Temple of Heaven in Beijing
Traditional Chinese buildings and structures include pavilions, high-arched stone bridges, and multi-storied pagodas. Some Chinese architecture seem intent on overpowering nature with symmetry and concentric rectangles.

Good Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Asian Historical Architecture ; Oriental Style / ; Articles on Chinese Architecture ; More Articles on Chinese ; Chinatown Connection ; China Vista Articles on Architecture ; Asian Historical Architecture ; Home Architecture Book: Houses of China by Bonne Shemie ; Yin Yu Tang ; House Architecure ; House Interiors : Link in this Website: HOMES IN CHINA ; Mao-Era Architecture See Wikipedia article on Mao Mausoleum Wikipedia ; Oriental Architecture

Forbidden City: Book: “Forbidden City” by Frances Wood, a British Sinologist. Web Sites Wikipedia ; Virtual Forbidden City ; China Vista ; UNESCO World Heritage Site Sites (click at the bottom): UNESCO World Heritage Site Map UNESCO World Heritage Site Web site (click the site you want) World Heritage Site ; Maps China Map Guide Link in this Website: FORBIDDEN CITY ; Temple of Heaven: Wikipedia UNESCO World Heritage Site (click at the bottom): UNESCO World Heritage Site Map Also try the UNESCO World Heritage Site Web site (click the site you want) World Heritage Site ; Map on China Map Guide China Map Guide ; Link in this Website: Temple of Heaven

Chinese Architectural Features

Important buildings have traditionally been built on a platform or terrace of pounded earth covered by brick or stone. The terraces are reached by a dozen or more steps and are adorned with stone balustrades and sculptures.

Traditional Chinese buildings have tile roofs with swooping eaves. Walls are usually made of brick or wood. The tile roofs are gray for ordinary buildings, yellow for imperial palaces and blue or green for other important structures. The upturned eaves are elaborately carved with extraordinary detail and are works of art in their own right. Sometimes bells hang from the eaves.

Traditional arch gate features include carved flowering trees, peacocks and lucky bats. Painted red and gold, they are placed at city gates and in stores and restaurants. Not merely decorative, they were strategically placed to ward off evil spirits. The carvings, spirals and swirls are meant to confuse them further.

Some Chinese buildings feature balconies covered with elaborate iron and woodwork. They are often painted bright red, gold and green, colors associated with good luck, and hung with signs, tasseled lanterns, and silk banners.

The entrance to palace often had a large water tower. Palaces of the Machu emperors at Chengte featured exposed unadorned cedarwood beams which gave of a fragrant scent that is also a natural insect repellant.### Feng Shui and Homes

A hall in the Forbidden City
Many buildings are laid out with the principals of feng shui in mind. “Feng shui” is the practice of bringing about good fortune among the living, the dead and the spiritual world by making sure objects placed in a landscape or space are in harmony with the universe in such a way that they optimally draw on sources of “qi” (cosmic energy or life force). Also known as geomancy, ifeng shui is often expressed in terms of Chinese and Taoist cosmology and is said to be over 3,500 years old.

The five directions of Chinese cosmology and feng shui are north, south, east, west and center. South represents light and brings good luck. North represents darkness and brings bad luck. Accordingly, doors of houses should not face north of northwest: they should face south. The entire house should be oriented towards the south with mountains to the north to block the bad luck from entering and keep good luck from escaping. The best location is at the foot of a mountain, facing a river. Waters helps attract qi. Buildings with a square plan help hold it firmly.

The location of the family alter, the orientation of the house and the arrangement of the furniture should be in harmony. Bedrooms should face the sun and stairway should’t be visible from the front entrance. Qi is believed to enter through the front door and exit through the toilet.

Walls can be constructed at certain angles to attract positive energy. Doors can be adorned with coins bearing the names of famous emperors to attract good luck. Fountains in corners are sometimes used to deflect bad energy from the sharp angles of nearby buildings. Mirrors are also used to deflect bad energy. Cell phones are believed to disrupt feng shui. Thriving plants are signs that qi is plentiful.

Feng Shui, Buildings and Cities


Entire cities have been laid out according to feng shui principals. In the old days many buildings in Beijing were oriented with the feng shui in mind, namely with their backs towards the north and the mountains and the their fronts facing towards water and the south.

Ideally, feng shui masters are consulted before building are built and designs are drawn up. It is not unheard of for recently constructed buildings to be torn down, or for people to refuse to occupy them, because they are out of harmony or face the wrong direction. Sometimes the buildings can be saved if certain countermeasures are taken, such as locating mirrors at key areas. Other times people are undeterred and move in anyway.

Chinese Temple Architecture

Chinese temples---whether they be Taoist, Buddhist or Confucian---have a similar lay out, with features found in traditional Chinese courtyard houses and elements intended to confuse or repel evil spirits. Temples are usually surrounded by a wall and face south in accordance with feng shui principals. The gates usually contain paintings, reliefs or statues of warrior deities intended to keep evil spirits away. Through the gates is a large courtyard, which is often protected by a spirit wall, a another layer of protection intended to keep evil spirits at bay. The halls of the temple are arranged around the courtyard with the least important being near the entrance in case evil spirits do get in.


Chinese temples are often comprised of many buildings, halls and shrines. They tend to be situated in the middle of towns and have north-south axises. Large halls, shrines and important temple buildings have traditionally been dominated by tiled roofs, which are usually green or yellow and sit atop eaves decorated with religious figures and good luck symbols. The roofs are often supported on magnificently carved and decorated beams, which in turn are supported by intricately carved stone dragon pillars. Many temples are entered through the left door and exited through the right.

Pagodas are towers generally found in conjunction with temples or viewed as temples themselves. Some can be entered; others can not. The Chinese have traditionally believed that the heavens were round and the earth was square. This concept is reflected in the fact that pagodas have square bases rooted to the earth but have a circular or octagonal plans so they look round when viewed by the gods above in the sky.

Early Chinese-style pagodas were modeled after Indian stupas. Pagoda architecture arrived with Buddhism but over the centuries developed a distinctly Chinese characteristics that influenced the architecture in Japan and Korea and other places.

Chinese Temple Features

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Temple under construction

Many temples have courtyards. Often, in the middle of the courtyard is a small bowl where incense and paper money are burnt. Offerings of fruit and flowers are left in a main hall at the intricately-carved altars, often decorated with red brocade embroidery with gilded characters.

Traditional Chinese temples contain wall paintings, carved tile walls and shrines to gods and ancestors that in turn are wonderfully decorated with wood carvings, murals, ceramic figures and plaster moldings with motifs that the Chinese regard as auspicious.

On the outside of temples there are often stone walls with simple carvings; gates with statues of fanged, bug-eyed goblins, intended to keep evil spirits away; and monuments of children who displayed filial piety to their parents and virgins who lost their fiances before marriage but remained pure their entire life.

Wealthy Chinese temples often contain gongs, bells, drums, side altars, adjoining rooms, accommodation for the temple keepers, chapels for praying and shrines devoted to certain deities. There is generally no set time for praying or making offerings---people visit whenever they feel like it---and the only communal services are funerals.

At Chinese temples orange and red signifies happiness and joy; white represents purity and death; green symbolizes harmony; yellow and gold represents heaven; and grey and black symbolize death and misfortune. Swastikas are often seen on Chinese temples. The Chinese word for swastika (wan) is a homonym of the word for "ten thousand," and is often used in the lucky phrase "chi-hsiang wan-fu chih suo chü" meaning "the coming of great fortune and happiness." See Hinduism, Buddhism

Chinese House Architecture

In the north, where wood is scarce, dwellings and walls have traditionally been made of stone, tamped mud or sun-dried bricks reinforced with straw. In the south homes have traditionally been made with wood, brick or woven bamboo.

A traditional large, upper-class house has a single story, tile roof, a courtyard, fluted roof tiles, and stone carvings. Some have ornate lattice windows, deep red painted pillars, carved dragons and courtyard fish ponds. Old homes had paper windows and coal stoves and smelly latrines in the backyard. There were no indoor toilets, Coal was burned for heat.

Built to harmonize with nature, the traditional house of Ming dynasty scholar consisted of a reception hall, bedroom and study placed around a series of courtyards. The house faced south in accordance with geomacy laws and had a high ceiling, to create the illusion of space, and had fan-shaped windows and wooden columns.

In century-old communal homes the grandparents sleep in one area, aunts and uncles in another. Sometimes children sleep in a converted barm above the pig pens and the parents sleep over the open pit that serves as a communal toilet.

Book: “Yin Yu Tang: The Architecture and Daily Life of a Chinese House” by Nancy Berliner (Tuttle, 2003) is about the reconstruction of a Qing dynasty courtyard house in the United States. Yun Yu Tamg means shade-shelter, abundance and hall.

Chinese Courtyard Houses


A traditional Chinese house is a compound with walls and dwellings organized around a courtyard. Walls and courtyards are built for privacy and protection from fierce winds. Inside the courtyard, whose size depends on the wealth of the family, are open spaces, trees, plants and ponds. In the inner courtyards of rural homes, chickens are often kept in coops and pigs are allowed to roam inside small enclosures. Covered verandas connect the rooms and dwelling.

Rural homes are typically built on one, two, three or four sides of an enclosed courtyard. Sometimes one family owns all the units around the courtyard, sometimes different families do. Most houses have peaked tile roofs although slate roofs are common and thatch is still used in some places. In high density areas multistory houses built in rows along streets predominate. They have a courtyard in the front or the back and have a flat roof. In commercial areas families often live upstairs and have a shop or business or animals or storage in the bottom floor.

Many urban homes are one-story courtyard homes too. A typical courtyard house in a hutong in Beijing has an entrance on the south wall. Outside the front door are two flat stones, sometimes carved like lions, for mounting horses and showing off a family’s wealth and status. Inside the front door there is freestanding wall to block the entrance of evil spirits, which only travel in straight lines Behind it is the outer courtyard, with servant’s quarters to the right and left. The family traditionally lived in the inner courtyard towards the back of the north wall.

Communist Architecture in China

Typical Communist buildings include concrete boxes that a few traditional elements such as an upturned eaves. The style has been referred to as "swimming pool architecture" with additions that look "ill-fitting wigs."

In the Mao era, families were moved into concrete apartment blocks or were jammed into courtyard dwelling--built for a single family--with several other families. The central courtyard was filled with crude brick compounds. In some cases courtyard houses was razed and replaced with "work compounds," where housing and factories were combined within walled enclaves. Most of the concrete apartment buildings built in the 1950s and 60s were four to six stories tall. Ones built today are much higher.

Chinese Towns and Cities

Cities and towns in China traditionally have had a south-facing rectangle wall surrounding a grid of public buildings and courtyard houses with similar symmetrical layouts. Many modern towns are centered around a government compound with an ugly modernist sculpture out front, accompanied by Communist slogans that are supposed to generate and image of modernity.

Most Chinese cities are ugly, and people complain they all look alike and have very little to offer. Many are dominated by blocky cement buildings, crumbling apartments, dilapidated factories and pollution-belching smokestacks. Exposed power lines are piled on top of one another. The air is chocked with dust and dirt from construction projects.

China has a makeshift impermanence to it. Zoning rules and centralized planning seems non-existent. There are few parks, and typically they have few trees and look filthy and run down. Sidewalks start and stop, stairways are steep, buildings are often thrown up in a very haphazard manner, and beauty parlors and shops are often found in houses in residential districts.

A typical Chinese city has wide roads, cycle lanes, several universities, a number of technical institutes, hospitals and a medical school. Even mid-size cities have several million people, a skyline, an airport expressway, a large wall-off industrial zone and fancy condominiums.

City Neighborhoods in China

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Shanghai neighborhood

“Hutongs” are the mazelike, old neighborhoods in Beijing made up of traditional quadrangle courtyard homes lined up along on narrow streets and alleys and often built in accordance with the principals of feng shui. In the pre-Mao-era, many residences were occupied by single extended family units and had spacious open air courtyards. But after Communists came to power the houses were divided and occupied by several families and the courtyards were filled with shanties. In many cases a house occupied by one family was occupies six or seven. The term "hutong" is derived from the Mongolian term for a passageway between yurts (tents). It refers to both the traditional winding lanes and the traditional old city neighborhoods.

Hutongs are comprised mostly of alleys with no names that often twist and turn with no apparent rhyme or reason. They are fun to get lost in but near impossible to find anything in. The houses lie mostly behind gray brick walls and are unified into neighborhoods by public toilets and entranceways that people share. Heating is often provided by smoky coal fires that occasionally asphyxiate house occupants. Public toilets and showers are sometimes hundreds of meters away from where individuals live.


Many of the alleys are too narrow for cars and the commercial buildings are too small for anything larger than family-owned shops. Next to small parks or standing alone are exercise stations with bars and pendulums and hoops and things like that, where older people like to gather and hang out and occasionally do a couple of exercises. In the morning residents scamper with their chamber pots to the public toilets. Vendors arrive mid morning with their three-wheeled carts, each crying the product or service the are selling: toilet paper, coal, recycling or knife-sharpening

In Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere, old homes, old building and entire old tightly-knit neighborhoods have been torn down to may way for skyscrapers, offices complexes, shopping malls and other forms of modern development. Tens of thousands of urban residents have been forced to move or have been evicted.

Urban Development in China

In China, there are surprising number of garish, over the top apartment buildings, office buildings, shopping areas and even industrial parks. In some places pink, rose, tangerine and even magenta buildings have become very popular. Lotus-blossom-shaped rooftops and the prolific use of reflective and tinted glass are also in vogue. The problem is especially acute in southeast China, with a particularly high concentration of pink building in the city of Zhongshan, where many ugly building can not find renters.

Another trend is to copy foreign designs or hire foreign architects who make a quick buck on slap dash designs. In the worst case the architect designs a flashy facade and behind it is an unsafe building lacking adequate escape routes. Almost as bad is when developers pick the flashier aspects of a design and ignore or minimize everything else. Many respected foreign architects who have worked in China have horror stories of how their designs have been bastardized.

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Plastic palm trees

There is lot of pressure to do projects as quickly and cheaply as possible. There are also numerous ill-conceived projects in China. Many developers make big money by pocketing part of the projects construction cots, guiding contracts to construction companies in which they have stake.

Image Sources: CNTO and Xinhua

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2011

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