Chinese Architecture (1)


The Chinese word for ¡°palace¡± is gong which, however, may refer to anyone of several different things.

In the earliest Chinese writings it meant no more than an ordinary house. After the founding of the Qin Dynasty (221¡ª206 B.C.), gong came gradually to mean the group of buildings in which the emperor lived and worked. From about the same time, the Chinese palace grew ever larger in scale. The Efanggong (or Epanggong, according to the purists) of the First Emperor of Qin, according to an authoritative source, measured ¡°5 li ( 2.5 km ) from east to west and 1,000 paces from north and south.¡± The Weiyanggong of the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.¡ª 25 A .D.) had, within a periphery of 11 km , as man as 43 halls and terraces. The Forbidden City of Beijing, which still stands intact and which served as the imperial palace for both Ming and Qing emperor (1368¡ª1911), covers an area of 72,000 square meters and embraces many halls, towers, pavilions and studies, measured as 9,900 bays. It is one of the greatest palaces still existing in the world. In short, the gong grew into a veritable city and is often called gongcheng (palace city).

Apart from the palace, other abodes of the emperor are also called gong. So, the Yiheyuan park used to be the Summer Palace ; the Mountain Resort at Chengde and the Huaqingchi thermal spa near Xi'an were both xinggong or ¡°palace-on-tour¡±. Then there is another type of gong called zhaigong , where the emperor prepared himself with ablution and abstinence before he offered sacrifice at a grand ceremony. There is one such zhaigong on the grounds of Beijing 's Temple of Heaven .

Inside a great gong, certain individual buildings may also be called gong. The Qing emperors used to live at Qianqinggong ( Palace of Heavenly Purity ) in the Forbidden City, where the living quarters of the empresses were at Kunninggong ( Palace of Female Tranquility ). The imperial concubines of various ranks inhabited the six gong or palace quadrangles on either side of the central axis of the Forbidden City . When the monarchs or their spouses died, they were buried in digong (underground palace).

The name gong is also used for religious buildings of great dimensions. The Potala in Lhasa is a gong to the Chinese; the lama temple of Beijing

is Yonghegong . The temples of Taoist priests are generally called Sanqinggogn (palace of triple purity).

For thousands of years in old China , the word gong was reserved exclusively for naming imperial and religious buildings. With the passage of time and political changes, many of the old gong have been opened to the general public for sightseeing. Furthermore, a number of buildings have been named gong or palace. For instance, Taimiao or the Imperial ancestral Temple in Beijing has been renamed the ¡°Working People's Palace of Culture ¡±. On West China'an Jie, a comparatively new building serves as the ¡°Cultural Palace of National Minorities¡±. Similar gong or palaces have been built in many cities of the country for the cultural, scientific and recreational activities respectively for workers, youth and children.


The dian is the largest single building in traditional Chinese architecture and is generally referred to as dadian (grand hall). It is also called zhengdian (central hall) as it is invariably built on the axis of an architectural complex.

Corresponding to the rigid ranking system of feudal times, there were strict regulations about the building of palace halls. The dadian was the grandest of all buildings, being symbolic of the supreme power of the emperor.

The most famous Chinese dian are three: Taihedian or the Hall of Supreme Harmony in Beijing 's Forbidden City, Dachengdian or the Great Hall in the Confucius Temple of Qufu, and Tiankuangdian or the Hall of Celestial Gift in the Daimiao Temple at the foot of Mt. Taishan . Of the three, the Hall of Supreme Harmony in Beijing is the greatest and most splendid. It measures 28 meters high, 11 bays wide and 5 bays deep, totaling 55 bays. Its double-eaved, four-sloped root is covered with yellow glazed titles. From each end of the main ridge, which is straight and level, fork down two corner ridges, which curve slightly and turn up at the lower corners, presenting a beautiful skyline. All the ridges are decorated with wenshou or zoomorphic ornaments, adding a mystic flavor to grandeur.

At the centre of the ornate interior, the emperor's throne, gilded in gold and carved with dragons, stands on a platform flanked by six huge columns also entwined with gilded dragons. The caisson ceiling high above carries a dragon carved in relief playing with pearls and has a big glass-ball mirror hanging down from the centre.

Taihedian is the main hall of the palace, where grand ceremonies took place and important edicts were read and issued during the days of the emperors. It represents the most sumptuous example of the traditional art of Chinese architecture.

Other halls deserving to be called dian were mostly buildings where imperial sacrifices took place. Tiankuangdian , mentioned before, was the hall in which the emperors worshipped the God of Mt. Taishan. Qinandian in Beijing 's Temple of Heaven , famous for its unique structure, was where the emperors prayed for good harvest and has been known as the ¡°Hall of Prayer¡± among Westerns. For the worship of their ancestors, the emperors used to got to a great hall in Taimiao, the Imperial Family Temple lying to the east to Tian'an men Gate.

The above examples suffice to show that the name dian or dadian was reserved only for certain buildings related to the supreme ruler.

Ornamental Pillar

A well-known architectural ornament in China is the huabiao , often seen on the grounds of palace, imperial gardens and mausoleums. It is also seen at some crossroad to mark the thoroughfares.

There is a pair of such ornamental pillars carved out of marble standing in front and behind Tian'anmen, the gate of Heavenly Peace, at the centre of Beijing . Each pillar, entwined by a divine dragon engraved in relief, carries a plate on top, on which squats an animal called kong. This creature in Chinese mythology is supposed to be born of the dragon and good at keeping watch. It is generally referred to as the ¡°stone lion¡±. The four kong at Tian'anmen have different names, the two in front facing south and with their backs to the wall are called wangjungui or ¡°looking out for the emperor's return¡±. Their duty, it is said, was to watch over the emperor's excursions and call him back if he was too long absent from the palace. The couple inside the gate facing north are called wangjungchu or ¡°looking out for the emperor's progress¡±, and their job was to supervise how the emperor behaved in the imperial palace. If he should indulge himself and neglect court affairs, the stone lions would remind him of his duties and tell him it was time to go out among the people.

These popular explanations reflected the native wishes of the people for an emperor who would listen to advice and work really for their good.

The huabiao has a long history behind it and can be traced back to Yao and Shun, legendary sage kings in remote times. To solicit public criticism, it is said, they erected wooden crosses at marketplaces so that the people might write their complains and wishes on them. These wooden posts were replaced during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.¡ª 220 A .D.) by stone pillars, which grew more and more decorative and ornately carved until they became the sumptuous columns to palace gates.

Screen Wall

Foreign visitors may have noticed the isolated wall either outside or just inside the gate of a traditional Chinese house to shield the rooms from outsider's view. Known as a ¡°screen wall¡± in English, it is called yinbi or zhaobi in Chinese. It can be made of any material---brick, wood, stone or glazed tile.

The yingbi dates back at least to the Western Zhou Dynasty (11century B.C.¡ª771 B.C.). archaeologists have discovered in recent years from tombs of that period in Shanxi Province what remains of a screen wall. It measures 240 cm long and 20 cm high. This is the earliest known wall of its kind in China at the time of writing.

In ancient times, the yingbi was a symbol of rank. According to the Western Zhou system of rites, only royal palaces, noblemen's mansions and religious temples could have a screen wall. Apart from keeping passers-by from peeping into the courtyard, the screen wall could also be used by the visitor, who would get off from his carriage and, standing behind the wall, tidy up his dress before going in. It was not until much later that private houses (mainly the quadrangles of bungalows in the northern parts of the country) began to have screen walls.

The most exquisite of all ancient screen walls are three ¡°nine-dragon walls¡± built of glazed color tiles. The largest of these, 45.5m X 8m X 2.02m , is now in the city of Datong , Shanxi Province . It originally stood in front of the princely mansion of the thirteen son of Zhu Yuanzhang, first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Sculpted on it in seven different colors are nine dragons flying in clouds. The most splendid of the tree is the one which belonged to a palace of the Ming Dynasty and now stands north of the lake in Beijing 's Beihai Park . It is a mosaic of glazed color tiles showing on each side nine curly dragons in relief. An observant visitor could also count 635 dragons of smaller sizes on the ridges and roof tiles of the wall. The third of these walls stands opposite the gate Huanjimen in the Forbidden City and is well-known to sightseers. All the three mentioned above were built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and all used to stand in front of the entrance to a courtyard, making a component part of the architectural complex and adding to the magnificence of the buildings.

Besides these, there are also screen walls with one, three or five dragons to be seen in different parts of the country.

There is screen wall in each of the side palace courtyards of the Forbidden City . Whether made of wood, carved out of marble or built with glazed tiles, it is invariably a fine piece of work with designs symbolic of good luck.

Certain screen walls found in the eastern provinces of China bear the image of a strange animal called tan, either carved in brick or painted in color. According to local belief, this animal was so greedy that it wanted to devour the rising sun on the sea, meeting its own death by drowning. The picture serves as a reminder that greed leads to self-destruction.

In the vicinity of the Five Dragon Pavilions ( Wulongting ) in the Beihai Park of Beijing, there is a so-called ¡°iron screen wall¡±, relic from the Yuan Dynasty of the thirteen century. At first glance, it appears to have been cast of iron but actually it is a piece of volcanic rock. Carved on it in vivid style are, on one side, lions playing with a ball and, on the other, a legendary unicorn; it is noted for its antiquity and simplicity of execution.

Glazed Tile

The glazed tile, as a high-grade building material in old China , was used exclusively on palace buildings of the imperial house the big mansions of nobles and high officials.

The glaze was normally in one of four colors: yellow, green, blue, and black. Tiles coated with it not only add splendour to the buildings but, in old times, carried a political significance.

Yellow tiles were reserved for use on the roofs of royal palaces, mausoleums, imperial gardens and temples. This , it is said, was because yellow is the color for the Yellow River , once believed to be the cradle of the Chinese civilization. Probably for the same reason the earliest leader of the alliance of the tribes in prehistoric legend was named Huangdi or the Yellow Emperor, whose descendants all Chinese are supposed to be. In the meantime, the ancient believed that the physical universe was composed of five elements---metal, wood, water, fire and earth, and the yellow color represented earth which lay at the centre of the universe. Yellow, therefore, was taken as the cardinal color of the core and became the royal color to be used exclusively by the rules.

It can be seen that the colors of the roof tiles indicated the positions of the people who lived in the house. Even in the same part, as for instance the Summer Palace of Beijing, differently colored tiles were used for different houses. The groups of halls and pavilions used by the monarch and his family, visitors will notice, have yellow roofs whereas the quarters for the court officials have green roofs. As for other structures erected for landscaping or for the accommodation of people without a senior rank, they have as a rule black tiles.

Tiles of yellow glaze, however, also cover certain halls which were not built for the imperial family, as for instance temples dedicated to Confucius and Guan Yu, worshipped for his bravery and loyalty, but this was because they were canonized by emperors of later dynasties as their equals and given posthumous titles as such.

Colors on ancient buildings were not only status indicators but in certain cases carried other implications. One example is Wenyuange, the imperial library in Beijing 's Forbidden City which, amidst many yellow roofs, stands under a roof of black tiles. The reason: books were liable to catch fire, black was supposed to be the color of water, and a black-colored roof would mean ever-ready water to put out fires.

Another example is the building of the Temple of Heaven . They were roofed with blue tiles, for the evidence reason that blue is the color of Heaven.

Incidentally, mention should be made of the red enclosure walls that invariably go with the yellow roofs of imperial palaces. Red has always been the color of happiness and festivity in China ; even today red lanterns and red streamers are still dominant features on occasions of public enjoyment. Red walls, however, could only be built for palaces and temples and, in combination with the yellow glazed roofs, they were meant to play up the atmosphere of solemnity and happiness.

The number ¡°Nine¡± and Imperial Buildings

It may not be common knowledge among western visitors that the number ¡°nine¡± carried a special significance in old China . Ancient Chinese regarded odd numbers as masculine and even numbers as feminine. ¡°Nine¡±, the largest single digit number, was taken as representing the ¡°ultimate masculine¡± and was, therefore, symbolic of the supreme sovereignty of the emperor. For this reason, the number ¡°nine¡± (or its multiples) is often employed in palace structures and designs. A noticeable example is the number of studs on palace gates. The studs are usually arranged in nine rows of nine each, totaling eighty-one. This is even true of the marble gates of the ¡°underground palace¡± of Dingling Mausoleum in Beijing : 81 studs were carved out of the stone. If the visitors go to the Temple of Guan Yu in Luoyang , he will also find on the red gate nine rows of nine wood studs each. This was because of Guan was given posthumous honours of an emperor.

Ancient palaces generally consisted of nine courtyards or quadrangles; so does the Temple of Confucius in Qufu , Shandong Province---a magnificent architectural complex worthy of an imperial household and testifying to the importance attached to the great sage by the courts of various dynasties.

The buildings of the Forbidden City of Beijing are traditionally measured as having a total floor space of 9,900 bays---some even say 9,999 bays, which may be an exaggeration. The picturesque towers guarding the four corners of the palace compound have each 9 beams and 18 columns, and the three famous screen walls (in Datong and Beijing ---see above article) have nine dragons on each.

The number ¡°nine¡± was sometimes combined with ¡°five¡± to represent imperial majesty. The great hall on Tian'anmen is 9 bays wide by 5 bays deep.

There is a seventeen-arched bridge in the Summer Palace of Beijing. This, too, has much to do with ¡°nine¡±. Count the arches from either end, and you will find that the largest span in the middle is the ninth.

An extreme example of the ¡°game of nine¡± is perhaps the Circular Mound Altar ( Huanqiutan ) in the Temple of Heaven . Site for the Ming and Qing emperors to worship Heaven, the altar is in three tiers. The upper terrace is made up of nine concentric rings of slabs. The first ring or innermost circle consists of nine fan-shaped slabs, the second ring slabs, the third¡­until the last or ninth ring, made up of 81slabs.

The number ¡°nine¡± is not only used on buildings. The New Year dinner for the imperial house was composed of 99 dishes. To celebrate the birthday of an emperor, the stage performances must comprise of 99 numbers as a sign of good luck and long life.

Stone Baluster Head

Important halls, towers and pavilions in the old palaces of China normally stand on terraces. There are bordered with marble balustrades; so are many historic bridges of stone. The upright posts or balusters supporting them, called wangzhu in Chinese, have heads sculpted in the shapes of dragons, phoenixes, lions flames, and so on. They are not only highly ornamental but served to reflect hierarchical ranks.

Dragon-and-phoenix images on baluster heads were exclusive to imperial buildings. These legendary creatures, carved with clouds, are often placed on top of the stone posts around audience halls, palace gates and halls of worship. They are, however, found in the grestest concentration around the group of buildings known as San Da Dian (The Three Great Halls) in Beijing 's Forbidden City . These halls stand majestic on a terrace of three tiers, each of which is surrounded by a white marble balustrade. The 1,460 balusters, viewed from a distance, look like a ¡° Stone Forest ¡± and give the halls an ethereal loftiness. This arrangement is unique to ¡°The Three Great Halls¡± as the site where the emperor held grand ceremonies, received his ministers and issued important edicts. For people of a lesser rank to use this magnificent layout or the dragon-and-phoenix motif would be a crime punishable as high treason.

The differentiation of status is most noticeable on the five bridges spanning the Golden Water River just inside Wumen, the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City . The middle bridge, i.e., the one used by the emperor, has balusters topped with carved dragons and clouds, whereas the other four have on the baluster crowns designs of flames as ornaments and symbols of illumination. For the lesser buildings on the palace grounds, the decorations for stone baluster heads are generally ruyi , pomegranates, lions and others which signify good luck, happiness and longevity.

At the eastern end of the Golden Water River there is a baluster whose head could be used as a siren. Carved in the Qing Dynasty (1616¡ª1911) in the form of fire-flames over a lotus blossom, the post has an opening running from the top to a string of beads under the flower. In case of an emergency, the guard could blow into the top hole and the baluster head would sound warning alarms like a horn.

Stone Lions

In front of the gates of traditional buildings---palace halls, old government offices, mansions and other houses of style---one can still see a pair of lions standing guard. Carved out of stone, they are male and a female, with the male on the left, his right paw resting on a ball, and the lioness on the right, her left paw fonding a cub.

The lion was thought to be the images arch of the animal kingdom, and its images represented august power and formidable prestige to keep all quarters in awful submission. The ball played by the male lion symbolized the unity of the empire, and the cub below the female thriving offspring.

Use of the lions was not the exclusive privilege could also have them in front of the main entrances to their houses, with their ranks indicated by the number of lumps representing the curly hair on the head of the animal. Lions with 13 lumps, the highest number, guarded the houses of officials of the first grade, and the number of these lumps decreased by one as the rank of the officials below the seventh grade, however, were not allowed to have stone lions.

At the dawn of history China had no lions, whose habitat was Africa and West Asia . Official contacts with countries to the west were established after Zhong Qian was dispatched to Central Asia as a special envoy by Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty. In A.D. 87, when Emperor Zhang of the Eastern Han reigned in China , the king of Parthia presented a lion to him: the next year, another was presented to the Chinese court by a Central Asian country known as Yuezhi to ancient China .

The exercise of stone lions may have preceded that of real ones. It is believed that the earliest stone lions were sculpted at the beginning of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25¡ª 220 A .D) with the introduction of Buddhism into China . Sakyamuni (founder of the faith), it is said, was seen after his birth ¡°to point to Heaven with one hand and to Earth with another, roaring like an lion, ¡®Between Heaven and Earth I alone am supreme'.¡± Elsewhere it is also said that ¡°Buddha is a lion among men.¡± Buddhists admiring the lion for its mighty swift made it the mount for the Bodhisattva Manjusri.¡± In short, the lion is regarded in the Buddhist faith as a divine animal of nobleness and dignity, able to keep off evils and protect the Truth.

For the same reason, it was a custom to use figures of the lion to decorate certain structures, especially stone bridges. A most prominent example is the Lugouqiao or Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing . Adorning the heads of its stone balusters are 501 lions of varying sizes and postures.

As further proof of the general liking for the animal, the knobs of seals are often sculpted in the form of lions. Among folk dances, the lion dance which was known as early as the Han Dynasty has remained popular ever since.

Door Studs

The main entrances to ancient palaces, temples and mansions have doors with studs arranged in rows. Like other decoration on traditional buildings, the studs served to indicate ranks in the feudal hierarchy.

Door studs go back a long time in history. To keep off aggression, heavy city gates were built and braced on the surface with iron plates, which were fastened on by means of studs. This system lasted for thousands of years.

The door studs on the gate of the Forbidden City were made of brass and plated with gold. Lustrous, they add to the splendour and magnificence of the imperial palace. All the gates used by the emperor have 81 studs, as the number nine represented the supremacy of the monarch. Other titled personages, princes and barons had fewer studs on the their gates, such as 9 rows 7 each, 7 X 7, those who had lower ranks had studs made of iron.

An interesting question arises with regard to the Donghuamen gate of the Forbidden City which, unlike the other principal entrance, have 72 studs instead of the usual 81. The explanation lies in a historic event. At the end of the Ming Dynasty, the capital fell to Li Zichang leader of a famous peasant revolt in 1644. and it was by Donghuamen that Chongzhen the last Ming emperor left the palace and then hanged himself at Jingshan (Hill of Prospect, popularly known as Goal Hill). The Qing house which replaced the Ming regarded Donghuamen as inauspicious, decided to use it for the exit of imperial hearses and cut down the number of its studs at the same time.

Knocker Base

The two-leafed gate of a traditional Chinese house has a pair of ring knockers, whose base, called pushou , serves also a decorative purpose.

The knocker-bases for a private house are fixed only on the outermost, more solidly-built gate. They are normally simple discs made of iron or brass. People who call at the house will tap one of the rings lightly, which will hit the base to produce clear percussions. In answer to the sound, the people of the house will come to open the door to greet the visitor. When the owner of the house goes out he can lock up the gate by fastening the knocker-rings together.

The knocker bases on palace gates, naturally, are much more elaborate. Made of gold-gilded brass, they are in the form of tigers, lions, turtles, snakes or other animals powers or unequalled strength. The consummate art with which they were carved also contribute to the splendour of the edifices.

Pushou first appeared in China during the Han Dynasty (206¡ª 220 A .D.) and have a had a history of 2,000 years. Today they still decorate the houses newly built in the countryside, but they are disappearing in cities where modern multistoreyed buildings are being constructed in increasing numbers.

Water Vat

In the courtyards of palaces and imperial gardens water was seen standing not far from the main buildings. In their time they were filled with water against the emergency of a fire. In winter they were covered and wrapped around with quilts and, when necessary, heated from below with charcoal to prevent the water from freezing. There were in the old days 308 such vats in the Forbidden City of Beijing; now only a little over 200 are counted.

The water vats were not only fire-fighting installations but part of the adornments that made up imperial magnificence. In the Ming Dynasty (1368¡ª1644) they were mostly made of iron or bronze, but they became much more elaborate and finely made in the Qing (1644¡ª1911), being of gold-plated brass and adorned with rings and side knobs in the form of animal heads.

These water vats fall into different grades. Flanking the front of such important halls as Taihedian (Hall of Supreme Harmony) and Qianqingmen (Gate of Heavenly Purity) are huge vats, each weighing 3,392 kilograms and measuring 1.6 meters in diameter. Near less important buildings, the vat weights 2,166 kilograms and measures 1.28 meters. Still less important pavilions and towers have iron or bronze vats of yet smaller sizes.

Visitors to the old imperial palace today can no longer see the gold-plated brass vats as they were in their time. This is because the gold plate was scraped off with bayonets by troops of the Eight-power Allied Force which invaded China in 1900.

Dougong Brackets

The Dougong is a system of brackets unique to traditional Chinese architecture. These brackets, arranged like baskets of flowers, are set under the overhanging eaves, adding to the sumptuous magnificence of the buildings.

Thanks to them the ancient Chinese edifices are so graceful with their upturned eaves and at the same time so well constructed and enduring.

The dougon g bracket is a structural member found between the top of a column and a cross beam. Each is formed of a double bow-shaped arm (gong), which supports a block of wood ( dou ) on each side. Fixed layer upon layer, the arrangements bear the load of the roof. Owing to hierarchical restrictions in feudal society, the dougong structure can be found only in the most magnificent buildings such as palace and temple halls. The number of layers of these bracket structures also depended on the importance of the buildings.

The dougong is measure in ¡°piles¡± which vary greatly in their complexity of structure, from those composed of 106 parts to the most simply made up of five. The number of ¡°tiers¡± also vary in each ¡°pile¡±. To take the double-eaved Taihedian, the buildings of the highest grade I the country, as an example. Its lower eaves are supported by dougong brackets of 7 tiers, whereas the higher eaves, 9 tiers. The number of tiers, normally 9,7,5 or 3, also represents the extent to which the eaves protrude.

From the point of view of structural mechanics, the dougong structure is highly resistant to earthquakes. It could hold the wood structure together even though brick walls would collapse in the same earthquake. This helped so many ancient buildings to stand intact for hundreds of years.

Caisson Ceiling

Visitors to an ancient Chinese palace hall often have their attention drawn to the centre of the ceiling. The zaojing or caisson ceiling is distinctive feature of classical Chinese architecture, if not unique to it. It is usually in the form of a sunken coffer bordered in a square, a polygon or a circle, decorated with elaborately carved or painted designs. This architectural decoration dates a long way back for it has been found in tombs of the Han Dynasty 2,000 years ago.

One of the most magnificent zaojing is that of Taihedian (Hall of Supreme Harmony) in the old palace of Beijing . Carved and built with consummate skills, its splendour has remained undiminished by time. The caisson consists of three parts of different depths. The central or deepest part is the round ¡°well (jing )¡±, and the middle part is the octagonal ¡°well¡±, and the outermost part, coming down to the same level as the rest of the ceiling, is a square. The whole design symbolizes the ancient Chinese belief that ¡°Heaven is above and the Earth below¡± and that ¡°Heaven is round and the Earth square.¡± Dominating the centre of the caisson is a coiled dragon looking down into the hall and holding suspended in its mouth a huge silver-white pearl. It vies for glamour with the gilded dragons on the columns, giving the throne hall a colorful yet solem nobility not to be found elsewhere.

¡°Gold Bricks¡±

Palace halls and courts have been paved with bricks for 2,000 years since the Spring and Autumn Period, and this has become a distinctive feature of classical architecture. Today one can see brick-paved floor and grounds in the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace , the Ming Tombs and similar places elsewhere. The bricks so used are called jinzhuan (¡°gold bricks¡±).

Naturally not made of real gold, they are so-called because, when knocked, they produce a metallic sound. Another explanation for the name is that they were officially called during the Ming and the Qing dynasties jingzhuan (capital bricks) because bricks of this quality were meant only for the imperial house in the capital, in time, jingzhuan came to be known as jinzhuan or gold bricks. Whatever the reason for the unusual name, they did involve great costs and difficult skills to make and in this sense, the name might not be a great exaggeration.

The area around Suzhou used to be the home of these ¡°gold bricks¡±. Lying close to the Grand Canal , it abounds in a kind of fine clay most suitable as the material for compact bricks. To make those meant for the palace buildings, a strict procedure of manufacture must be adhered to. It included selecting the caly, pugging, setting, moulding, drying in the shade and, finally, firing in the kiln. This last process was the most complicated one. According to The Illustrated Book on the Selection of Bricks, a Ming Dynasty (1368¡ª1644) work, (The unburnt bricks) after being put in the kiln, are smoked with smouldering husks for a month, burnt with fire-wood chips for another month, with twigs for a third month and with pine branches for yet another 40 days---totalling 130 days---before they are left to cool down and taken out of the kiln. The cost of a ¡°gold bricks¡± made this way was 0.96 taels of silver, enough to buy in those days one dan of rice. Another source says that, during the reign of the Ming emperor Jiajing, three years were spent to produce 50,000 bricks of this quality, averaging only 5 bricks per day. All finished ¡°gold bricks¡± were shipped to the capital by the Hangzhou ¡ªBeijing Grand Canal.

The laying of the bricks, like their manufacture, must follow strict prescriptions. A bricklayer assisted by two helpers could only lay five in a day. Every piece must be ground and polished on site in such a way that, when paved, they fitted perfectly with other pieces, leaving no crevices. The bricks must also be soaked with raw tung oil so that they became lustrously dark like black jade.

Worn by several hundred years of time and trodden during the last decades by millions upon millions of sightseers, these bricks have largely remained intact, thanks to their rock-like hardness. Now they are from time to time popped with a kind of high-quality vegetable oil to get a new layer of protection.

Patterned Footpaths

on a stroll through a Chinese garden or park, one often finds oneself walking on footpaths of colored pebbles arranged in pattern¡ªa feature of Chinese landscape gardening.

These patterned paths are not designed by architects, but made by artisans from beginning to end. The paving of pebbles is a complicated job calling for skill and experience. First, lime mortar is spread out as the foundation layer, then the designs are outlined by means of plain and roofing tiles set in the mortar. On this is spread a special putty made of lime, wheat flour and tung oil, on which again are fixed the pebbles of various natural color¡ªgreen ones for plant leaves, black ones for animal's eyes, and so on. And the designs include all the usual subjects of traditional Chinese painting: landscapes, figures, flowers, birds, historical and popular legends.

The best of patterned footpaths in China are found in the Imperial Garden in the rear of the Forbidden City . The colored pebbles there make up pictures under such familiar titles as ¡°Magpie Announcing the Spring¡±, ¡°Dragon and Phoenix¡±, ¡°Crane in Clouds¡±, ¡°GuanGong Felling an Enemy¡±, ¡°Two Greybeards Watching a Game of Chess¡± and so forth, which symbolize good luck, victory, longevity and the like.

On the whole, patterned paths are found more often in parks and private gardens in the southern provinces than in the north. Prominent in this respect are the gardens in Suzhou , where the designs on pebbled paths display a wide range of subjects. Some are just geometric patterns, for instance a square inside a circle like an ancient copper coin, signifying the old belief that ¡°heaven is round and earth square¡±. Others are in the forms of bats and cranes, Chinese symbols for good fortune and long life. Still others are patterned after the fishing net, expressing perhaps the general wish for affluent abundance.

Zoomorphic Ornaments

Chinese palaces, temples and mansions have on their roofs a special kind of ornaments called wenshou or zoomorphic ornaments, some on the main ridges and some on the sloping and branch ridges.

The monstrous thing at either end of the main ridge, called chiwen , appears roughly like the tail of a fish. Fierce and formidable, it looks as if it were ready to devour the whole ridge; so it is also known as tunjishou or the ridge-devouring beast. It is, according to Chinese mythology, one of the sons of the Dragon King who rules and seas. It is said to be able to stir up waves and change them into rains. So ancient Chinese put a chiwen at either end of the main ridge for its magic powers to conjure up a downpour to put out any fire that might break out. But for fear htat it might gobble up the ridge, they transfixed it on the roof with a sword.

At the end of the sloping and branch ridges there are often a string of smaller animals ,their sixes and numbers being decided by the status of the owner of the building in the feudal hierarchy .

The largest number of zoomorphic or naments is found on the Taihedian Throne Hall or the Hall of Supreme Harmony of the Forbidden City .Leading the flock is a god riding a phoenix, after whom come a dragon ,a phoenix, a lion ,a heavenly horse ,a sea horse and five other my thological animals ,all called by unusual names .Quanqinggong (the Palace of Heacenly Purity),which the emperor used as his living quarters and his office for handling daily affairs, being next in status to Taihedian , has a band of nine animal figures. Still next in importance is Kunninggong (the Palace of Female Tranpuility ), which served as the empress's apartments; it has a group of seven zoomorphic figures. This number is further reduced to five for the twelve halls in side courtyards, that used to house the imperial concubines of different grades. Some of the side halls have only one animal figure each on their roofs.

These small animals were also believed to be capable of putting out fires. While this can be easily dismissed as superstition, they do add to the grandeur and magnificence of the imperial buildings.

The earliest ridge animals so far discovered in the country come to light in 1960 in a suburban area of Shashi , Hubei Province. On the interior wall of a roll tile which served as the body of a ridge animal figure was engraved ¡°first year of Yuanguang¡±, which means the year 134 B.C. It can be seen that installing animal figures on roof-ridges has been an established practice for at least 2,100 years.

Roof Crown

One of the structural members of traditional Chinese architecture, the baoding (literally, ¡°treasure top¡±) stands at the centre on the top of certain types of pavilions, pagodas and towers which have no horizontal main ridges. Normally made of glazed tile, it may be in one of several forms ( a gourd-shape bottle, a vase, a pagoda, ect.), often surrounded by bas-relief carvings of dragons, phoenixes, peonies and the like.

The roof crown is not only an ornament at the top of a building but helps to reinforce the roof itself. Buildings on which baoding crowns are found are all constructed according to a traditional method by which the wooden parts of the roof structure go upward and gradually gather together at the top of a king post in the middle. The king post keeps the roof structure securely balanced rather like the stick of a parasol holding the ribs of its frame together. To give additional strength to the structure, ancient Chinese used glazed material for the crown to protect the king post from weathering and erosion. As the top of a building is most vulnerable to lightning, the king post was named in old times leigongszhu (post of the God of Thunder) in the hope that thunderbolts might keep away.

Many ancient buildings of this type, thanks to the king posts and roof crowns have stood innumerable tests including storms and earthquakes over the ages and remained intact down to this day.

Zhonghedian (Hall of Complete Harmony) and Jiaotaidian (Hall of Union and Peace) in the Forbidden City (where the Ming and Qing emperor handled state affairs) have roof crowns completely gilded with gold, in harmony with the sumptuous surroundings and setting them apart form the red-or green-glazed crowns of lesser buildings.


A common sight in the country, the Chinese pavilion (ting, which means also a kiosk) is built normally either of wood or stone or bamboo and may be in any of several plan figures---square, triangle, hexagon, octagon, a five-petal flower, a fan and what not. But all pavilions described as ting have this in common: they have columns to support the roof, but no walls. In parks or at scenic spots, pavilions are built on slopes to command the panorama or on lakeside to create intriguing images in the water. They are not only part f the landscape but also belvederes from which to enjoy it.

Pavilions also serve diverse purposes. The wayside pavilion is called liangting (cooling kiosk) to provide weary wayfarers with a place for a rest and a shelter in summer from the sun. The ¡°stele pavilion¡± gives a roof to a stone tablet to protect the engraved record of an important event. Pavilions also stand on some bridges or over water-wells. In the latter case, dormer windows are built to allow the sun to cast its rays into the wells, as it has been the belief that water untouched by the sun would cause diseases. Occasionally one finds two pavilions stand side by side like twins. In modern times, kiosks (also called ting in Chinese) have been erected in urban areas as postal stalls, newsstands or photographers' sheds for snapshot services.

Rare among pavilions are those built of bronze. The most celebrated of these is Baoyunge (Pavilion of Precious Clouds) in Beijing 's Summer Palace . The entire structure including its roof and columns is cast in bronze. Metallic blue in color, it is 7.5 meters tall and weighs 207 tons. Elegant and dignified, it is popularly known as the ¡°Gold Pavilion¡±.

The largest pavilion in China is also in the Summer Palace . The ancient building, named Kuoruting (the Pavilion of Expanse), has a floor space of 130 square meters. Its roof, converging in a crown on top and resting on three things of columns (24 round ones and 16 square ones), is octagonal in form and has two eaves. With all its woodwork colorfully painted, the well in harmony with the surrounding open landscape.

¡°Flowing-Cup Pavilion¡±

This is a pavilion which used to serve as place of recreation for men of letters. In the stone floor is cut a winding ditch to which water from a spring is channeled. Participants to the ¡°flowing-cup¡± game would in turn fill a cup with liquor and set it ¡°sailing¡± down the mini-canal. The man whose cup reached the end of the ditch without spilling would be a winner. On the other hand, a loser would be made to drink or compose a poem as a forfeit.

The game, according to another source, could be played in a different way. Players took their respective positions along the ditch. He, in front of whom the cup stopped, would be made to drink or chant a poem of his composition.

Emperor Qianlong (1711¡ª1799), it is said, was a great enthusiast for this game. The ¡°Flowing-up pavilion¡± built for the emperor still stand today in the Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City . Another pavilion of this type in Beijing is found at Tanzhe Temple . Although a poem (praising the pleasures of the game), ¡°especially on a rainy day when there is little else to entertain the visitors with¡±) is still intact on its columns, yet, alas! There is now neither flowing water nor cup. If the pastime should be revived with some modern variations---beer, lemonade or tea instead of spirits, singing or telling a joke as the forfeit if the players are not poets---it would certainly arouse considerable interest.

Another famous ¡°flowing-cup pavilion¡± is Lanting (Orchid Pavilion) in Shaoxing , Zhejiang Province, which was a favorite resort of the great 4 th -century calligrapher Wang Xizhi (321¡ª379) and his friends, who used to gather there for the game and poem recitals. The little stream which carried the sailing cup is still there to greet modern admirers.


The tai was an ancient architectural structure, a very much elevated terrace with a flat top. Generally built of earth and stone and surfaced with brick, it was used as a belvedere from which to look into the distance. In fact, however, many a well-known ancient tai as we know it today is not just a bare platform but has some palatial halls built on top.

A good example in hand is the Round City of the Beihai Park in Beijing . A terrace five meters high, it has, on its top space of 4,500 square meters, a main hall with side corridors.

The tai could be built to serve different practical purposes. It could be used as an observatory, as for instance the one near Jianguomen in Beijing which, with its brass astronomical instruments, dates to the Ming and Qing dynasties. It could also be used militarily, like the beacon towers along the Great Wall, to transmit urgent information with smoke by day and fire by night. Also on the Great Wall, there is a square tai at intervals of every 300 to 400 kept watch. On the track of the ancient Silk Road can still be seen, here and there, ruins of the old defence fortifications in the form of earthen terraces.

back to home

About Us Contact Us Terms of Use Privacy Policy

Copyright © 2013,, LLP. All Rights Reserved.