Ancient Chinese Architecture and its Hidden Meanings
From magnificent palaces and temples to quaint country residences, ancient Chinese architecture is the living embodiment of a 5,000-year-long civilization. This heritage, left behind by China’s dynasties, is expressed in the landscape of cities, windows, and gardens scattered throughout the country.
These architectural legacies are not only magnificent creations, but they are also three-dimensional poems that communicate the ideas of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism through their structures—the flying eaves and bucket arches, the intricately carved beams, and the well-placed stones. The greatest among them are full of ingenuity, majesty, flexibility, and strength.
Underpinning much of Eastern philosophy is the idea of balance, which talks about opposing and complementary forces that interact with one another. In ancient Chinese architecture, this sense of balance brought an aesthetic equilibrium. We see it today in the symmetry of the architecture, in the unique combination of shapes, in the harmony of colours, and in an ever-present connection with nature.
The golden mean of Confucius is one of the most important principles in traditional Chinese culture. It refers to the importance of impartiality and moderation in human conduct. In architecture, it’s mainly reflected in the symmetry that exists between the main body of a building and its complementary parts. In large complexes like the Forbidden City, the layout of the buildings follows this principle of symmetry with a north-south central axis that acts as the central nerve of the city.
Square and circle combinations
In ancient China, people believed that Heaven is round and Earth is square. In ancient Chinese architecture, square and round designs represent the harmony between Heaven and Earth. People who live in and around these harmoniously designed structures should naturally find tranquillity and better health in their lives.
The overall shape of a Chinese building is square, but swooping roofs with their flying eaves add a necessary roundness to the structure’s highest point. Doors tend to have round arches and windows.
The buildings look light and agile, as if they were touched by the beauty of Heaven. In more practical terms, they help to drain water and deflect lightning.
Harmony of colours
There are five primary colours in traditional Chinese culture that correspond to the five elements and to the five directions. Harmonizing these five elements brings peace to all directions. Green (wood element) represents east; red (fire element) represents south; white (metal element) represents west; black (water element) represents north; and yellow (earth element) represents the centre.
The royal palaces of northern China feature meticulously balanced red walls and yellow tiles, which are accented by blue and green. The gardens and temples of southern China have mostly white walls, black columns and blue tiles, projecting a peaceful energy.
Connection to nature
Whether it’s through the Confucian idea of “Heaven and Earth flow together harmoniously” (as passed down by Mencius) or the Taoist concept of “Heaven, Earth, and I come into being together. All things and I are one” (as found in the classic text Zhuangzi), ancient Chinese architencture promotes harmony between people and nature.
Over thousands of years, Chinese people have paid homage to China’s magnificent landscapes through architecture, poetry, painting and writing. This inseparable connection between people, nature and Heaven is seen throughout history and in traditional culture, leading to unique architectural creations that bring beauty and tranquillity.