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Wooden architecture was the mainstay in traditional Chinese building. Wood was preferred for most traditional architecture, from the halls of the Forbidden City to common houses. But why?...
Here are the four main reasons why wooden buildings prevailed in China's past, followed by wood's shortfalls as a building material, which have led to a decline in its use in modern China.
The first reason that Chinese have a preference for wooden structures is tied up with the abundance of forests in Chinese civilization's birthplaces — the Yellow River and Yangtze River valleys.
Archaeological evidence of wooden stilt houses in these was are as have been dated as far back as 7,000 years ago (the Hemudu Culture).
Wood remained the most popular building material even after quarrying and brickmaking developed, due to the Five Elements Theory used in fengshui (geomancy), which has dictated many aspects of life since the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BC).
As wood is the element that represents spring and life, it has the best auspicious connotations for buildings. So fengshui believers have felt compelled to build their houses etc. out of wood.
With a relatively short growing period for most trees used, demand didn't outstrip supply as China's population grew. Wood remained the ideal building material: easy to obtain, process, and replenish.
Some dynasties decreed that each family should plant some trees to ensure the ready supply of China's construction material of choice.
As Chinese culture developed, its architecture became more complicated and ornate. Coupled with a huge population growth, more people wanted more, and only wood could keep up with demands.
The good workability of wood made traditional Chinese architecture's building speed much faster than other civilizations' structures of stone and mortar. Decorations were also easier to form.
Chinese buildings were usually finished in several years, while other civilizations' needed decades. However, the buildings of the Romans and other ancient civilizations generally lasted much longer…
Exposure to the elements — sun, wind, and rain — not to mention insect attack and other abrasive forces, meant that wooden structures quickly deteriorated.
Even with the invention of paint and other preservative measures, wooden structures needed frequent repair and replacement work.
High-initial-outlay but low-maintenance materials, like bricks and stone (and now concrete) became increasingly attractive as the cost of labor increased in China.
Another shortcoming of wooden constructions is wood's vulnerability to fire. According to records from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty (1368–1912), there were over 50 major fires in China's cities!
The fire risk has meant that wooden structures are not so sought after anymore. The values of safety and security have outstripped those of easy construction, aesthetics, and even philosophical beliefs in China.
In China's modern era of rapid development and dense population, land has been increasingly used for farming, transport, industry, and housing, and forest resources have been severely depleted.
Nowadays, protecting forest resources has been made public policy in China to meet the demands of sustainable development — to stop deforestation and provide for China's much reduced demand for wood in buildings.
A final reason for the decline in one or two story wooden buildings is the pressure to build taller with China's 1.4 billion people.
Multi-story buildings of brick and reinforced concrete seem the only viable solution to comfortably house the masses. Wood simply is not strong enough for modern construction.
If you have an interest in architecture, let us know when you are booking your tour with us so that we can make sure your tour focuses mostly on those aspects of Chinese architecture you're interested in.