After several weeks in China, it scents that – apart from minor regional variations – one temple looks much like another, even that the differences between a palace, a temple or a substantial private house are negligible, and that there is little sign of historical development. Nor does it take even this long to tire of the cheaply built and disappointingly Westernized appearance of the majority of China’s cities. But this overall uniformity in no way reflects China’s long architectural heritage: it is rather that several factors have conspired to limit variety. For a start little has survived from different periods to emphasize their individual characteristics: each – wooden structures were vulnerable to natural disasters, sear and revolutions, while new dynasties often demolished the work of the old to reinforce their takeover. Another reason for the strong streak of conservatism inherent in all traditional Chinese architecture is feng shui , a departure from which would risk upset ting the cosmos. And today, with a huge economic boom sweeping the country, a lust for “modernization” is seeing vast new cityscapes being built on the sites of the old.
Compounding these factors is a passion for precedent, which meant that certain basic rules governing building designs were followed from the earliest times, minimizing the variations which separate the works of different periods. This is not to say that it’s impossible to tell a Tang pagoda from a Qing one, but it does mean that a certain homogeneity pervades traditional Chinese architecture, making it all the more exciting on the occasions when you do come across distinctive temples, dwellings or even towns.
Chinese monumental architecture – as represented in temples, palaces and city plans – is notable for constantly repeating cosmological themes, the most central of which can be traced right back to the Bronze Age – though the specific details of feng shui were only formulated during the Song dynasty. Four thousand years ago, cities were already laid out in a spiritually favourable rectangular pattern, typically facing south on a north-south axis and surrounded by a defensive wall. Aside from the business and residential districts, the central focus (though not necessarily centrally located) was a separately walled quarter: this later became the seat of the emperor or his local representative. As the emperor was styled “Son of Heaven” this plan — still apparent in the layout of cities such as Xi’an and Beijing – was a representation of the cosmos, with the ruler at the centre. The same general formula is echoed in the ground of palaces, temples and even large family mansions, complexes of buildings whose organization in many ways represented a microcosm these are surrounded by a wall, and all have their own central spiritual focus: a main hall in temples where statues of deities are displayed; a similar palaces, where the emperor or governor would hold court; or an ancestral shrine in a mansion.
As far as individual buildings are concerned, spiritual considerations also ensured that traditional temples and palaces (the two are virtually identical) followed a basic building structure, which can be seen in subjects as diverse as 2000-year-old pottery models and the halls of Beijing’s Ming-Qing Forbidden City. The foundations formed a raised platform of earth, brick or stone according to the building’s importance. Columns rested on separate bases with tile heads of the columns linked by beams running lengthways and across. Above this, beams of diminishing length were raised one above the other on short posts set on the beam below, creating an interlocking structure which rose to the point of the roof where single posts at the centre supported the roof ridge. The arrangement produced a characteristic curved roof line with upcurled eaves, felt to confer good luck. Cantilevered brackets, introduced in the eighth century, allowed the curving eaves to extend well beyond the main pillars and acquire an increasingly decorative value, supplemented by line, of carved animals and figures on the gable ends of the roof. Though scale and space were ultimately limited by a lack of arches, essential in supporting tile massive walls found in European cathedrals, this structural design was solid enough to allow the use of heavy ceramic roof tiles.
Development of these features reached a peak of elegance and sophistication during the Tang and Song eras, never to be entirely recaptured. Though almost nothing survives intact from this time, later restorations of Tang edifices, such as the temples at Wudang Shan in Hubei Province , or Xi’an’s central bell tower, convey something of the period’s spirit. Two regional styles also developed: northern architecture was comparatively restrained and sober, while that from the south eventually exaggerated curves and ornamentation to a high degree: Guangdong’s Foshan Ancestral Temple is a classic of the latter type. Inside both, however, spaces between the columns were filled by screens providing different combinations of wall, door and latticework, which could be removed or changed to order differently the spaces within. The columns themselves were sometimes carved in stone, or otherwise painted, with different colors denoting specific
religions in temples, or the rank of the occupant in palaces. Similarly, imperial buildings might be distinguished by four-sided roofs, by higher platforms reached by wide staircases and by special yellow glazed tiles for the roofs. In rare instances, buildings created their own styles without offending feng shui, Beijing’s circular Temple of Heaven , for example , manages to break with convention by symbolizing the universe in its overall shape.
Pagodas are another important type of monumental structure, originally introduced from India with Buddhism. Intended to house saintly relics, they have intrinsically “positive” attributes, are often used to guard cities or buildings from unlucky directions, or are built along rivers to quell (and indicate) dangerous shoals. Their general design in China was probably influenced by the shape of indigenous wooden watchtowers, though the earliest surviving example, at Shendong Si in Shandong Province , is stone and more closely resembles the equivalent Indian stupa. Most, however, are polygonal, with a central stairway rising through an uneven number of storeys – anything from three to seventeen. Buddhism also gave rise to the extraordinary cave temples and grottoes, best preserved in the Northwest at Mogao.
In general, the other major group of buildings, domestic architecture, shares many of the guiding principles of temple and palace design: curved roof lines are desirable, and larger groups of buildings might also be walled off and include spirit walls or mirrors, the latter placed over external doorways to repulse demons. Older homes with these basic features can be found all over the country but, in many cases, practical considerations – principally the climate – overrode optimum spiritual designs and created very distinctive local styles, which are once again most obvious in a basic north-south divide. Northern China’s intensely cold winters and hot summers have spawned solidly insulated brick wails, while more stable, subtropical southern temperatures encourage the use of open eaves, internal courtyards and wooden lattice screens to allow air to circulate freely.
Rural areas are good places to find some of the more traditional or unusual types of residential architecture; aside from the climate, many of these also reflect local cultures. Striking examples exist in the mountainous border areas between Guizhou and Guangxi provinces, where ethnic Dong and Miao build large, two or three-storeyed wooden houses from local cedar. The llong are further known for their wooden drum towers and wind-and-rain bridges, which base a spiritual as well as practical function. Another ethnic group building distinctive houses is the Hakka, a Han sub-group, whose immense stone circular clan or family mansions – some of which can accommodate hundreds of people – were built for defensive purposes in their Guangdong-Fujian homelands. Extreme adaptation to local conditions can be seen in Shaanxi Province , where underground homes have been excavated in prehistoric sedimentary soils deposited by the Yellow River ; these are cool in summer and warm in winter.
Traditional urban architecture survives, too, though it tends to be less varied. Wood almost invariably formed at least the framework of these buildings, but if fire hasn’t claimed them, demolition and replacement by city authorities – who are either safety conscious or simply eager to modernize – generally has. Scattered examples of old town houses can still be seen even in large cities such as Beijing . Kunming and Chengdu , however, while the ethnic Naxi town of Lijiang in Yunnan sports hundreds of traditional wooden houses, the largest such collection anywhere in China . In the cast, the area surrounding Tunxi in Anhui Province contains whole villages built in the immensely influential seventeenth-century “Huizhou style”, comprising a two-storied house plan built around a courtyard, which epitomized the basic forms of contemporary east-coast provincial architecture.
China’s modern architecture tends to reflect political and economic, rather than ethnic or climatic, considerations. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, treaty ports were built up in the European colonial manner by the foreign merchants, banks, shipping firms and missionaries who conducted their affairs there. Today, the former offices, warehouses and churches – often divided up for Chinese use – still give certain cities a distinctive look. Hankou, part of Wuhan , has a Customs House and whole streets of colonial buildings, as do the former east-coast concessions of Shanghai , Qingdao ,Yantai, Shantou , Xiaiuen and Guangzhou . European-inspired building continued on into the 1930s.
After the Communist takeover, there were various attempts to unite Chinese styles with modern materials. When used, this v,-as successful, and many modern rural dwellings still follow traditional designs, simply replacing adobe walls with concrete. But during the 1950s, while Russia was China’s ally, a brutally functional Soviet style became the urban norm, requiring that everything from factories to hotels be built as identical drab, characterless grey boxes. Since China opened Lip to the Western world and capitalism in the late 1970s, however, there’s been a move towards a more “international” look, as seen in the concrete-and-glass high-rises going up across the country. While brighter than the Russian model, these are, in general, hardly any more inspirational or attractive, and are afflicted by a mania for facing new buildings in bathroom tiles. Perhaps the most distressing aspect of this trend is that any indigenous characteristics are seen as old-fashioned, and yet, compared with similar buildings in the West, these new buildings are very poor imitations. Yet even here there are occasional attempts to marry the traditional Chinese idiom with current needs, and in a few cases you’ll see apartment buildings sur rounded by walled compounds and topped with curled roof tiles.