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Chinese Architecture

Chinese architectural traditions developed languages of construction and spatial inhabitation in dwellings in direct response to their location across the country. Aboriginal residents formed different living styles based on topographies of terrain, local precipitation, sunshine, humidity, and climatic conditions. While 40% of China is grasslands, there are marine and freshwater aquatic areas, forests(rainforest and temperate forests), deserts, and tundra (taiga and savanna). The climate and rivers greatly influenced the creation and continuation of diverse architectural responses. Explore the secrets of the variety of Chinese architecture. Discover Chinese Architecture: Features, Culture, Types, and Decor and learn about their development in the different climatic areas of the country.

The Chinese language and traditions of construction that evolved across centuries today fall into six major categories-: Hui, Fujian, Beijing, Su, Jin, and Sichuan. Each of these architectural dwelling types created unique responses in the landscape, creating different types of neighborhoods and varied living experiences.

Activity 1 – The amazing topography and biomes of China

China has the second-largest land area in the world and is the earth’s most populated country. Across the land area, there are many complex terrains and climatic conditions. One of the most significant factors to learn about Chinese landscapes is that the topography created from West to East, South to North, is a topography of two main rivers reaching north easterly and easterly across the China mainland. To the north is the Yellow River, which flows east into the Bohai Sea. To the south is the Long River or Yangtze River), which flows into the East China Sea. The two rivers distinguish five different climate zones within the Chinese mainland. The five climates are:

The Subtropical monsoon climate.
The Temperate monsoon climate.
The Temperate continental climate.
The Plateau mountain climate.
The Tropical monsoon climate.

Draw the map of China or print this pdf and label the two main rivers and locate and label the five different biomes.

Activity 2 – Explore Chinese Vernacular Architecture

There are six architectural styles/languages on the China mainland, from North to South and East to West, following changes in topography, climate, and biomes. The different styles/languages are Beijing, Jin, Hui, Su, Sichuan, and Fujian. Follow the development of vernacular architecture in China in response to location and climate.

Read about the different architectural responses to climate and location, Make a list of the different styles and list their key materials and characteristics.

Activity 3 – Beijing Siheyuan Courtyard Houses

Keywords: Symmetric layout & distribution, classical cultural connotation Material: Wood, Tile, Brick

The Beijing-Siheyuan is a quadrangle courtyard dwelling that developed over two thousand years starting in the Western Zhou Period (1045–770 BC) in northern China. The Siheyuan is the most classic template for Chinese dwellings. Dating back to the Yuan dynasty, this traditional dwelling since then has become the most dominant housing type in Beijing. From the entry courtyard, protecting the family from intruders, dust, and street noise, the court offers sunshine and a cooling breeze. The courtyard design focuses on Feng Shui composing harmony between the family and nature’s earth, air, water, and fire forces. From site selection and positioning to determining the specific scale of each building, Feng Shui ideas about light, view, and temperature structure the inside and outside composition of space. The courtyard’s decoration, carving, and painting reflect folk customs and traditional culture, showing people’s pursuit of happiness, beauty, wealth, and auspiciousness.

The layout of a Siheyuan is composed of four buildings positioned along the north-south and east-west axis with an open central courtyard. Such a structure offers a vastly private living environment that directly connects to nature. In the layout of a Siheyuan, the main entrance is in the southeast position of the “Bagua” diagram (Eight Trigrams), and the corresponding back door is in the “Qian” position. Therefore, the divine “Qian Shan Xun Xiang” position is considered auspicious in geomancy. In the Bagua diagram, “Xun” represents wind, connecting heaven and earth. Placing the entry doors in this position opens air movement and daily sunlight from all sides. The gate generally opens at the southeast corner, and there is a shadow wall at the entrance so outsiders cannot see inside. The main room on the central axis is the living room for the family’s elders; the left and right-wing rooms are for the younger generations. Courtyards often have a tree, a water pond, a bird cage, and a fish bowl. This layout reflects the orthodox and rigorous traditional character of the people of Northern China.
Research Bejing Siheyuan Courtyard drawings and draw an aerial view of their layout.

Activity 4 – HUI-STYLE Housing

Keywords: Bluestone and white tile, high wall, and deep courtyard Primary Material: Brick, Stone Brick, Wood, Tiles

The Hui style of architecture uses white walls and tile decorations in varying shades of gray. Without colorful ornaments, the design reflects the beauty of surrounding mountains and near-distant waters, just like traditional Chinese calligraphy paintings. Hui Dwellings emphasize Feng Shui, or placement of people and buildings in ‘harmony with nature between heaven and man.’ Early salt merchants began building villages during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279CE) on the “Yang” side of the mountains, diverting water flow into and through streams in the villages, creating a zen-like scenery of white-walled black-roofed courtyard dwellings mirrored in the waterways. During the middle period of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1664CE), Hui style architecture rapidly expanded across mountain villages. The commerce of trading tea, paper, ink, silk, cloth, wood, paint, and pottery made the merchants very wealthy. High protective walls defended against thieves, and deep inner courtyards provided a sense of safety, a place of sunshine and water storage. Rainwater that falls into the interior patio is known as “four waters return to the hall.” The sculpture of the entrance archway and front door continues its three-dimensional elegance framing windows and ornamenting beams and columns in the rectangular inner court. Upon entering, one sees a large wooden hall, situated between a sitting room, a wine room, and a utility room; the smaller rooms are topped with a second-floor veranda offering high windows for cross ventilation and views. Symmetrical raised “Horse Walls,” or high walls, protect the wooden structures from village fires. The exterior’s simplicity, the sunny courtyard, and elegant carvings create a harmonious setting for living with and in nature. Explore the Elegance of Hui Style Residential Buildings. Discover the Ingenuity of Wealthy Huizhou Merchants. Travel to the Hui Region.
Draw an Example of Hui Architecture.

Activity 5 – Su Dwellings

Keyword: Mountains and waterways, winding paths and Traditional Chinese Gardening, Material: Stone, Brick, Wood

Su Style dwellings in Jiangsu and Zhejiang are the culmination of the evolution of northern and southern architectural styles. Homes feature southern-facing gardens. The high ridge roofs and corners of the rooms feature a “Zoumalou”, or brick-carved gatehouse, and bright tile windows. The white walls and black tiles, row upon row, reflect lightness, elegance, and simplicity. Explore Su Style dwellings.

The Su Style also represents a style of Chinese gardening. The classical gardens of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, date from the 6th century BCE when the city was the capital of the Wu Kingdom. Inspired by royal gardens built by the King, private gardens began to appear in the 4th century through the 18th century. Gardens were inspired by the poetic freehand style originally of traditional Chinese landscape paintings. The gardens lend insight into how ancient Chinese intellectuals harmonized conceptions of aestheticism in a culture of reclusion within an urban living environment. Gardens- like life- are full of twists and turns. Su landscapes are tortuous and deep, with detours instead of direct exposures to the rugged topography. Explore the classical gardens of Suzhou, a World Heritage Site. Su Royal gardens, while also quite large, are straight to the point and visibly apparent at a glance. While traditional Chinese gardens emphasize borrowing scenery, the ancient buildings distributed in conventional Chinese gardens include halls, restaurants, pavilions, buildings, platforms, portals, verandas, patios, and lanes. Enjoy strolling the Chinese gardens and historic water streets of Suzhou.

Most Jiangnan dwellings face the street with the river at the back. As the Tang poet Du Xunhe, who lived surrounded by waters, said, “Upon arriving at Suzhou, you will first notice that the river pillows the locals.” The historical relics of Wu Palace lack open spaces, and are full of densely populated residences wedged in between rivers, drains, and wooden bridges. Due to the abundance of rainfall in the area, the houses are primarily two stories, with the living room located on the second floor to avoid humidity. Unlike the relatively independent residences found in northern China, the houses in the Jiangnan region are compact because of the higher price and limited amount of available land since the Ming and Qing dynasties. The long and narrow sequences of the Jiangnan dwellings’ set a pathway for traffic, fire prevention, patrol, and ventilation.

When standing in the courtyard and looking at Jiangnan’s architecture from the bottom up, it is as if one is standing in a square shallow well. As a result, the Jiangnan dwellings receive the hall-well-style name. Patios in Jiangnan dwellings provide smaller naturally lit spaces for outdoor activities while carved beams and columns enhance the aesthetic. The patios provide a drainage design known as “Si Shui Gui Tang,” meaning that water from all sides gathers at the eaves and falls into the hall’s core. In Feng Shui, “Si Shui Gui Tang” conveys the idea of “Shui Ju Tian Xin,” with water congregating in the “heart of the sky.” The “heart of the sky” refers to rainwater flowing into a central point. The Chinese assimilate the convergence of water with the accumulation of wealth. It is just like water from the sky, as it unites and flows into the heart, or courtyard, of the dwelling.<.

Make 3 sketches of different views of Su Neighborhoods.

Activity 6 – Fujian Tulou Architecture

Keyword: Tulou: collective living, defensive form Material: Earthy soil made with loess, lime, sand (Main wall), and Stone (Wall base and foundation)
Fujian Tulou, or earth dwellings, are defensive communities built on stone foundations with earth walls of loess, lime, and sand. Located in the mountainous province of southeast China, the Tulou building typology consists of large-scale circular or square multi-level courtyards with four or more stories of living units focused on sunlit communal courtyards. The large structures offer protected, sunlit, cross-ventilated, windproof, and earthquake resistant living for 200-300 people per complex. Mountains, rivers, agriculture fields, and forests surround the large housing blocks. Thick rammed earth walls support the exterior of the Tulou structure while wood frames the interiors; residents share community within the interior courtyard as they pass in and out of the complex. Residents grow and collect food and use the forest’s resources. The courtyards are warm in winter and cool in the summer. Built by the Hakka people who migrated from the 12th century to the 20th century, the Fujian Tulou accounts for more than 20,000 such communities today. These large shared dwellings are recognizable by their shape (circular or square), construction technique(rammed walls and wooden interiors), and defensive community organization. Over the centuries, many different dwelling styles populated the Fujian area. As China opened up to overseas trade, people from other parts of the world followed, bringing unique cultures to southeast China. New building crafts expanded the architectural variety of the Fujian Region.

The Hakka Tulou originates in the Song and Yuan dynasties and matured in the late Ming and Qing dynasties, culminating in the Republican Era. Several of the Hakka Tulou dwellings are part of the UNESCO ( United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Sites recognized as “exceptional examples of a building tradition and function exemplifying a particular type of communal living and defensive organization [in a] harmonious relationship with their environment.” Today, Tulou features in Chinese literature such as Mulan, Big Fish & Begonia, The Knot, etc.Imagine entering a Tulou Dwelling and finding your way up the stairs to your family’s house. Think about leaving in the morning to farm outside of its walls.

Make a drawing of a circular or square Tulou Dwelling.

Activity 7 – Jin Style Cave Architecture

  • Keywords: Cave architecture, Shanxi merchant culture Material: Stone, Stone Brick, Tile, Wood**

Jin Style is the general term referring to the architecture of the Shanxi area but also Gansu, Ningxia, and parts of Qinghai. In these areas, the architectural style of Shanxi (Jin Style) is the most common. There are two types of Jinstyle architecture. One consists of narrow buildings in urban areas of Shanxi. The other type consists of cave dwellings in northern Shaanxi and surrounding areas which are the most common architectural style in the northwest region. The industrious generations of Shanxi merchants formed architectural styles based on accumulating countless wealth: bucket arches and cornices, colorful gold decorations, and brick and tile patterns, achieved with meticulous artistry; Jin style architecture reflects the steady, atmospheric, rigorous, and profound character of Shanxi Merchants. Explore Old Shanxi Dwellings.

Sketch two old Shanxi dwellings and imagine what it would be like to live In them!

Activity 8 – Stilt Houses

Sichuan architecture is a unique architectural style of local ethnic minorities prevalent in Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, and other southern places. Inspired by ancient nest dwellings, Its stilted buildings are called Diao Jiao Lou. In the south and southwest, the climate is humid, the temperature differential between day and night is significant, and there are many snakes and insects on the ground. Stilted dwellings built on the mountains and on or by waters offer connected side wings of the main house at the ground level for entry, with additional residential space lifted up on pillars. Wooden piles or stones support the Diao Jiao Lou foundations. The upper frame is made of floor slabs, with four walls of wooden boards or plastered bamboo rafts. The roof is tiled or thatched. Most of the windows of the stilted building face the river.

Explore Diaojuaolou Stilted buildings and sketch how the nested dwellings step up the hillside.

Activity 9 – Ancient Chinese Architecture

In addition to the wide array of dwellings designed in response to topography and climate. Chinese culture created many building types throughout the dynasties. Imperial Palaces were built as the seat of emperors during different dynasties. In the founding cities of dynasties, ancient administration buildings and mansions for key officials were central. As dynasties prospered, imperial gardens expanded palace layouts, including the Forbidden Cities fortress of courtyards, gardens, and buildings. Highly detailed ornate and painted wood and stone structures featured tile floors and sculpted ornaments. When Buddhism came into China in the 6th to 7th century, temples, pagodas, grottos, and towers appeared. Explore Ancient Chinese Architecture

Sketch one of your favorite building complexes and upload it to the gallery.

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