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5 Types of Ancient Chinese Architecture — with Famous Examples

Chinese Architecture

Over 3,000 years, varied Chinese architecture has developed, ranging from magnificent imperial palaces to simple religious pagodas. Below is some information about the five types of ancient Chinese architecture.

1. Imperial Palaces

Imperial palaces were originally built to serve the extravagant lifestyles of the emperors, as well as to provide a centralized location for demonstrating imperial political control.

The imperial palaces were built on a grand scale, sparing no expense to display the majesty and dignity of the imperial power of the time.

Each successive emperor contributed grandeur to the structures, and today, these palaces stand for all to enjoy. Each imperial palace is a testament to the history and glory of Chinese culture.

These glorious structures clearly demonstrate the creative essence and traditions of the Chinese people.

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is located in the center of Beijing. The largest ancient palatial architectural structure in the world is now home to the Palace Museum.

Built between 1406 and 1420, the imperial palace is a complex composed of 980 preserved ancient wood and stone buildings.

Now, the Palace Museum houses and displays artwork, treasures, and collectibles from the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644 – 1912) dynasties.

Shenyang Imperial Palace

The Shenyang Imperial Palace, also known as Mukden Palace, was initially constructed in 1625, prior to the establishment of the Qing Dynasty.

Now home to Shenyang Imperial Palace Museum, the palace served as the political capital of the Qing Dynasty prior to the move of central power to Beijing.

With 300 rooms and 20 courtyards, Shenyang Imperial Palace is a sight to behold.

2. Defensive Walls

Many ancient Chinese cities were surrounded by a set of walls. Outside the cities, there were sometimes barrier walls at the kingdom/empire borders. Most of them originally served as defensive fortifications.

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall

The Great Wall is the world's longest ancient architectural structure. It has a winding path over rugged mountains around Beijing and the Mongol border, from a beach in East China to a West China desert corridor between tall mountain ranges.

The original Great Wall had a basic compacted earth and wood construction. However, by the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) the characteristic stonework crenellations and various watchtowers were fully developed.

China's Most Famous City Walls

3. Pagodas

Pagodas are actually native to India. These octagonal towers were introduced to China along with the introduction and integration of Buddhism. The design of the traditional Indian pagoda changed as the structure was integrated into Chinese culture.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an

Big Wild Goose Pagoda

Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an is one of the most famous Buddhist buildings in China. It was built in the Tang Dynasty (618–907) to house monks who studied Buddhist scriptures.

The seven-storied brick pagoda was built without any cement. It has a height of 64 meters (210 feet) and from the top you can have a good view of the city of Xi'an, though it is now dwarfed by modern architecture.

Some More of China's Most Notable Pagodas

4. Altars and Temples

Altars and temples are important components of Chinese culture. They provided ceremonial sites for offering prayers and sacrifices to heaven. Sacrifices were also offered to the moon, the sun, the earth, the mountains, scholars, and ancestors.

The Temple of Heaven in Beijing

The Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven was where emperors undertook an annual pilgrimage during the winter solstice to pray to heaven for a good harvest for the following year.

Read more on The Top 10 Temples and Monasteries in China.

5. Mausoleums

Mausoleums are a very important aspect of Chinese culture and architecture. The ancient Chinese believed that the spirit lived on after the body passed away. Therefore, elaborate mausoleums were built to honor those who had moved on to the other dimension.

Many mausoleums display beautiful and elaborate artwork, carvings, and calligraphy. The standard design of a Chinese mausoleum includes walls around the structure, four open doors facing in each direction, and four turrets — one on each corner.

Located according to fengshui, mausoleums are commonly found on or by mountains. However, where mountains are lacking, they are found on flatlands and plains.

The mausoleum of Qin Shihuang

Distinguishing characteristics of Chinese mausoleums include a path leading up to the structure as well as statues of humans and beasts on either side of the walkway. Trees are often part of the landscaping around the mausoleum to create a quiet and solemn atmosphere.

The Mausoleum of Qin Shihuang

The mausoleum of Qin Shihuang is about 1.6 km (1 mile) from the Terracotta Warriors. It is an artificial hill constructed as part of a 98-square-kilometer necropolis complex that was built by Qin Shihuang and his court.

China's Most Famous Mausoleums

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