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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?... And how was wood used?...
Here are the four main reasons why wooden buildings prevailed in China, up until the modern era.
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.
The basic elements of ancient architectural design remained unchanged for thousands of years in China. From the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046 – 221 BC) until early modern times, Chinese continued to use the same basic design to build wooden houses and official buildings. However, to build other kind of structures such as bridges, towers, walls and temples, they often used bricks, stone or stamped earth.
Why the emphasis on wood and flexibility? By Western standards, the wooden buildings built in the classic ancient traditional style are not very impressive. When one compares even the biggest wooden buildings in the Forbidden City of the Ming Dynasty to the huge stone buildings built 2,000 years ago by the ancient Greeks and Romans or the monumental European cathedrals, they are not as impressive.
But most of Europe including Greece has little earthquake activity compared to China, little flooding, and few big storms such as typhoons. Three thousand years ago, the Zhou Empire developed along the rivers of the the Yellow River basin. Huge floods were a regular danger until modern times. The area between Xi'an and Tianjin also suffers from very massive earthquakes periodically.
Because China's cities are generally built on soft alluvial soil in the river basins, even earthquakes in the 7 range of the Richter scale have caused devastating damage over large regions. Most of the biggest earthquake disasters in world history have occurred in China.
Around 500 BC, the states of the Zhou Dynasty era spread to the Yangtze basin that also suffered from periodic large-scale flooding, and each year, they faced monsoon storms and typhoon winds along the coast.
So 2,500 years ago, to cope with frequent natural disasters and the destruction due to wars and fighting, the builders in the Zhou region adopted the dougong bracket system. This system made rebuilding and modifying the buildings much more efficient. Damaged wooden components were more easily replaced.
The Chinese made their wooden buildings slightly flexible to withstand earthquakes, typhoons and other disasters and for easier repair and reconfiguration as the need arose. The wooden parts such as columns and beams were easily replaced or reused to make other structures as needed since they were not joined together with fasteners.
The Forbidden City is a good example of the durability of the wooden buildings. After they were built about 600 years ago, Beijing has experienced about 200 earthquakes. The buildings survived with little damage due to the flexible brackets and loose pillars.
The wooden houses and buildings, even in the Forbidden City, were built low, one or two stories. It is difficult to build strong wooden buildings higher. Wooden buildings fare much better in earthquakes than do brick or stone buildings.
China's culture originated thousands of years ago along the Yellow River and Yangtze River. In the environment of the river basins, the seismic activity and frequent flood disasters prompted the people to build flexibly using wood for most buildings. The thick forests then were a ready supply of lumber. The wooden architecture has distinctive features that changed little from the Zhou Dynasty era up until early modern times when China adopted Western architecture.
Since the Zhou era, the people have lived in strong clans in wooden, easily renovated buildings. To what extent the clan culture determined the preference for flexible wooden buildings or to what extent the choice of architecture made families clannish is an open question.
Clans generally tended to stay put over generations in the same village and on the same property. In order to expand buildings or to adjust the layout of their clan compounds as need arose, dougong frameworks and loose vertical posts that they could reconfigure were convenient.
As clans grew or their social position changed, dougong frameworks were easier to expand or remodel. Chinese tradition dictates that a compound be built symmetrically and that additional buildings be built smaller and balanced on either side of the big main building. So as clans grew or a bigger clan moved into a property, the compound could more easily expand. So they didn't construct permanently in brick and stone as other cultures did.
All through history, though they might flee their clan compound during a war, flood or other disaster, clans generally returned to the same village and property afterwards. This clannish aspect of culture lasted until modern times. It is interesting to speculate the extent to which the Chinese building style is a product of the clan culture or to what extent the clan tradition is an outgrowth of the architectural style.
The basic features of traditional architecture were a stamped earth base, load bearing wooden pillars that were not planted into the foundation, and slightly flexible brackets. These design features made the buildings resilient to earthquake and storms, and they also allowed for reconfiguration, expansion and reconstruction if the buildings were damaged.
Wood was the preferred building material for residential and official buildings. They used wooden posts, horizontal beams, lintels for supporting weight above the doorways, and wooden brackets called dougong that they positioned on top of the posts. The columns and bracketed beams held up the wooden roof framework.
Dougong (斗拱 dǒugǒng 'cap block') were a special kind of joint that played an important role in the survivability of wooden structures. It is distinctive construction technique. The dougong braces were set on top of columns to enable the horizontal beams to uphold the heavy roofs by transferring the weight and any impinging stresses over a larger area to more vertical columns than would otherwise be possible.
The pieces are fitted together without using glue or any fasteners, and fabricating the intricate pieces so that the joints were flexible but secure required much skill and precision. The loose dougong roof framework was flexible enough to ride through earthquakes and strong storms.
Sets of dougong brackets formed a flexible system, and this is one of the most important elements in traditional Chinese architecture. Builders in Japan, Korea and other Sinicized countries on the 'Ring of Fire' earthquake zone built using the same basic style.
Builders of the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BC) of the Zhou Dynasty era (1045–221 BC) used simple dougong configurations. During the Qin and Han (206 BC – 220 AD) eras, they made more complex dougong sets. By the Tang and Song periods (960–1279), the builders evolved even more intricate sets of more interlocking parts. By using a large number of pieces in the design, the weight and stresses are shared, so the builders were able to make bigger and taller buildings than were previously possible.
Then during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the builders invented new wooden components that aided dougong in supporting the roof so that they could build bigger buildings. Dougong became more decorative, but they remained very important. The big wooden buildings of the Forbidden City that are among the biggest ever built show the epitome of the traditional architectural style.
Read more on The History of Chinese Architecture.
From ancient times, builders considered it important to cover buildings with overhanging roofs. This was to protect the building from weathering since wood rots much faster when it is wet. The wide eaves also provided shade in the summer, and in the winter, the slanted sunlight warmed the buildings.
On large traditional buildings, the eaves were not unsupported by columns past the walls. The eaves might overhang the walls by several meters.
Since ancient times, durable ceramic tiles were the favorite roofing material, but they were heavy. However the dougong bracketing systems provided sufficient support to withstand disasters that would collapse rigid buildings built with heavier construction materials.
What surprises European architects is that the buildings are flexible. Not only is the roofing system flexible, but the pillars are not sunk firmly into the ground or encased in a solid foundation.
Rather, during earthquakes, the buildings ride the earthquake waves by floating free on the ground. Columns and posts usually sit freely on short stone pedestals that in turn sit loose on the surface of the hard compacted ground.
During earthquakes, under heavy winds, or in floods, the pillars and the whole framework of the building might sway and adjust, but the framework would still stand though the walls that were usually made of more fragile and rigid materials would be destroyed.
To base the buildings, the builders made hard-stamped floors. People living along the Yellow River made rammed earth floors in 2,000 BC, and this was the common base of structures until modern times. For the buildings of the wealthy such as those in the Forbidden City, ceramic tiles were used to pave the stamped earth. Bricks were also used to cover the stamped earth.
The vertical pillars and columns bear all the weight. The walls separated rooms or to protect the inner space from the environment or intruders, but they didn't bear weight. The walls are called "curtain walls," and they were usually made of flimsy and rigid materials such as bamboo lattice work and plaster or mud, or wooden planks.
The walls were easy to repair or replace and made renovation convenient. An old saying was: "Chinese houses will still stand when their walls collapse."
See more on Prominent Features of Ancient Chinese Architecture.
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.