Chinese Architectural Principles


Chinese architecture stands out with eccentric features stemming from its conventional culture and civilization. Most traceable principles are Confucian teachings that guide the architectural designs and art in China. Despite the impacts of globalization and cultural; disruptions by modern civilizations, Chinese architectural features are still traceable. Most Chinese architectural principles are embedded in the rich history, culture, politics, and civilization. Given the impacts of globalization in the contemporary world, there have been critical changes in Chinese architectural principles. The current discussion will examine the Chinese architectural principles from the perspective of history, style, and elements and their evolution over time.

Historical Background

The earliest Chinese architecture was inspired by Buddhist ideas from India and then translated to other aspects of existence in China. The cave temples in China with halls and Buddha statues are indications of the Indian cultural influence in early Chinese architecture. Another remarkable feature of the earliest form of architecture in China was pagodas which replicated the parasol-like finials on most Indian stupas (Fazio et al., 2019). Besides, the Chinese military constructions of watchtowers were a significant inspiration for the construction of the pagodas. The purpose of the pagodas was to keep the sacred writings and relics for use in the temples. The Songyue Pagoda in Dengfeng is one of the oldest brick structures with a parabolic shape. Historians also pin this parabolic styling to the Hindu temples, which had the shape to the top. Majorly the earliest building in Chinese architecture dates back to the sixth century CE, marked by the ceramics and other objects associated with the Han dynasty (Fazio et al., 2019).

The primary architectural material in the early Chinese civilization was wood, which was common in constructing beams and posts. Fogon Monastery is the oldest standing and tallest wooden building in history (Fazio et al., 2019). The early archeology indicates a rich history of the architectural significance of wood and stylings in China. While the Han Dynasty is the central focus of historical Chinese architecture, Song Dynasty is also significant in explaining the role of wood In early Chinese architecture. The Nanchan Monastery is one of the remarkable architectural structures which relays ancient Chinese architecture. The early dynasties valued the use of timber in construction. While wood was a valuable construction material, other common materials were introduced by various dynasties ruling in ancient China. While the religious influence was significant in the ancient architectural principles, most building plans stemmed from government directives. The Great Wall of China is an example of the sequential construction across various regimes. The first construction began during the reign of the feudal lords and proceeded during the Qin Emperor’s rule. The current casting of stone and brick and the overarching height are works done during the Ming Dynasty era.

Style (Confucian Principles)

The common style in construction was the Jian, characterized by modular units established in various dimensions. The Jian was the primary measure in early Chinese construction. There was a striking distinction between the roofing and the rest of the building when using wood materials. Cantilvering roofs in an upward or outward fashion have been a distinctive principle in Chinese architecture. When roofing, it was common to have a series of beams systematically placed in parallel tiers. Architects often modified the beams over time into variable formations to give way to cantilevered overhangs and beam-column junctions (Fazio et al., 2019). The combination of the Jian depended on the complexity of the building and the ultimate purpose. For instance, the ancient Greek temples had combinations of even and odd numbers to indicate the position of the central bay beams. The central bays formed support systems for the walls and rails of the roof. It was common to have lightweight walls to streamline support from the central beams.

Besides, most buildings began with a raised platform that showcased their level of importance in society. The elevated platform housed brackets and beams on which the roof would overhang to provide support. Since wooden structures were vulnerable to destruction under adverse weather, there was a need for this overarching support from below. Wooden blocks and dou marked the beginning of the brackets, which supported two different cantilevered gongs. For instance, in the Nanchan Monastery, dou supported both the longitudinal and the transverse axis of the hall. The sequence was continuous for other brackets overhanging further in

The primary alignment of the Chinese building is in axial formation with special sequences and formal cues to establish dominance in the resulting structures. The structures often occurred under separate roofs connected with common corridors, which opened to common open spaces. Early Chinese architecture was uncommon to have different buildings under one roof. Unless for pagodas and watchtowers, the Chinese buildings were under separate roofs, which were indistinct. Single Jian was reserved for simple, isolated buildings and never conjoined with other structures.

The City Planning

According to Fazio et al. (2019), the ancient Chinese city building followed specific plans from the definitive style in early Chinese architecture, the Artificer’s Record, generated in the Fifth Century CE. The Records guided the establishment of the city buildings and their features. For instance, the city buildings should cover a square plan of 400 feet on either side, while the city should be enclosed by three gates on every side of the wall enclosing it. In addition, roads running to the exterior of the city are also a significant part of the plan. The main road forms the entrance to the city. As discussed earlier, the city plan borrows mainly from the converged buildings and axial arrangement in ancient Chinese architecture. Markedly, the plan indicates a palace isolated from the rest of the city buildings. Surprisingly, the city plan has no public open places, unlike the typical constructions which converted into common open spaces. The isolation of various buildings indicates the distinctive hierarchical differences in society. Constructing a capital city should follow all the Artificer’s Record guidelines.

Family Houses (Confucian Principles)

Personal houses are quite different from the cities and royal palaces. One commonality between family houses and a city is the walled compound. A walled compound and a Hall provide security and a place for family moments. Families share special moments in open courtyards and within the walled compounds. In addition, the walled compounds and common courtyards provided the most valued family privacy. A courtyard varies by size depending on the family size where a family could set up a garden. It is common to find high walls around a homestead accessible only by a gate. Again, wood played an integral role in the interior subdivisions of the family houses. Window designs comprise long overhanging heavy paper. A paper window enabled easy disbanding and storage for air circulation during the summer. Likewise, the construction of family houses followed Confucian teachings.

Garden Design (Daoist Principles)

The Daoist principles stemming from the Confucian teachings guide the establishment of gardens where individuals relax and refresh their thoughts. As a result, it is common to have gardens in any open space in the Chinese landscape. Similarly, the landscape designs also followed the Daoist principles of aesthetics. From the elements of yin and yan, one can trace the significant roles of ancient Chinese architectural principles. Gardens such as Suzhou epitomize the common arts inspired by the value of natural sceneries and forms.


Fazio, M. W., Moffett, M., & Wodehouse, L. (2019). Buildings across time: An introduction to world architecture. McGraw-Hill Education.