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Ancient Chinese Architecture and its Hidden Meanings

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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.

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In traditional Chinese architecture, doors and windows are picture frames for the changing seasons. This passageway in the Forbidden City creates a perfect view of the apricot blossoms in spring. The red wall, green tiles, and white flowers
in the image all complement each other.

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.

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Ornate rooftops with swooping lines are classic characteristics of traditional Chinese architecture. The uplifted corners are called flying eaves, and they give an air of lightness and flexibility, as if the whole structure were being lifted up by the corners. The eaves can also drain water and deflect lightning strikes. This image depicts the exquisitely painted flying eaves and bucket arches of a traditional ornamental roof in the Forbidden City, Beijing.

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.

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Soil, one of the five elements, is represented by the colour yellow. It’s the sacred centre, the foundation of all things. The richest yellow hue represents supreme power and is a symbol of the royal family. The roof tiles of most palaces in the Forbidden City are decorated with golden yellow glazed tiles to represent the incomparable dignity of the imperial family.

Symmetrical patterns

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.

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The relationship between the five elements is an integral part of traditional Chinese colour theory, and this has also influenced ancient Chinese architecture. For example, fire, one of the five elements, generates soil, and fire is red. Soil in turn generates life. Therefore, the palace doors, windows, and walls are painted red to nourish the families and the lands within the walls. This image depicts an alley in the Forbidden 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.

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Chinese gardens aim to achieve an aesthetic that appears to be made by humans, but designed by Heaven. Their architects seek natural forms that represent harmony between Heaven, Earth, and humankind. This image depicts a traditional Chinese garden in Singapore.

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.

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The roofs of buildings in the regions south of the Yangtze River feature the flying eaves structure with the blue-gray tiles characteristic of the
region. This leads to the area’s distinctive heritage of white and blue buildings.

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.

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This image shows the colourful bucket arches of the Forbidden City with their patterns of clouds, dragons, and flowers that symbolize honour and auspiciousness. Each colour has a special significance and corresponds to the traditional Chinese theory of the five elements.

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.

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The Horse Head Wall, also called The Wall of Fire, is a great example of Chinese Huizhou architecture. The wall rises higher than the roof, descending in stepped levels. The length of the ridge and eaves varies with each house. The wall has a stylized and layered rhythmic beauty, but it also fulfills the practical functions of blocking fires and strong winds.

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.

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Houses with white walls and blue tiles in Huizhou, China, set amid a field of golden rapeseed flowers.

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.

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The pavilions of the Summer Palace in Beijing display the three components of ancient Chinese architecture: the foundation platform, the timber frame, and the decorative roof. The thick and lofty foundations support the beautiful pavilions, built in the imperial style.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 111

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