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Chinese traditional architectural craftsmanship for timber framed structures

Last updated by leomagic at 2015/4/16

The construction of buildings in ancient China – surely initially as simple, wooden communal dwellings with non-bearing pole walls that were clothed, as needed, with leaves, grass and later with dried mud that was perhaps eventually reinforced with straw as a means to fill the cracks – began during the second millenium BCE, or during the Xia (BCE 2000-1500) Dynasty. The archeological record indicates that these early buildings were indeed of wood. In fact, wood would continue to be the material used throughout the history of Chinese house-building up to the point where Chinese architecture gave way to Western-style architecture during the late 19th century.

It is an educated guess that the first Chinese buildings were dwellings – as opposed to, for example, temples dedicated to the gods – just as it is an educated guess that they were communal in nature, since they were somewhat large and since ancient, pre-Imperial Chinese society was family, or clan, oriented, i.e., was made up of extended families consisting of adult male siblings with their spouses and children, as well as the parents of the adult male siblings.*

It is also a relatively safe guess that the first members of ancient Chinese society who were fortunate enough to rate wooden dwellings were the king and his hierarchy of henchmen and their families; others would have had to make do with whatever simple, cramped shelters could be fashioned out of flimsier, more temporary materials – Xia Dynasty society, like the ancient Greek society that would appear later, rested on slavery. As time passed, the art & science of building simple dwellings in China evolved into the art of erecting large, complicated wooden structures that served as palaces for kings and as places of worship, or temples, in which one paid one's respect to the gods. 

A building of this latter magnitude naturally required a special method of fixing the joints – or the right-angled contact surfaces – of the pillars and beams, such that the finished building could withstand the rigors of wind and weather, and, not least, the violence inflicted by minor earthquakes. Chinese house-building (which, as indicated, surely represented the first instance of Chinese "architecture") – as opposed to, say, European house-building – involved a four-sided bearing frame with walls that merely clothed the bearing frame (in European house-building, in contrast, the walls were in fact the bearing element that supported the roof).

As will be seen in the next section, the typical Chinese frame construction method, which was also used to some extent in ancient Greece, Persia and Egypt, was the so-called post-and-lintel (or pillar-and-beam) system of joinery. There are two basic methods of supporting a roof: the post-and-lintel method that characterized Chinese house-building, and the pillar-and-arch method, where the latter is never seen in ancient Chinese house-building. 

The erection of large palaces and temples in ancient China is very impressive, viewed even by modern standards, since it must have required either massive amounts of raw strength or lots of clever ingenuity to erect such an edifice – and of course, one can only presume that the latter applies. Given the slight build of the typical ancient Chinaman, the raising of these pillar-and-beam modules is an amazing feat by any standard, even if it was not quite on par with the construction of the pyramids.

The Three Main Components Of Ancient Chinese House-Building

By the time of the 1st century CE, house-building (i.e., "architectural") drawings had appeared that seemed to imply, as well as the notion of embryonic urbanization, a standardization of the method of Chinese house-building; techniques were shared freely, and handed down from generation to generation. This shared aspect of ancient Chinese wooden architecture would continue over the next half dozen or so millenia, before it was formally codified into a set of architectural standards in the form of the Yingzao Fashi, which was published during the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty. 

There had long existed a tendency in ancient China for faithfully pursuing any procedure that had proven itself – "Why try and re-invent the wheel?" seemed to be the prevailing sentiment – and therefore there was hardly any need to require by law a single set of standards nationwide, though by the time of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, architectural standards had finally become law (viz., the Qing-Dynasty Architecture Standards). Or so believed many Western scholars of architecture, in any case. That is, modern era Western scholars of architecture believed that both the Song-Dynasty Yingzao Fashi and the Qing-Dynasty Architecture Standards constituted mandatory building ordinances, as it were.However, the architectural evidence suggests that even though a standardized building manual such as the Yingzao Fashi may have been followed by most aspiring Chinese architects most of the time, it was not followed by all, at least not all of the time. Indeed, it is claimed that the reason for the belief that there was one single Chinese building standard at any given time in the country's is simply owing to the fact that Western architectural sources erroneously arrived at this conclusion on their own, and having accepted it as the norm, passed it on as genuine, while, in reality, neither the Song-Dynasty Yingzao Fashi nor the Qing-Dynasty Architecture Standards had ever been translated into any Western language until recently, which suggests that the notion of a single Chinese building standard for any given period in China's history was in fact a myth that was fabricated by accident, and accordingly disseminated in ignorance.

What the early, 1st century CE Chinese architectural drawings, the Song-Dynasty Yingzao Fashi and the much later, Qing-Dynasty Architecture Standards all three seem to have in common, however, is a set of similar design principles for the three ground elements involved in the construction of ancient Chinese wooden buildings, these three elements being the foundation, the columns and the roof.

The Foundation

The physical foundation of the ancient Chinese building, on which the entire structure, including the pillars, would stand, was comparatively shallow by today's building standards, and consisted of rammed earth, or hangtu, in Chinese. The rows of columns, or pillars, in the simplest and most typical, two-row, square or rectangular structure would each stand near its respective outer edge of the foundation, though larger, more complex structures such as palaces and large temples would feature several rows of pillars, with each pair of rows spaced far enough apart to constitute the width, or length, as the case may be, of a room, or the width of a corridor.

Foundations were invariably aligned such that each side of the edifice would correspond to one of the cardinal points of the compass; the Chinese society of the earliest house-building period, i.e., beginning with the Xia Dynasty, was not only animist inspired but also held certain cosmological beliefs, including a belief in the importance of compass point alignment, since the observance of balance (or symmetry or harmony – or even moderation, as Confucius would define it) seem to have been an ancient Chinese concept that predates even Taoism. Indeed, balance, symmetry and harmony are at the heart of the broadly interpreted, pre-Taoist, duality concept of the yin and yang, which might variously stand for 'male and female', 'top and bottom', 'left and right', 'front and back', 'good and evil', 'knowledge and ignorance', etc.).

Immediately atop the foundation, except for the space occupied by the "feet" of the pillars, a floor was fashioned out of a new layer of rammed earth. In time, the rammed earth floor layer would be tempered, i.e., hardened by means of heating.

The Columns

The columns of a Chinese edifice were always ranged in a straight line, or row. The vertical columns – or pillars, as we will henceforth call them – and the horizontal beams that were placed perpendicular to, and atop the pillars, made up the Chinese building's bearing framework, so this section should perhaps more properly be called The Frame, or The Framework, rather than The Columns. Most experts today believe, as indicated above, that the pillar-and-beam rows were assembled on the ground, as a complete, finished module, before being hoisted into a standing position, perhaps with the help of a system of ropes and pulleys, or its ancient Chinese equivalent.

The pillar-and-beam module, aka the post-and-lintel system, however it was erected, represents the system that was exclusively used in China for supporting a superstructure, or roof, the other system, as indicated, being the column-and-arch module – which was more popular in Europe and in the Middle East, where masonry (bricks and/or stones, held together with mortar), rather than wood, dominated as a building material, and where the wall, as opposed to the frame, was the bearing element. The simplest and arguably the most iconic example of a post-and-lintel system is the pillar-and-beam construction of England's ancient Druid temple at Stonehenge, where the beams (lintels) simply rest atop the pillars (posts), held in place by their sheer weight, but also the Pantheon, situated on the Acropolis (the famous citadel on a hilltop) in Athens, is an iconic example of the post-and-lintel system.

The typical house-building pillar in ancient China was round. To accommodate the beam, which was typically rectangular in cross section and which rested on its edge atop and perpendicular to the pillar, an L-shaped notch was cut out of the top of the pillar, and the beam was fit inside this notch, its entire weight resting on the horizontal part of the "L", while the beam was typically secured to the pillar with the help of wood dowels that passed through the vertical part of the "L". Moreover, the ends of two beams, standing on their edges and linked end to end via a "plug-and-socket", or mortise-and-tenon (think of the way a jigsaw puzzle fits together), method of joinery, could share the same L-shaped notch cut out of the top of a single pillar, and in this way a long series of interconnecting beams, placed atop and at right angles to the posts, could span a building of, in principle, infinite length.

The eminently clever mortise-and-tenon method of joinery would continue to dominate in China for the next several millenia – albeit, continually refined as the technology of the saw and the drill developed – or until Chinese archtiecture eventually entirely ceded ground to Western architecture; for all its ingeniousness, the mortise-and-tenon method of joinery could never have led to the modern skyscraper, though it was indeed employed in the construction of some pretty tall pagodas, whose light use, however, cannot be compared to the massive amount of weight that a modern skyscraper is designed to bear.

The Roof

Generally speaking, the Chinese method of house-building did not call for crossbeams (aka transverse beams) to link the individual pillar-and-beam modules together, though this was not a hard and fast rule. In general, the roof served this linking function. Moreover, the roof was not attached directly to the beams but was instead attached directly to so-called brackets (dougong – see the definition immediately below, and see still farther below for an example of brackets affixed directly to the pillars) which in turn were attached to the beams, some brackets being situated directly above each pillar-and-beam joint, with others being spaced along the length of each beam – in the extreme, brackets could be placed almost contiguously along the entire length of the beam.

A typical dougong consisted of a flat block of wood (dou), on top of which was fixed an interlocking (by means of clever, mortise-and-tenon joinery only, i.e., without the aid of nails, glue, etc.) set of curved wooden slats, or bows (gong) with each upward-curved bow longer than the bow below it. Because the dougong extended laterally beyond the outer edge of the beam (which earns it the English language moniker "bracket"), it provided a slightly broader platform on which to rest the roof, which was invariably wider than the supporting frame below (in addition, the roof's eaves generally extended far beyond the outer framework of the building), and because the dougong consisted of a series of increasingly longer bows stacked one atop the other that could flex yet resisted continued bouncing (the increasingly shorter bows, viewed from top to bottom, had a dampening effect on shocks to the frame), the Chinese building could flex with the movement of storms and earthquakes, yet without reverberating uncontrollably. 

In some cases – especially in the case of a single-storey building – the duogong sat directly atop the pillars, with the superstructure, or roof, attached to only these pillar-and-dougong modules, which might be a justification for referring to the second element in Chinese wooden architecture as The Columns – as this second element in ancient Chinese architecture is in fact customarily called – rather than calling it, as I suggest above, The Frame. Note also that the complete frame, consisting of the pillars, the roof and the optional beams (and transverse beams, where relevant), being made entirely of wood, could flex to a very large degree. This amazing piece of "earthquake-proof" architecture seemingly arrived long before its time, viewed in a modern perspective, but of course it was the perfect response to its time, as earthquakes were as prevalent in ancient China as they are today, if not more prevalent.

The first dougong appeared during the latter part of the Western Zhou (BCE 1027-771) Dynasty, and were in widespread use by the time of the first half, or Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period, of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty, though they would first be perfected into an intricate, interlocking set of house springs, as it were (it is tempting to compare the dougong to the rear-wheel springs on an older truck, though the dougong served both as a spring and as a shock-absorber), during the peak period of ancient Chinese architecture, i.e., from the beginning of the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty to the end of the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty.

The quintessentially Chinese gable-and-hip roof (see the explanation regarding the shapes of roofs in the footnote at the end of this article) with pronounced "dragon-spine" ridges and upturned, "flying" eaves first appeared during the Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasty.** Roofs might also be tiered – i.e., with increasingly narrower but overlapping slanted sections as the roof ascends upward (in a few hypermodern examples, this pyramidal form is inverted, i.e., has been stood on its head), and with short, ventilated sections in between, with no covering – a feature that is especially typical of palaces, temples and pagodas. In general, ventilation was a common feature of the earliest ancient wooden houses of China, where there was typically no ceiling separating the square or rectangular dwelling proper from the pitched "attic" (but hollow) area above. The combination of ventilation and an absence of a ceiling permitted smoke to escape, since, in an ancient Chinese dwelling, the hearth was typically located in the center of the main room if not in the center of the house.

The earliest roofs of ancient Chinese dwellings were thatched. Later, when interlocking tiles fashioned of fired clay appeared, the roof became an object of artistic decoration. It was surely this emphasis on the decorative possibilities of the roof that eventually led to the quintessentially Chinese roof with "flying" eaves. But the wooden frame also became an object of decoration, when color was eventually added to the varnish that was used to seal the wooden frame from the ravages of direct rain and from the ravages of indirectly accumulated moisture due to cooking, fog and dew.


The genius of the ancient Chinese wooden building, apart from its earthquake-proofness, is that since it was the frame, not the walls, that served as the bearing element, inner walls could be set up and dismantled at will, since they functioned as simple room dividers. Similarly, the ceiling that belonged to a set of inner walls could be set up and dismantled to fit the dimensions of the rooms chosen. Since these room dividers – both the walls and their ceilings – were not required to bear the roof, they could be made of the lightest of materials, such as bamboo frames clothed with decorated rice paper. Moreover, a thicker outer wall made of upright poles and dried mud, or of masonry (fired bricks, etc.), could be erected on the coldest (northern) side of the building, while lighter materials could clothe the other outer walls.

Another clever, variable feature of the ancient Chinese wooden building is that its pillars were mounted on a platform which, though typically shallow, could be quite thick, as needed. For example, in areas where flooding and/or low-lying fog were factors to be reckoned with, the platform stood high, thus protecting the building's wooden frame and at the same time imparting a sense of solidity to the edifice. On outer walls made of masonry, murals depicting landscapes, flowers, birds and even mythological figures (dragons and phoenixes) were often painted. 

On Taiwan, a special achitectural tradition developed whereby walls on which murals would be painted often incorporated suitable sculptures, and even the wooden pillars were decorated with highly artistic, swirling engravings. 

All of these various artistic adornments – and more, such as the cupola, or the small, crowning dome (in some cases, multiple domes) and extensively decorated ceilings, in some cases made of richly carved, wood panels depicting various motifs, typically lake or pond motifs – came together in ancient palaces, temples, tombs and stupas, the latter of which, as part of a monastery, traditionally contained the earthly remains of auspicious monks, usually in the form of ashes, but sometimes bones were also included if the individual was important enough a religious figure.

The art of constructing ancient Chinese wooden buildings using simple but amazingly adaptable, and utterly structurally sound, building techniques was finally internationally recognized when, in 2009, the UNESCO World Heritage Foundation listed the ancient Chinese art of house-building as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, worthy of preservation by all of mankind.

Lastly, though not strictly a part of ancient Chinese architecture, the dwelling – or set of dwellings, if we are speaking of a compound – formed only a part of a larger ground plan that included an exterior wall (in some cases, two rings of walls) with appropriate sets of gates at two or more sides. The main entrance would consist of an entrance gate at the outer wall and a spirit gate at the inner wall. Trees and stupas would occupy the middle ground between the two rings of walls. Inside the courtyard would be various buildings arranged hierarchically, with a central garden as well as numerous smaller gardens at each corner of the compound. 

The central garden could range from a simple garden consisting of grass, flowers and trees – perhaps with a pavilion at its center – to the so-called scholar garden with a pond, a stream (an artificial stream if a natural one didn't exist), a rockery and numerous tree-lined pathways which, from any particular vantage point, obscured much of the layout of the garden, thus presenting the illusion of a much larger garden than the bare facts justified. To learn more about the typical Chinese scholar garden – for which the city of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province is justly famous – read about the Garden of the Humble Administrator, and to learn more about Chinese architecture in general, read about the History of Chinese Architecture.


* At one point during China's PRC rule, Chinese archeologists claimed that the Xia Dynasty was matriarchial. This claim has later been rebuffed by more impartial archeological scholars, who insist that also the Xia Dynasty was undeniably patriarchal. The explanation for the discrepancy in views? Women – if not feminism itself – figured prominently in Chinese society during the PRC political period in question, both at the grassroots level as well as in the upper echelons of government, therefore the notion of a matriarchal past was perhaps very appealing. 

Moreover, the feminist movement was spreading across the globe at the time – not least in Europe and in North America – and the PRC leadership during the period in question perhaps wished to demonstrate that China not only stood in the forefront of the international feminist movement, but indeed had a historical claim to such a leadership role. But the PRC leaders of the period hardly needed to rely on the dubious claim of ancient matriarchal roots in order to substantiate the claim that women have historically figured prominently in Chinese society, at least on an individual basis: if a Chinese woman was made of the right stuff, she could go far, also within the ruling structure of ancient China. Chinese history, as well as Chinese literature, is full of examples of strong females – some good, others less good – who achieved notoriety.

** Note that many early Chinese roofs were simply slanted – the house was taller on one side – while the earliest gabled roofs, or roofs that slanted downward and to either side (east and west, since ancient Chinese buildings were typically oriented north-south in order to defend against cold, northerly winds) from a "pitched" or raised center, consisted of only two sloping surfaces, while later, more refined gabled roofs, the so-called gable-and-hip roof, consisted of four sloping surfaces. Note also that the gable-and-hip roof of a building that is roughly square is often referred to as a "pyramidal' roof.