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Types of Chinese Architectures

With thousands of year’s history, China made great devotion to world architecture. She owns some classic types of buildings.

Palace (Chinese: 宫)

Gong is a word for “palace” in Chinese. Totally different with the religious architectures of western countries, gong is the greatest achievement of Chinese architecture. At the beginning, gong is a multifunctional place used for leader’s residence, meeting place and sacrifice place, then developed to the place only for emperor and queen’s living. The location of gong is always located at the center of the city. Axisymmetric structure is the most important features.

The Forbidden City of Beijing, which still stands intact and which served as the imperial palace for both Ming and Qing emperors (1368-1911) covers an area of 720,000 square meters and embraces many halls, towers, pavilions and studies measured as 9,900 bays. It is one of the greatest palaces of the world. In short, palaces grew into a veritable city and are often called Gongcheng (palace city).

Apart from the palace, other abodes of the emperor are also called Gong. The Yiheynan Park used to be the Summer Palace. Then there is another type of Gong called Zhaigong, where the emperor prepared himself abstinence before he offered sacrifice at grand ceremonies. There is one such Zhaigong on the grounds of Beijing's Temple of Heaven.

Inside a great number of Gongs, certain individual buildings may also be called Gong. The Qing emperors used to live at Qianqinggong (Palace of Heavenly Purity) in the Forbidden City, whereas the living quarters of the empresses were at Kunninggong (Palace of Female Tranquility). The imperial concubines of various ranks inhabited the six Gongs or palace quadrangles on either side of the central axis of the Forbidden City.

The name Gong is also used for religious buildings of great dimensions. The Potala in Lhasa is a Gong to the Chinese; the lame temple of Beijing is Yonghegong. The temples of Taoist priests are generally called Sanginggong (palace of triple purity).

Chinese palace

For thousands of years, the word Gong was reserved exclusively for naming imperial and religious buildings. With the passage of time and political changes, many of the old Gongs have been opened to the general public for sightseeing. Furthermore, a number of buildings have been named Gong or palace. For instance, Taimiao of the Imperial Ancestral Temple in Beijing has been renamed the "Working People's Palace of Culture". Similar Gongs or palaces have been built in many cities of the country for the cultural, scientific and recreational activities respectively for workers and children.

Pavilion (Chinese: 亭)

The Chinese pavilion (ting, which also means a kiosk), a common sight in China. It’s one of the most important roles in Chinese ancient architecture. It’s no exaggeration to say that where there is a garden, there is a pavilion in China. It is built normally either of wood or stone or bamboo with any of several shapes - square, triangle, hexagon, octagon, a five-petal flower, a fan and more. But all pavilions have columns for support without walls. In parks or some scenic places, pavilions are built on slopes to command the panorama or are built by the lakeside to create intriguing images by water.

Pavilions also serve diverse purposes. The wayside pavilion is called Liangting (cooling kiosk) to provide weary wayfarers with a place for rest. The "stele pavilion" gives a roof to a stone tablet to protect the engraved record of an important event. Pavilions also stand by bridges or over water-wells. In the latter case, dormer windows are built to allow the sun to cast its rays into the well as it has been the belief that water untouched by the sun would cause disease. Occasionally you will find two pavilions standing side by side like twins. In modern times, kiosks 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. It is popularly known as the "Gold Pavilion” for its elegant and dignified.

Terrace (Chinese: 台)

The Tai was an ancient architectural structure, an elevated terrace with a flat top. In most cases be built of earth, stone and surfaced with brick, they are used as a belvedere from which to look into the distance. In fact, however, many well-known ancient Tai today are not just a bare platform but has some palatial halls built on top. A typical example is the Round City of the Beihai Park in Beijing. As a terrace five meters high, it has an area of 4, 500 square meters on its top and a main hall with side corridors.
Chinese architecture

The Tai could be built to serve different practical purposes. For example, Jianguomen in Beijing which dates back to the Ming and Qing dynasties is an observatory. It could also be used for military purposes like the beacon towers along the Great Wall, to transmit urgent information with smoke by day and fire by night in emergency. Also on the Great Wall, there is a square Tai at intervals of every 300 to 400 meters from which the garrison troops kept watch.

Storeyed Building (Chinese: 楼)

When the Chinese people speak of a Lou, they refer to any building of two or more storeys with a horizontal main ridge. The erection of such buildings began a long time ago in the Period of the Warring States (475-221 BC), when Chonglou ("layered houses") was mentioned in historical records.

Ancient buildings with more than one storey were meant for a variety of uses. The smaller two-storeyed buildings of private homes generally have the owner's study or bedroom upstairs. The more magnificent ones built in parks or at scenic spots were belvederes from which to enjoy the distant scenery. In this case, it is sometimes translated as a "tower". A Tang Dynasty poet upon his visit to a famous riverside tower composed a poem, two lines of which are still frequently quoted "To look far into the distance, go up yet one more storey".

Yellow Crane Tower

Ancient cities had bell and drum towers (zhonglou and gulou), usually palatial buildings with four-sloped, double-caved, glazed roofs, all-around verandas and coloured and carved dougong brackets supporting the overhanging eaves. They housed a big bell or drum which was used to toll hours and the local officials would open the city gates at the toll of the bell early in the morning and close them with the strike of the drum in the evening.

The art of constructing tall buildings was already highly developed in China during ancient times. Many multiple-storeyed towers of complex structure had wholly wood frameworks fixed together with dougong brackets without the use of a single piece of metal. Yueyang Tower in Hunan and Huanghelou (Tower of the Yellow Crane) in Wuchang are masterpieces among ancient towers.

Storeyed Pavilion (Chinese: 阁)

The Chinese Ge is similar to the Lou in that both are of two or more storey buildings. The difference between them is that the Ge has a door and windows only on the front side with the other three sides being solid walls. Moreover, Ge is usually enclosed by wooden balustrades or decorated with boards all around. Nanchang Tengwang Pavilion is one of the representive of such a pavilion architecture art.

Such storeyed pavilions were used in ancient times for the storage of important articles and documents. Take Wenyuange as an example, in the Forbidden City of Beijing was in effect the imperial library. Kuiwenge in the Confucius Temple of Qufu, was devoted to the safekeeping of the books and works of painting and calligraphy bestowed by the courts of various dynasties. Some of the Ge, notably those erected in parks, like other pavilions or towers (ting, tai and lou), were used for enjoying the sights.

Storeyed Pavilion

The name Ge is also used to describe the towers which shelter the colossal statues one finds in some great monasteries. A prominent example is the Guanyinge of Dulesi Temple in Jixian County of Hebei Province. Twenty-three meters high and housing the huge idol of the Goddess of Mercy (Guanyin), it is the oldest exitsing multiple-storeyed structure of its kind in China. Built in the Liao Dynasty (916 - 1125 A. D.), it has withstood twenty-eight earthquakes including three of a devastating nature. When all the houses in the area collapsed, it was the only one that survived the disaster. This example shows how well its wooden frame was structured. Other well-known religious buildings housing Buddhist statues, big or small, include Foxiangge in Beijing's Summer Palace and Zhenwuge in Ronxian of Guangdong Province. All of them, tall, graceful and dignified, can be listed as representative works of classical Chinese architecture.

Pagoda (Chinese: 塔)

Pagoda is a common oriental traditional building with specific form and style, and it’s easy to be seen in most of Asian countries. Pagoda is always used as a place collecting sarira, Buddha, Buddhist Scriptures, etc. it’s a kind of building having ties to Buddhism. Buddhism came to China during the Eastern or Later Han period. The oldest monastery (siyuan) on Chinese ground is the White Horse Monastery (Baimasi) in Luoyang. A pagoda can also be seen as a symbol for a monastery. By the way, the word "pagoda" derives from the Sanskrit word bhagavat (cf. the book Bhagavad-Gita) "holy". Xian Wild Goose Pagoda, Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple in Dali are among those most famous buildings in China and are representers of such an architecture art.

The typical Chinese pagoda like we know it has nothing in common with the old Indian stupa and seems to be very different from the buildings of southern Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka (former Ceylon; chedi), Myanmar (former Burma), Thailand, Laos and Cambodia (all three countries adopting the Khmer style prang pagoda). But if we have a closer look at the shapes and appearances of the Chinese pagodas in earlier ages, we can find traces that can lead back to the Indian origin also of the typical octagonal and straight Chinese pagoda with the curved roofs. It reflects a pagoda of Bodhgaya, an important location of Buddhist worship in India, by which we can see some typical features of a pagoda or stupa: the tower is multi-storied and more or less decorated on the surface and tapers from bottom to top. The top is crowned with something that looks like a flower bud, in Buddhism an expression for the lotus flower.

Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian

In other cases, the construction at the top is an honorific umbrella with up to ten layers. Around the main tower we find small miniature pagodas, ranging from four to eight, depending on the shape of the whole pagoda complex. Most pagodas contain relics of the Buddha or at least a statue of the Enlightened. The inside of a pagoda may be a dome-like room or can be climbed by stairs to take care for the decorations or the jewels that are fixed atop of the lotus flower bud.

The oldest pagoda still intact on Chinese soil is the pagoda of Songyue Monastery of Dengfeng / Henan at the foothills of the sacred mountain Songshan. It stands near the famous Shaolin Monastery where monks of the Chan School developed Kungfu fighting for mental training. The brick pagoda is 41m high and was erected in 523 under the patronage of the Northern Wei rulers. While the lower parts of the round pagoda are built of twelve flat surfaces symbolizing the twelve causes of sin, the upper part is octagonal and constructed in the shape of 15 steps. The top is crowned by a bud that once was adorned with jewels.