructed of permanent materials, primarily brick and stone, and were dug deep in the earth to improve preservation. It is believed that the tombs were built in accordance with the forms of residential architecture that were employed above ground but without the use of perishable wood materials. From the tombs and replicas of architectural forms, archaeologists have learned that bracket sets, ceramic-tile roofs, and vaulted ceilings were in widespread use by the Han dynasty.

The last period of early architecture in China was one in which Buddhism, brought to China from India around the first century CE, was the main religion. The influence of Buddhism on architecture was apparent in the many temples and monasteries erected. For example, more than 1,300 Buddhist monasteries were built in the capital city of Luoyang during the period of Northern Wei rule (493–534 CE). Foundations are all that remain of those temple complexes, but other examples of Buddhist architecture from the third through sixth centuries survive in the form of pagodas, interior construction, and decoration of worship caves.

The earliest dated pagoda in China was built in 523 CE and stands at Songyue Monastery on Mount Song in Henan Province. Its twelve-sided shape and fifteen tiers of densely spaced eaves are unusual. The use of brick instead of wood in its construction had much to do with the endurance of this pagoda through the centuries. The single-story, four-sided pagoda at Shentong Monastery in Licheng, Sichuan Province, was built in 544. In general, Chinese pagodas were four-sided in plan through the early years of the Tang dynasty. In profile they could be of uniform exterior dimension, as was the case with the pagoda at Shentong Monastery. They could also taper in perimeter from the base to the roof. Made of either brick or stone, the exteriors were decorated with columns, bracket sets, and roof eaves in imitation of wooden architecture. Pagodas of different sizes and shapes are also found inside Buddhist caves known as central-pillar caves.

Middle Period

The oldest extant wooden architecture in China is a Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) hall dated to 782. It is located at the Nanchan Monastery on the sacred Mount Wutai in Shanxi Province. Three other extant wooden buildings from the Tang period are also in Shanxi; one is on Mount Wutai and two are in the southern part of the province. The timber frame had reached full maturity by this time.

No palace buildings survive from the Tang. But excavations at the capital city of Chang’an (the largest city in the world in the eighth century with a population of more than 1 million) have been so extensive, and textual descriptions are so excellent, that the placement of every building in each Tang palace complex is known. Many have been reconstructed on paper.

The sites of the tombs of each emperor and empress of the Tang period are also known, and several of the monumental sculptures that lined the approaches to those tombs survive. Scores of tombs of Tang princes and princesses have been excavated, and many of these are satellites to the tombs of the emperors and empresses.

About fifty wooden buildings survive from the two centuries following the Tang dynasty, including several of the most extraordinary wooden structures ever built in China. The Liao dynasty (947–1125), established in northern China by the Khitan people, commissioned the construction of wooden pavilions and pagodas that used more varieties of bracket sets than ever before in a single structure. For example, the 67.31-meter pagoda at Fogong Monastery in Ying county, Shanxi Province is the tallest wooden structure in the world and employs fifty-four different types of bracket. It also exhibits a second feature that is characteristic of Liao wooden buildings: concealed interior stories that do not correspond to those visible from the outside. The pagoda shows five exterior stories plus a sixth set of roof eaves, but it includes four additional mezzanine levels on the inside.

The Liao built a variety of pagodas using masonry. Some had a base, shaft, and densely placed eaves similar to the pagoda dated to 523 at the Songyue Monastery on Mount Song. Others had a shaft and roof for each story. Most pagodas of the Liao and Northern Song (960–1126), the Chinese dynasty to the south of Liao, were octagonal in plan. Octagons and hexagons also became common shapes in the building of underground rooms in Liao and Song tombs.

Later Architecture

The modern period of Chinese architecture was ushered in by Mongolian rule. In spite of the ethnic background of the imperial family, most construction during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) followed Chinese building standards. More than 250 wooden buildings remain from the Yuan period. Among the most famous are a gate and three halls at Yongle Daoist Monastery in southern Shanxi.

The Forbidden City is the architectural masterpiece of imperial China’s last great age, the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties. First and foremost, the Forbidden City was the home of Chinese emperors and the center of their universe. Its plan embodies the 2,000 years of architectural history leading up to it. The focus of the Forbidden City is the Three Great Halls, elevated on a triple-layer marble platform. The capital-I shape of the platform was reserved for China’s most eminent architectural arrangements. It is replicated directly behind the Three Great Halls, in the Three Back Halls, where the emperor and empress slept and where the empress held audiences. Surrounding the halls is an array of palaces, where every aspect of life—from the education of the princes, to the preparation of food, to palace intrigue—was carried out. Today, most of the Forbidden City is used as a public exhibition space to showcase former imperial treasures and to house offices of the Palace Museum. Directly in front, on ground once closed to public passage, is Tiananmen Square.

Many of China’s other architectural masterpieces of the Ming and Qing dynasties are in Beijing or its suburbs. Most important are the Ming Tombs, where thirteen emperors and their empresses are buried beneath circular mounds with ceremonial halls in front of them. Some of the ceremonial halls are raised on three-tiered marble platforms like the one under the Three Great Halls. The individual halls are also similar in form to the main halls of the Forbidden City.

Surrounding the Forbidden City were the suburban altars, epitomized by the Altar of Heaven complex. Its three main halls, arranged along a north-south line, were the locus of annual imperial supplications to heaven on behalf of the Chinese state. Circular in plan but surrounded by a four-sided enclosure, the Hall for Prayer for a Prosperous Year is the only Chinese structure with a three-tiered conical roof.

Qing imperial architecture extended beyond Beijing to include five summer palaces north of the Forbidden City, the Eastern and Western Imperial Tombs in Hebei, a palace and tombs in Shenyang in Liaoning Province, and a summer palace in Chengde, Hebei Province.

The later periods of premodern Chinese history were also times of architectural accomplishment outside the imperial sphere. Private gardens of wealthy citizens, especially in southeastern cities such as Suzhou and Yangzhou, have attracted international attention.

Contrasting with the poetics of landscape architecture are the residential styles of China’s populations on the fringes of the empire—flat-roofed houses designed for the mountainous settings of Tibet, tents of the Mongolian grasslands, houses raised on stilts in the humid swamplands of the south, circular houses of the Hakka in Fujian Province, and two-story houses with sky wells in the center in Anhui Province.

Until the last half of the twentieth century, when modern architecture was imposed through city ordinances and national laws, Chinese architecture resisted modernization. Even to this day, Chinese-style roofs cap schools, hospitals, and government offices that are otherwise made of reinforced concrete. Public buildings retain courtyards at their entrances. Hotels and restaurants relinquish precious space to make room for miniature replicas of Ming gardens. And the Forbidden City has remained the immutable focus of Beijing and a symbol of all of China.

Further Reading

Ancient architecture features. (2008). Retrieved September 9, 2008, from

Dougong brackets. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2008, from

Hemudu ruins. (2006). Retrieved Sept. 9, 2008, from

Liang Ssu-ch’eng. (1984). A pictorial history of Chinese architecture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

History of the Great Wall. (2008). Retrieved September 11, 2008, from

Steinhardt, N. S. (1984). Chinese traditional architecture. New York: China Institute.

Steinhardt, N. S. (1990). Chinese imperial city planning. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Source: Steinhardt, Nancy S. (2009). Architecture. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 88–93. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Traditional pitched roofs atop Chinese buildings; a carved wooden dragon’s head adorns the edge of one roof. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Engravings of the fronts of Chinese buildings based on drawings by William Chambers, 1757.

Engravings of the construction of a Chinese pagoda based on drawings by William Chambers, 1757.

Architecture (Jiàzhùxué ???)|Jiàzhùxué ??? (Architecture)

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