Famous Ancient Buildings

Imperial Palaces

As symbols of an emperor’s ultimate power and control, highlights of the dignity of imperial power, and relics reflecting the royals’ extravagant material lifestyles, grand palaces were always built in large, dramatic scale. For thousands of years, successive emperors spared no labor, material, or money to build majestic palaces for themselves and their images to be carried on past death. These solemn and magnificent palaces serve as examples of the wisdom and creative power of the Chinese people.

China Off The Beaten Path Tours

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City in Beijing, the imperial palace and grounds for the Ming and Qing Dynasties, is the largest and most integrated existing building complex in China. Built in 1406 to 1420, the complex has 980 buildings. In 1988, the Imperial Palace was listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Forbidden City is one of China’s top attractions today, and more than 8 million visitors walk through its gates annually. More about the Forbidden City.

Forbbiden City

The Forbbiden City in Beijing

Altars and Temples

Altars and temples occupy an important place in ancient Chinese architecture. They are ceremonial sites connecting religious and non-religious buildings and are used to offer sacrifices to the heaven, the earth, the sun, the moon, the country, the mountains, the emperor, the scholars of the past, and the ancestors. There are countless ones to visit throughout China.

Temple of Heaven

Located several kilometers southeast from the Imperial Palace, the Temple of Heaven is a huge altar in honor of the Heaven. Its total area is 2.7 million square meters, which is 4 times as large as the Forbidden City. All the buildings that make up the temple have dark blue tiles on their ceilings, representing the Heaven. Today, many enjoy exercising in the park areas next to the building.

Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven

Confucian Temple

The Confucian Temple can be found in the center of the city of Qufu in the Shandong Province. It is famous for its oriental architectural features and its immense scale. Together with the Imperial Palace in Beijing and Chengde Mountain Resortof the Heibei Province, the Confucian Temple is one of the 3 great building complexes from ancient China.

Confucian Temple

Confucian Temple in Qufu of Shandong Province

Temple of Guanyu

The Temple of the God of Warriors is also called Temple of Guan Yu. It is a place to worship Guan Yu, a famous general from the Three Kingdoms Period . was greatly praised in his time and was granted titles by emperors after the Song Dynasty on multiple occasions. He is regarded as the epitome example of a man of faith, filial piety, justice, and moral integrity. Because of his ideal traits, he is regarded as the God of Warriors. Even in modern times, he is well worshipped by the Chinese especially in the south, and his person has been revered to the point where sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish true history from myth.


Mausoleums are significant structures in Chinese architecture. In ancient times, the Chinese believed that the spirit does not die with the body. Rather, the spirit continues to live on. Because of this, they increasingly attached importance to the meaning of funerals, so much so that soon every class of society began designing elaborate mausoleums for their passed loved ones. Throughout China’s long history, the construction of mausoleum buildings have evolved richly. The grand mausoleums of China are integrated with various arts, such as paintings, calligraphies, carvings, and more. Therefore, mausoleums are the reflections of achievements in many artistic fields. The overall arrangement of a Chinese mausoleum always includes walls all around, doors opened to the 4 directions, as well as turrets on 4 corners.

As they as the final statement accompanying death, mausoleums are the most majestic and also some of the biggest building complexes of ancient China. Some are built on the backs of mountains; others are located on the plains. There is usually a paved path leading to the tomb with stone persons and stone beasts on both sides as protection for the deceased. Many trees, usually pines and cypresses, are planted around the structures, which add to the solemn, respectful, and quiet atmosphere.

Ming Dynasty Tombs

The Ming Dynasty Tombs are located in a grand basin of 40 square kilometers at the mountain foot of Mount Tianshou in Changping County, Beijing Municipality. There was once a wall surrounding the vast tomb area. The front door opens to the south with Boa Mountain and Tiger Valley standing on both sides, looking like a dragon and a tiger guarding the gate. The most famous tombs are the Chang Tombs for their majestic land buildings, and the Ding Tomb, whose underground palace has been excavated. In August 2003, the Ming Tombs were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

City defense buildings

The word "cheng" (city) has a specific, different meaning in ancient times: it meant the city walls used for military defense. Such city defense buildings consisted of 2 city walls. The inner wall is called "cheng," while the outer wall is called "guo." Together, the set of walls was thusly called "cheng guo." But for many ancient city defense systems, the city walls were not the only construction: there were often also moats surrounding the walls. These moats were called "chi," and the inner city was called "geng.". The city walls and the moat are called "cheng chi" as a whole.

Indeed, China’s ancient cities had a complex but well thought-out architectural system. For example, there are 2 to 3 gates to the city. (Big cities usually have more gates; the Beijing inner city had 9 gates during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.) For watch, there was always a tower over the city gate. The number of the tower always matched and corresponded with the same as that of the gate. There are also an additional 4 watchtowers at each corner of the city wall. In order to reinforce the wall, a section, also known as "ma mian," was projected to the outside in every certain distance. Inside the wall, cavalries with their horses could climb up the wall using horse paths. As necessary thruways for citizens and armies to enter and exit the city, drawbridges or stone bridges were built over the moats to connect the inner city with the outside world.

In total, all the buildings described above were indispensable parts of a city’s defense system. Such structures and features played vital roles in guarding against external aggression and holding the ground in ancient times when attacks were limited to short-distance weapons such as swords, spears, and cannons. Many Chinese cities avoided being occupied for several months or years simply by closing the city gate and quarantining themselves against even the most formidable enemies.

Famous city walls and moats

Among more than 200 cities, some of which even served as the country’s capital in its long history, certain ones experienced more dynastical influence and attention. These cities are now refered to as the Seven Ancient Capitals in China, namely Anyang, Xi'an, Kaifeng, Luoyang, Hangzhou, Nanjing, and of course Beijing. In 1997, Pingyao old town in the Shanxi Province, and Lijiang old town in the Yunnan Province were registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites for their unique folk cultural characteristics.

Xi'an’s old city wall

Based on the city wall built in the Sui and Tang Dynasties in the 6th century, construction of the 13,912 meter long wall of Xi'an commenced in the Hongwu Era of the Ming Dynasty (1370-1378 AD). The wall is 12 meters tall, 18 meters wide at its base, and 15 meters wide at the top. It is thicker than it is tall, so the wall is very steady. In 1983, a ring city wall park was constructed. Today, visitors can visit the integrated defense system including the moat, bridges, arrow buildings, main building, watchtowers, city gate, and so on, where they have gain a general understanding about ancient battles.

Xian City Wall

Xian City Wall

Pingyao old town

As the best-preserved old town in China, Pingyao can be found in the middle of the Shanxi Province. Known as Gutao in history, it is said to be the territory granted to Emperor Yao (2356-2255). Later, a county was developed based around the town during the rule of Emperor Xuan (578-579) in the Northern Zhou Dynasty. The main roads in the town are cross-shaped, and shops were built along the roads while residences are in the back streets. The large constructions, such as official buildings, altars, and temples, are laid out according to feudal tradition. There are still more than 400 well-preserved traditional rectangular courtyards among the 3,997 total in this old town, most of which have histories of over 100 years. In December 1997, Pingyao old town was honorably registered as a UNESCO World Heritage List.

The Great Wall

One of the world's greatest manmade structures ever created, the Great Wall is a Chinese fortification built during the time of the Spring and Autumn Period (771 BC-476 BC) and the Warring States period (481 BC-403 BC). When the First Emperor of Qin (259 BC-210 BC) unified China, the walls were then connected. This majestic project of heavy expenditure and enormous scale is still a wonder of the world. Time has witnessed countless ups and downs, but this great structure still remains. When one climbs up the wall, one cannot simply admire the majestic appearance of the Great Wall among the lofty mountains and high ranges, but also feel the immeasurable intelligence of the Chinese people.

Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

Irrigation Systems

Dujiangyan Irrigation System

The Dujiangyan Irrigation System is a historical Chinese irrigation and flood control method constructed around 250 BC by governor of the state of Shu, Li Bing, and his son. It is 56 kilometers west of the present-day city of Chengdu, to which it still supplies with water. This irrigation system diverts part of the Minjiang River into an aqueduct leading to Chengdu.

Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal

The Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, also known as the Grand Canal of China, is the largest ancient canal or artificial river in the world. It dates back to the 6th century and has a total length of 1,776 kilometers between the 2 cities; today, the canal is only navigatable from Hangzhou to Jining. At its height, more than 8,000 vessels transported items (and cultural elements) to and from Beijing daily. The Grand Canal is still constantly being worked upon, although 14 historical sections prove most interesting to visitors.

Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal

Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal


Among countless towers and pavilions in China’s history, the most popular with today’s audiences are essentially structures for sightseeing built in scenic areas. Examples include Huanghe (Yellow Crane) Tower, Tengwang Tower, Yueyang Tower. These 3 famous towers south of the Yangtze River Sites are found riverside or next to lakes bordering cities, making it easy for the cities’ citizens and visitors to see nearby landscapes. The towers’ sizes and patterns were based on careful planning, with nature and the structure acting in harmonious coordination with each other.

Buddhism Pagodas

Though they are unique architectures with historical roots in India, pagodas in China have been constructed since Buddhism was introduced to the country. The pagodas, generally known as the carriers of Buddhism culture, found their integration into traditional Chinese architecture and the designs were greatly changed. The nationalization of Indian pagodas demonstrates the good virtues of the Chinese, of their high intelligence and willingness to incorporate elements from diverse cultures. The most well-known Buddhism Pagoda in China is the Big Goose Wild Pagoda in Xi'an.

Old Bridges

Zhaozhou Bridge: Since it was build, this bridge has withstood 10 floods, 8 battles, and many earthquakes including a 7.2 degree earthquake in 1966. Yet, the support structure remains intact and the bridge is still in use.

Lugou Bridge (Marco Polo Bridge): Lugou Bridge was constructed in the 29th year of the Dading Era in the Jin Dynasty (1189) and completed in the 3rd year of the Mingchang Era (1192). The bridge is 266.5 meters long in total. It also has 501 stone lions (although some count 502) on the balustrades and 11 arches. This bridge has a history of more than 800 years.

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