Characteristics of Chinese Architecture

Written by lauren corona
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Characteristics of Chinese Architecture
You can find traditional-style architecture all over China. (Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Traditional Chinese architecture hasn't changed much since the start of the Shang Dynasty, in the 16th century B.C. Several characteristics of that architecture still exist and, they apply to all different types of buildings, whether residential, commercial or religious. Some characteristics have their basis in cultural beliefs. Traditional-style Chinese architecture is still around today, although more Western-influenced structures are being built.


Chinese buildings are often made entirely or mainly from wood. Wood symbolises new life in Chinese culture, so they use it to make homes for the living. Chinese architects use stone, on the other hand, for housing the dead or marking their resting place, in the form of mausoleums and gravestones. The wooden frame of a building holds the whole weight of the structure -- no weight-bearing internal walls -- so that the interior layout can be changed at will.


Because Chinese architects use wood as a primary building material, they have developed a lacquering technique in order to preserve the wood. The lacquer is not only functional but also decorative, and beautiful paintwork has become a memorable characteristic of Chinese architecture. Buildings are normally painted in bright colours. In the past, yellow and green were mainly used in painting palaces as they were seen as the most regal colours. Murals with features such as dragons, phoenixes, birds and landscapes are often painted on buildings.

Layout and Features

In Chinese architecture, buildings are designed symmetrically, with one main structure, or axis, with two wings. Some buildings have a compound at the back, in line with the axis. One of the main features of Chinese buildings is the horizontal axis. The vertical walls aren't particularly emphasised, but a large, wide roof exists, which appears as though floating above the building. On whole, architects see wide buildings as having a greater visual impact.


Pagodas have become an icon of Chinese architecture although relatively rare. The Chinese associate such buildings with Buddhist architecture, and pagodas are one of the only types of Chinese structure that aim for height over width. Older pagodas are usually four-sided, whereas newer ones are eight-sided. Pagodas house relics. Over the years, pagodas have been made from various materials, including wood, stone, iron and bronze, and have become more decorative.

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