Table of Contents Hide
- How did Traditional Chinese Timber-Framed Structures Emerge?
- Ancient Chinese Wooden Architecture: Mastering Wood as a Construction Material
- From Simple Wooden Dwellings to Stunning Wooden Palaces & Temples
- The Rise of Recorded Manuscripts and Treatises Setting the Standard for Traditional Chinese Wooden Architectural Components
- The Unique Wooden Components of Traditional Chinese Architecture
- Foundation Platforms in Traditional Chinese Wooden Architecture
- Timber-Framed Structures in Ancient Chinese Architectural Craftsmanship
- The Roof and the Ceiling in Traditional Chinese Wooden Architecture
- The Bottom Line
Ancient Chinese wooden architecture has become a distinct symbol of the country after being developed for thousands of years.
The amazing architectural craftsmanship of the Chinese employs one-of-a-kind timber-framed structures that are unparalleled throughout the globe.
Differentiating from traditional Japanese and Korean architecture, ancient Chinese wooden architecture is considered the least studied as compared to any of the great architectural traditions on the planet.
Connected by tenon joints in a flexible way that is capable of enduring earthquakes, the components of the buildings are created surprisingly quick-to-install, in the case the essential elements are made in advance.
Sparkling like a rare gemstone and peeking through the veil of time, Chinese traditional architecture is marked by the craftsmanship that takes years to master.
Traditional Chinese architecture, and in particular, Chinese craftsmanship for timber-framed structures was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009. Under UNESCO’s aegis, a new focus was put on the incredible ways that the Chinese craftsmen have mastered architecture, dating back to the impressive 7000+ years ago.
How did Traditional Chinese Timber-Framed Structures Emerge?
Dynasty after dynasty, generation after generation, Chinese people have developed and applied a construction style that can’t be seen anywhere else in the world.
Did you know that Chinese architecture is among the three greatest architectural systems on the planet?
It is listed right next to traditional European and Arabic architecture.
But what sets Chinese architectural craftsmanship apart, making it stand out from the rest of the architectural systems across the globe?
For a start, traditional Chinese architecture differentiates from architecture in other parts of the world because of two major factors: the construction material and the unique wooden components.
Ancient Chinese Wooden Architecture: Mastering Wood as a Construction Material
As early as the Neolithic period, the first wooden Chinese frameworks emerged.
Thus, as far as seven thousand years ago back in time, the ancient Chinese used mortise and tenon joinery in the construction of houses. Some of the oldest examples of such houses were discovered at Hemudu site at Zhejiang.
Further evidence of some the earliest constructions of buildings in ancient China dates back to the Xia Dynasty that reigned the country between 2070 – 1600 BCE. In other words, it was during the second millennium BCE that the building of wooden constructions had already spread throughout ancient China.
According to the archeological records, these earliest buildings were, indeed, made out of wood.
It is important to keep in mind, though, that these ancient buildings were very simplistic at the start, and have nothing to do with the impressive Chinese temples built later on.
The earliest wooden buildings of the ancient Chinese are commonly referred to as wooden dwellings. They are called dwellings and not merely houses because they were larger than a standard house.
Experts believe that the somewhat large dimensions of the earliest wooden dwellings are intricately related to the fact pre-Imperial China was marked by communal living. During this period, Chinese society was made up of extended families.
These extended families consisted of, for example, parents, their children, and their grandchildren, all inhabiting a mutual dwelling.
Moreover, experts are still uncertain whether or not these dwellings were made to be used by the average Chinese families.
Instead, it is widely assumed that the earliest dwellings may have been solely made for the king along with his hierarchy of henchmen, and of course, for their families.
And while the earliest examined wooden dwellings were simple and lacked the distinct bearing poles that appeared later on in the construction of the legendary Chinese palaces and temples, these dwellings remain extremely important evidence of the centuries-old use of wood for construction purposes throughout the country.
Wood continued to be the most favored and widely used construction material by the ancient Chinese all the way up to the 19th century.
As a comparison, most of the ancient Western buildings made during the same period as the ancient Chinese wooden dwellings were predominantly made out of stone.
From Simple Wooden Dwellings to Stunning Wooden Palaces & Temples
As the time passed, the earliest wooden dwellings made way to much more complicated and sophisticated wooden structures.
The focus shifted from families-tailored to highly advanced wooden structures that served as temples or places of worship where people could pay a tribute to the gods, to spectacular palaces for the rulers.
Certainly, the magnitude of the complicated wooden constructions required the use of reliable methods for fixing the joints.
Nonetheless, the right-angled contact surfaces of beams and pillars also had to be finished in such a manner as to be capable of withstanding possibly harsh meteorological conditions.
Last but not least, keeping in mind the minor but frequently occurring earthquakes, the ancient Chinese craftsmen in charge of constructing the traditional wooden buildings had to make sure that the rigors of earthquakes would not destroy the constructions.
Thus, a special technique of utilizing a four-sided bearing frame occurred in order to suit the need of stable, durable constructions.
The walls of traditional Chinese buildings only clothed the four-sided bearing frame, while in traditional European building constructions, the walls were actually the bearing element that was intended to support the roof.
Furthermore, the timber-framed structures utilized a unique pillar-and-beam joinery system.
The post-and-lintel technique was used in traditional house building, while the pillar-and-arch technique was reserved only for the construction of temples and palaces, and it was not seen in traditional ancient Chinese house-building.
Considering the impressive dimensions of both palaces and temples built in ancient China, experts highlight that a healthy dose of clever ingenuity must have been applied by the Chinese laborers in order to erect such large constructions back in those years, apart from possibly applying tremendous amounts of raw strength.
The Rise of Recorded Manuscripts and Treatises Setting the Standard for Traditional Chinese Wooden Architectural Components
As early as the 1st century CE, the first architectural drawings related to traditional house-building in ancient China appeared. These drawings played a key role in the preservation of architectural techniques handled freely from one generation to the next one.
But what’s more, the earliest architectural drawings were the first step towards creating a national standardization of the traditional building structures and the related techniques.
Yu Hao, who was an experienced and talented craftsman is believed to be the creator of some of the very first treatises regarding traditional Chinese timber-framed structures back in AD 956-989 – the “Mujing,” which translates into “Timberwork Manual.”
However, Li Jie (1065-1110) is considered the pioneer of formally codifying a set of architectural standards. Being a renowned writer of the Song Dynasty, Li Jie created the “Yingzao Fashi” which translates into “State Building Standards.”
In 1734, traditional Chinese architectural standards were further compiled into an even more detailed and well-systematized list – a 74-volume and 2,768-page official architectural guideline called “Qing Gongbu Gongcheng Zuofa” which translates into “Qing Architecture Standards” – compiled during the reign of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
The Unique Wooden Components of Traditional Chinese Architecture
Interestingly, the architectural standards manuals and treatises compiled throughout the different periods of ancient Chinese history have something important in common – and that’s the three fundamental elements present in the construction of traditional Chinese wooden buildings, namely the foundation platform, the timber frames, and the roof and the ceiling (the latter always seen as an inseparable unit).
Foundation Platforms in Traditional Chinese Wooden Architecture
The physical foundation of traditional Chinese buildings constructed in ancient times was rather shallow when compared to nowadays’ standards.
In fact, the foundation consisted of rammed earth, known as hangtu. Pounding layers of earth made use of all-natural materials such as lime, chalk, gravel, and of course, earth, which were then utilized in various construction techniques for building foundations, walls, and floors.
What’s more, the foundations would be always aligned as to match the cardinal points of the compass.
While there is too little evidence whether or not this particular alignment had anything to do with increasing the durability of the buildings, it is, undoubtedly, related to observing the balance of the constructions based on certain cosmological beliefs.
The significance of compass points alignment is intricately connected to the duality concepts of Yin and Yang, encompassing vast interpretations such as Top and Bottom, Knowledge and Ignorance, Good and Evil.
Most importantly, these duality concepts are profound when it comes to interpreting the much-needed and highly-valued balance and harmony in every aspect of life – something Confucius would later define as “moderation.”
Timber-Framed Structures in Ancient Chinese Architectural Craftsmanship
As we briefly mentioned above, traditional Chinese timber-framed structures highly differ from any of the structures that can be seen across the globe.
In European and Middle East constructions, bricks and/or stones joined with mortar dominated as a building material, contrary to wood that turned into one of the hallmarks of ancient Chinese buildings, and just like the very name suggests – Chinese utilized timber-framed structures.
Most noteworthy, the frames were created and joined in such a manner as to bear the load of the roof and support the entire building, while in European buildings construction, this function was accomplished by the walls.
Wujia (屋架 spelled wū jià), or truss refers to the traditional ancient Chinese framework of beams, posts, and rafters.
Wujia were mostly rectangular-shaped and made use of tenon-and-mortise joints works, including bracket sets. As a comparison, trusses found in typical Western buildings were mostly triangular.
It was exactly because of the clever use of tenon-and-mortise techniques that the Chinese timber-framed structures worked excellently in terms of shock absorption, which was the case with earthquakes.
A brilliant example of the earthquake-resistance properties of the ancient Chinese buildings can be traced back to 1976 during the earthquake in Tangshan city which is located about 170 kilometers away from Beijing.
Approximately 240,000 people lost their lives, and many buildings were severely damaged. However, when it comes to the imperial palaces in the Forbidden City constructed with the use of trusses, there was little harm present after the ferocious earthquake.
The post-and-lintel trusses made use of one or two levels of lintel and post structures in order to support the roof. Meanwhile, the post-and-baulk trusses made use of square logs that served the purpose of binding together posts and pillars.
Moreover, the post-and-lintel, as well as the post-and-baulk frameworks were not solely used in separate buildings.
Instead, they can often be found in combination, although the post-and-lintel construction is widely associated with temples, buildings, and houses in the North as opposed to the post-and-balk structures that are more commonly found in the South.
Another astonishing and unique structural element used for joining columns and pillars to the frame of the roof was Dougong. Dougong is, essentially, a bracket set.
The interlocking wooden brackets made it possible for the eaves (the uplifted roof edges) of the buildings to project as far as 4 meters in some cases. This way, the wooden structures, as well as the mud walls were reinforced against the ravages of harsh winds or pouring rains.
On the other hand, the wooden bracket set also provided additional vertical support for the roof, and especially for the uplifted roof edges. Commonly referred to as flying eves, the elegant roof edges were vital for the penetration of sufficient sunlight into the building.
Nevertheless, Doungong served decorative purposes, and complex Donguong examples can be found in traditional Chinese buildings of high importance.
It is truly impressive to see the world through the eyes of the ancient Chinese timber-framed structures masters’ point of view. They did not limit their craftsmanship to the practical side of the constructions but also to increase the ornamental appeal of historically significant buildings.
The Roof and the Ceiling in Traditional Chinese Wooden Architecture
For a start, the layered pieces of the ceiling in ancient China were held together with the use of Doungong – the wooden brackets set we discussed above.
A traditional Doungong consisted of a flat block of wood – “dou” in Chinese. On the top, a set of curved wooden slats or bows – “guong” in Chinese – was fixed. The roof was not attached directly to the beams but instead, it was attached directly to the Dounguong (the interlocking set of brackets).
Although every facet of the traditional Chinese buildings was decorated with the use of various materials and techniques, the most distinctive feature of ancient Chinese temples and palaces is none other but the ceiling, and in particular – the caisson ceiling called Zaojing (藻井 which is spelled zǎo jǐng).
The multiple interlocking layers of wooden structural elements forming the Zaojing were richly carved. Exquisite decorations or paintings appeared in various shapes such as a circle, hexagon, and square, as well as in a combination of these patterns.
The ceiling was located above the most important parts of temples and palaces, for instance, the throne or the altar. Thus, bas-relief carving can be often found along with paintings of sacred creatures of Chinese mythology such as dragons.
The Zaojing didn’t serve a merely decorative purpose, though. Instead, it also represents one of the 28 lunar mansions in the Chinese constellations system as a virtual water source in the ancient buildings. Therefore, the ceiling was optimized with a mind to preventing fire.
The symbolism of water can be also found in the rich carvings or paintings of lotus flowers and water chestnuts.
Sanqing Hall (Hall of the Three Purities) created during the Yuan period is a one-of-a-kinf structure with not a single one but a total of three cupolas (tall, dome-like structures) in its ceiling.
The Bottom Line
By utilizing an absolutely unique system of construction skills and techniques, the stunning timber-framed structures of ancient China are unprecedented in the history of mankind.
Chinese traditional architectural craftsmanship fully deserved to be listed as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, for the secrets of the Chinese craftsmen reveal a well-organized, creative yet critically thinking society that possessed nothing less but exceptional skills when it comes to woodworking.
Nowadays, some of the most famous ancient Chinese timber-framed structures do still exist, further pointing out to the amazing skills of generations of artisans engaged in the creation, as well as the maintenance of the notorious wooden buildings.
Yingxian Wooden Pagoda of Fogong Temple which is located in Shanxi Province, Northern China, is the oldest tower made exclusively and solely out of wood. It has managed to endure all challenges related to aging and all weather-and-nature related rigors.
Nevertheless, the Forbidden City in Beijing remains the largest wooden architectural complex on the planet.
Up-to-date, many of the Chinese people in rural areas continue to live in timber-framed dwellings.