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Chinese Traditional Architecture

Detail of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, taken by Najoua Chetioui/ CC-BY

“We need architects to be visionaries,” said Chinese architect Ma Yansong. Graduating from the Beijing Institute of Civil Engineering and Architecture and earning a Master’s degree in architecture at Yale University, he is known for the ‘Shanshui City’ concept that was created in the eighties by Chinese scientist Qian Xuesen. The concept, which remains a theory for architects, is “a balance between humanity, the city and the environment, in a vision of the city of the future based on the spiritual and emotional needs of its residents” (McKenna, 2022) (Floornature Architecture & Surfaces).

From the Forbidden City and Badaling Great Wall in Beijing to the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, Chinese traditional architecture has a long and rich history dating back to the Shang dynasty (16th century BCE-771 BCE). Various styles of architecture have been experimented since then, bringing forward the adaptation of the population according to the environment. The designs were created for the needs and culture of the population and as well to propagate social norms and order. (Pang, 2021).

The construction had to be able to survive and be easily rebuilt depending on the location of the site and the presence of natural disasters such as earthquakes, typhoons and flood disasters. Wood was mostly used for construction carried along the Yellow River and Yangtze River where there was an abundance of forests (Pang, 2021).

Chinese population demography grew in time and wood was used as the building speed was fast enough to accommodate citizens and the supply of wood was abundant. Some dynasties have put in order decrees that each family should plant trees to ensure the supply of construction material. (Pang, 2021).

However, this construction material has disadvantages such as deterioration with its exposure to sun, wind, rain, insect attack, abrasive forces and thus needs frequent repairs and replacements. Therefore, bricks and stone were added as construction materials, increasing the cost of labour. For modern construction, the wood material isn’t strong enough to hold skyscrapers or tall buildings. Construction in rural areas has led to deforestation and China’s public policy has put forward the protection of forest resources and sustainable development (Pang, 2021).

For a stable construction, there had to be an earth foundation, vertical pillars and columns to bear the weight of heavy roofs that protected the building from the weather as the wood would rot much slower. This construction technique of joints to uphold the roof to transfer the weight out of the columns and pillars is called 斗拱 dǒugǒng. (Pang, 2021).

Photo of a 斗拱 dǒugǒng in Beijing taken by Najous Cheitoui / CC-BY

The style of architecture puts forward the beauty, elegance and harmony of the construction with a balanced symmetry following the axis-centred principle with the biggest building in the centre and smaller buildings on the side. The traditional architecture puts forward the protection of the building from the Gods and some buildings are constructed depending on the angle and the imagination of the eye watching the building as a spiritually used-object such as incense sticks. (Pang, 2021) (Seah, Rethinking The Future).

Fēng Shuǐ 风水 meaning literally ‘wind water’ has a link with Chinese traditional architecture. This traditional Taoist practice of human harmony with nature is known as the second pillar of ancient Chinese society. (Song, 2021) (Pang, 2021).

The notion of 气 qì is an important aspect of Fēng Shuǐ in Chinese traditional architecture. The construction must be placed where qì, which is a force that cannot be seen, has a positive impact on people physically or mentally. Positive energy must be able to flow in the construction in order to bring prosperity, harmony, and most importantly good luck (Pang, 2021) (Cheung, 2015).

Fēng Shuǐ is applied in construction with different aspects: water must be in the front, mountains must be behind to block evil influence such as the north wind or enemies, the building must have a north-south axis and an outlook on fertile land. Front doors must be facing south to catch the most sunlight. The furniture, layout and interior decoration can also be applied with Fēng Shuǐ; big trees should not be planted in the yard as it block sunlight and airflow, thus bringing disease (Pang, 2021).

Beside being the most used building material, wood also represents one of the five elements, a theory used in Fēng Shuǐ. Wood represents spring and life and carries out a good consequence for buildings. (Pang, 2021).

Chinese architects have for centuries used building ornamentation as an art form. They spent a lot of time working on the ornaments and details of buildings. These architects especially liked to play with the symbol of the phoenix and the dragon, two strong images in Chinese culture. Indeed they have been the main motifs of the decorative designs on buildings, clothes and articles of daily use of the imperial palaces of many dynasties. It is common for the throne room to be beautifully supported by columns entwined with golden dragons, the central ramps of the marble stairs were paved with huge slabs carved in relief with the dragon and phoenix or both. (Liu Xioahu, Azaiez Mohamed Saiefeddine, 2017)

Photo taken in Suzhou by Najoua Chetioui / CC-BY

Traditional Chinese architecture respects the principles of balance and symmetry. Besides, the main building is located on the axis and the secondary buildings are usually placed as two wings on each side to form the main rooms and the courtyard. It is important to note that the distribution of interior space reflects Chinese social and ethical values, which are unique to Confucianism. In traditional residences, for instance, we can notice that the living rooms are always allocated according to the family hierarchy. The house master always occupies the main room, while the older members of his family live in the backyard and the younger ones in the wings on the left and right.(Winter, 1998)

The interior design of the buildings had its own specificities. Instead of walls, there are wooden pillars, decorated with tiles in the shapes of animal and plant figures. Often lacquered screens were used to separate one room from another. Architectural decoration is very delicate in terms of colour and pattern. In China, it is extremely rare to see a traditional building in black and white or in grey.(Nancy S. Steinhardt,2018)

Courtyard houses (四合院 sì hé yuàn)

The traditional design of the houses is all centred around a very well laid out courtyard. Chinese houses (宅院 zhái yuàn) very often featured a main residence flanked on both sides with small walls and rooms as an enclosed yard. Windows and doors were facing the courtyard (庭 tíng). They were designed for the purpose of keeping an extended family happy, usually three generations. (Yetts, W.P., 1927.)

Meanwhile, siheyuan courtyard mansions are indeed encircled by narrow alleys in Beijing laid out as a grid-like network called 胡同 hú tòng and areas of ancient habitation are often called hutongs due to this characteristic; while in other areas, alleys are called longtangs (弄堂 lòngtáng) and were developed as meandering networks without overall symmetry. (Donia Zhang, 2013)

Photo of 胡同 hú tòng in Suzhou, taken by Najoua Chetioui / CC-BY

The inner courtyards were often located in larger courtyards that follow the same concept in more spacious structures. Halls lined the courtyard on both sides, connected by covered walkways (廊 láng). The best living quarters were often on the second floor of a south-facing structure. Usually this was where the oldest members of the extended family (the paternal grandfather and grandmother) resided. On the wealthiest homes, each family unit had its own courtyard. (Jeffrey W. Cody, Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, & Tony Atkin, 2011)

Traditional Chinese Gardens

The history of the Chinese garden began several thousand years ago. In the 3rd century B.C., under the Han dynasty, the development of garden construction was greatly increased. The growth of this art reached its peak in the 14th century AD, under the reign of the Ming Dynasty. Under these two reigns, traditional Chinese gardens became a significant part of Chinese culture. These manic gardens were in the majority conceived for the Chinese emperors and the more modest arrangements for the scholars (philosophers, poets, painters and musicians). It was under the Song Empire (960 to 1279 AD) that the art of gardens and horticulture took a more prominent position. The Chinese art of gardening is associated strongly with religion and in particular with Taoism and Buddhism. According to their beliefs, as well as their artistic tools such as poetry and painting, the Chinese have learned to worship nature and to transpose their imagination and their beliefs into their gardens.(WU, J.Y. and XIAO, Y. 2001)

Photo taken in Suzhou by Najoua Chetioui / CC-BY

Photo of a garden in Suzhou taken by Najoua Chetioui / CC-BY

Suzhou gardens ( 苏州园林 sū zhōu yuán lín)

The city of Suzhou is known for its beauty all over the world, but what makes the city so charming and popular are its sumptuous gardens.

There is an old Chinese saying that describes the beauty of Hangzhou and Suzhou:

“In heaven there is paradise, on Earth there is Hangzhou and Suzhou".

The classical gardens of Suzhou, in Jiangsu province of China, are documented to date back from the 11th century AD when the city was founded and became the capital of the Wu kingdom. Inspired by the royal hunting grounds of the Wu state, private gardens began to be created around the 4th century and reached their peak in the 18th century. Beside this, the classical gardens of Suzhou on the World Heritage List are all listed by the State Council as a "National Priority Protection Site".

Historical knowledge of gardens in each era can be found in the trees, plaques, distichs, brick and stone carvings, inscriptions, and many other valuable cultural real estate relics present in these gardens. (Henderson, R., 2012)

Photo of The Lion Forest Garden in Suzhou, taken by Najoua Chetioui / CC-BY

The largest garden in Suzhou is the Humble Administrator's Garden (拙政园 zhuō zhèng yuán). It is widely considered to be one of the four most famous gardens in China. It was built in 1509 during the Ming Dynasty, and constitutes a symbolic masterpiece of Ming-style garden design. Indeed, this one is popular because of the use of water ponds, connected to each other by small streams that flow under enchanting bridges. Several pavilions, courtyards, rockeries, and century-old trees scattered throughout the garden create a harmonious and peaceful atmosphere (Li, Z, 2011).

Photo of a garden in Suzhou, taken by Najoua Chetioui / CC-BY

Chinese traditional architecture has evolved enormously over the centuries. Even today, you can still find unique monuments such as gardens, palaces and houses retracing this evolution all over China, from north to south, from east to west. The evolution was also possible because of the strong cultural heritage of China, where many scholars, artists and citizens have helped shape this evolution.

Prisca Mirchandani is a freelance journalist. She holds a trilingual Master’s degree of Global Security and Analysis (French, English, and Chinese) from the University of Bordeaux, France. She is passionate about China-EU relations, China-France relations, and China - Hong Kong’s history. You can find her on LinkedIn.

Najoua Chetioui holds a Master's degree in Management and International Affairs, specialising in exchanges with Asia, from the University of Le Havre Normandy. She is also passionate about Chinese culture, literature, and language. You can find her on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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