Very little of the architecture from China's rich cultural past has survived; it either decayed itself due to the impermanence of the building methods employed at the time, fell victim to the ravages of war or natural disasters (floods, fires, earthquakes, etc.), or was demolished in order to make way for newer structures. Most of what we know of Chinese architecture from its earliest beginnings up to the Ming dynasty (CE 1368 - 1644) stems from artistic rendering of this early architecture in painted scrolls which abounded during the Tang Dynasty (CE 618-907), though some evidence comes to us from the tombs of both royals and non-royals, especially the tombs constructed during the period of the Sixteen Kingdoms, or Sixteen States, in the 4th and 5th centuries, Current Era (CE), as well as other scattered sources.
The most prominent – and famous – exception is the Great Wall of China, whose construction is believed to have commenced in the 3rd Century BCE, but there are lesser-known examples dating much farther back, such as the Neolithic Period (BCE 10,000 – 2,000) village near Banpo, in Yunnan Province on China's southern border, or the ruins of Liangzhu city near Hangzhou, in Zhejiang Province. At Banpo, two types of mud dwellings were discovered, one round and one rectangular. At Liangzhu, besides finding a number of cultural artifacts, archaeologists excavated the city's fortress walls, whose base are of stone, with yellow clay comprising the upper body.
There have also been many lesser finds – and new discoveries continue, or course, as new, massive construction projects continue to be executed throughout China – of well-preserved archaeological sites and artifacts that offer clues into the architecture and the building "technology" of this extensive earlier period. From these various sources we know that early Chinese architects used regularly spaced wooden columns to support the roof rather than rely on walls for this function (walls merely "clothed" the skeletal roof-and-column structure) while walls and floors were made of stamped earth. These early Chinese people built with stones, then with simple mud brick, eventually mastering the art of fired bricks.Lime kilns used in the fabrication of fired bricks have been excavated in various parts of China.
The earliest roofed buildings in China may date back as far as the Shang (CE 1700-1027) or the Zhou (CE 1027-221) Dynasties, though no incontrovertible evidence exists. It was first during the Han Dynasties (BCE 202 – CE 220) that the quintessential tiered Chinese roof as we know it today, with its overhanging, curved eaves, took shape. In Chinese culture, the curved line served to ward off evil, represented by the straight line. The sides of this quintessential Chinese roof were covered with colored, glazed tiles, and over time this artwork became increasingly ornate.
Architectural techniques developed significantly from the Three Kingdoms (CE 220 - 280) Dynasty through the Northern (CE 386-588) and Southern (CE 420-588) Dynasties. The quality of bricks and tiles was continually improved, and their use became widespread, though restricted mainly to formal structures, including palaces, fortification walls, and Buddhist pagodas, but also included houses for persons of rank, as Chinese society became increasing hierarchical, or socially stratified. The Sixteen-Kingdoms Style Brick Tomb, excavated by archaeologists in Kuqa County of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in northwestern China, is an example of the advancements in brick-making and brick-laying techniques already at this early stage in the development of brick masonry in Chinese architecture. This tomb, though believed to be constructed during the Sixteen Kingdoms, or Sixteen States (CE 300 – 440) period, which was characterized by non-Chinese rule, is built in Han Chinese style.
During the Sui (CE 581-617) and Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasties, known as China's Golden Age because its political stability led to economic prosperity, which in turn brought with it a rise in all art forms from handicrafts (eg., ceramics and metalwork) to representational painting and calligraphic arts, but also to music as well as poetry, the sophistication of brick-making improved steadily, and the system of bracketing which underpins the quintessential Chinese roof became more and more complex, just as did the workmanship and lavishness of glazed colored tiles. The art of sculpture reached new levels of expression during the period, with an emphasis on voluptiousness and sensuality, both in religious and in secular motifs, the latter bearing witness to the fact that economic prosperity empowered greater numbers of people during China's Golden Age.* Indeed, so successful were the achievements of the Sui-Tang Period that its influence was felt on neighboring cultures: Both Japan and Korea emulated the Chinese recipe for success during the Sui-Tang Period.
As if to underline the oft-quoted adage, 'all good things must come to an end', the period that followed China's Golden Age of stability and prosperity was characterized by their opposite: instability and economic decline. The period of the Five Dynasties (CE 907-960) and the Ten Kingdoms (CE 907-979), which involved a series of 5, short-lived dynasties comprising 10 kingdoms, was perhaps the bleakest in all of China's history. Political instability led to warring among opposing factions, the well-functioning civil service network of the Sui-Tang period degenerated into a system of payoffs and kickbacks as corruption spread throughout the government, and in some parts of the country, the monetary system reverted to a primitive bartering scheme.
The breakdown in social order led to a breakdown in civil defenses – canals and dams fell into disrepair – which in turn led to flooding, destroying crops and causing famine. If the Sui-Tang Period could be compared to the Renaissance in Western culture, then the period of the Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms can be likened to a reversal to the previous period in Western Culture, the Dark Ages. Yet this bleak period in Chinese history brought one of China's most significant achievements: the development of printing. Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist writings could hereafter be read far and wide.
The Song (CE 960 - 1279) Dynasty, which had a Northern (CE 960 - 1127) and a Southern (CE 1127 - 1279) period, marked a return to golden achievements in Chinese architecture. Great improvements in techniques and their application were made. Though the buildings that were constructed during the Song Dynasty were generally smaller than those that characterized the Tang Dynasty, they were more beautiful, more exquisitely crafted, and displayed a greater diversity in style: palaces, pagodas and pavilions shared space with multistory buildings as well as with systems of terraces. It was during the Song Dynasty that official Buildings Standards (Yingzaofashi) were introduced.
Though Chinese peoples had ruled areas of what corresponds to today's northwestern China, the area was ruled from CE 916 – 1368 by successive tribes of non-Chinese peoples (sometimes referred to as barbarians) – the Khitans of the Liao Dynasty (CE 916-1125), the Tanguts (relatives to modern-day Tibetans) of the Western Xia Dynasty (CE 1038-1227), the Jurchen (ancestors to the later Manchus) of the Jin Dynasty (CE 1115-1234), and finally, a Mongol tribe which ruled the region during the Yuan Dynasty (CE 1279-1368) – most of whom accommodated, if not outright adopted, much of the local Chinese culture, though they either failed to fully integrate into Chinese society or did so to such an extent that their grip on power was weakened.
These invaders were generally nomadic tribes, i.e., hunters, but adopted the "sedentary" agricultural and administrative practices of the host Chinese culture. Most of these areas were eventually conquered by the Mongols – by the decendants of Genghis Khan – and today they are autonomous or semi-autonomous regions within the People's Republic of China. However, no significant architectural advancement was made in these parts of China during these reigns, and therefore, for our purposes, they are of little architectural interest, except where Chinese architectural expertise was commissioned to adorn tombs, since these works, some religious and some secular, offer a glimpse into Chinese society of the period. The Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty, whose architects built many Tibetan Buddhist temples and Islamic mosques, were responsible for the spread of Buddhist and Islamic architecture throughout China.
Chinese architecture reached its zenith, if not in architectural break-throughs, then in the sheer magnitude of building, during China's two last imperial dynasties, the Ming (CE 1368-1644) and Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasties. The extent of the building boom during this period was overwhelming, as the production of the era's main building block, the humble brick, expanded exponentially. As well, the quality and quantity of glazed tiles exceeded those of any past dynasty. The architectural design of official buildings became highly standardized. Though styles remained relatively unchanged compared to that which characterized the earlier Chinese period during the Song Dynasty, buildings were now more grandiose in scale. Cities that had outgrown their original perimeters received a new outer defense wall.
The defensive wall referred to as the Great Wall of China, originally constructed as part of the defensive ramparts of Beijing, became deserving of that designation first during this period, as the wall, which was fortified along its existing parts during the Ming Dynasty, was extended for hundreds of kilometers both east and west, to encompass fortresses such as Shanhaiguan in the east and Jiayuguan in the west. Some sections of the extended Great Wall, such as Badaling and Simatai, have become famous for their artistic beauty. Many new sections of the Great Wall were constructed in brick, replacing the wall's earlier "building block", stones.
But the Ming Dynasty is more famous for another major contribution to Chinese architecture. In 1406, the then Ming Emperor, "Yongle", moved the capital from Nanjing to its current location, Beijing. The new capital was to have an exclusive section that would be inaccessible to ordinary mortals and would make it famous forever after: the Forbidden City. Though much of the present-day Forbidden City was constructed after the 18th Century, its origin is accredited to the Ming Dynasty under the emperor "Yongle".
Construction on the Great Wall continued under the Qing Dynasty, which dynasty, like that of its predecessor, is renowned for an entirely different Chinese "monument": the Terracotta Army, located in the city of Xi'an, in Shaanxi Province. The Qing Dynasty was China's last imperial dynasty, and thus marks and end to China's pre-Modern Era architecture.
The economic success of the Siu-Tang Period was also in large part due to a confrontation with a feudal system that had previously apportioned power – and thus wealth – through a hereditary system of clans, which cronyism had stifled growth, since loyalty, rather than ability, determined the individual's rank in the feudalistic hierarchy of the time. The clans' power was greatly curtailed during this period, and at the same time an imperial examination system was introduced, creating a merit-based system of civil service which paved the way for greater social mobility, perhaps not unlike the changes that are currently taking place in the People's Republic of China, where ability, not loyalty, seems to have become the keyword for success.