Ancient Chinese architecture is modeled on basic principles of order and balance; wood was the first material used, supplemented later with brick. The earliest buildings were laid on foundations of packed earth; in the areas of China where wood was sparse, a lightweight architectural structure was devised whereby the fewest number of pillars, spaced far apart, would support lightweight rectangular roofs. Plaster walls, made thinner with the inclusion of latticework and other decorative elements, filled the areas between the pillars. It was the roof that ultimately received the most attention, however, with an ingenious system of brackets supporting a hipped roof that featured corners tilted upward, giving the effect of weightlessness.
   China, located in the center of Asia, can be traced back 8,000 years; it is one of the oldest continuous cultures in the world. Most of its inhabitants live along rivers: the Yellow River to the north, the Yangzi River in the middle, the Xi River in the south. While the northern part of China has a more forbidding climate along the Gobi Desert, the south is green and fertile, with a lively maritime trade along the coast. By the Neolithic period, small but relatively advanced communities appeared throughout the center of China, where structural foundations have been excavated. More recent excavations have shown a larger number of Neolithic settlements spread more widely across China, and these ongoing excavations are transforming our understanding of early Chinese history.
   During the Bronze Age, China was ruled by three successive dynasties, each of which constructed vast palace complexes and ceremonial centers surrounded by walls that are currently being excavated. The Qin Dynasty, dated to the third century BC, is credited with uniting China under one centralized rule, while dividing the country into administrative regions linked by roads and building the Great Wall along the northern frontier. It was during the next dynasty, called the Han, that the great Silk Road, the longest road in the world, was completed, leading from the Han capital of Honan (now Lu-oyang) all the way to Rome. This route stretched from the western gate of the Great Wall across Central Asia, through modern-day Iran, Iraq, and then to Antioch, Syria, where boats left for Venice. Taoism and Confucianism were also both established during the Han Dynasty, Taoism focusing on the relationship between humans and nature and Confucianism on a moral system of behavior among people.
   The earliest written records of feng shui, or kan-yu, as it was originally called, also date to the Han Dynasty. Feng shui, which translates as "wind-water," refers to the arrangement of space to create a balanced and harmonious environment. It is rooted in the I Ching, the "Book of Change," which was gradually written down from the Bronze Age onward; it became increasingly popular during the Zhou Dynasty (770—476 BC), together with the growing influence of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Feng shui is based on the flow of energy, or chi, through the universe and how it affects our lives. Yin and yang, the mutually dependent balanced opposites, refer to the idea of continual change that is central to the philosophy of feng shui, while the five elements (fire, water, metal, earth, and wood) form its aesthetics. Feng shui was first used to help establish proper housing and burial sites and has expanded in complexity since then to become a fully formed, nature-based aesthetic philosophy. When the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, feng shui was banned, but since then it has enjoyed an increase in popularity.
   From this rich cultural background was built the Han capital of Honan, now largely destroyed but described in ancient literature and pictured in painted ceramic models of houses made for tombs. These models, from the first century AD, reveal multileveled homes with wide, overhanging tiled roofs at each level. A watchtower at the top register faces a walled courtyard. A double doorway is located in the center of the model, which features innovative brackets that support the eaves, as well as elaborately painted exterior walls. This bracketing is essentially a post-and-lintel support system, but it is specific to Chinese construction, later adapted in Japan as well. Although no domestic buildings from this early period survive, the Nanchan Temple, built on Mount Wutai in central China in the 780s during the Tang Dynasty, must recall earlier domestic buildings. It is a small, three-bay building elevated on a platform that features a broadly overhanging tile roof supported by brackets. Here, the gray tiled hipped roof curves upward slightly, and in the center are two sculpted shapes of curled owl tails. This temple is the earliest surviving wood-framed structure in China, and the square or rectangular bay modules seen here were widely used in Chinese architecture to define the size and space of a building.
   Buddhism and therefore Indian influences came to China very early via the Silk Road. Reflecting this Indian influence is the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, built in the Ci'en Temple Complex in the Tang capital of Shanxi in 645 by a monk who had spent several decades studying Buddhism in India. Here the shape of the pagoda is modified from an ancient Indian stupa into a stepped tower. The stupa shape, symbolizing the ancient burial mound of the Buddha, was blended with the stepped registers of the Chinese watchtower to create this new form of the pagoda. Similar to Indian structures, this pagoda was built of stone to resemble wood, although in general Chinese architecture is not overly sculptural. The Great Wild Goose Pagoda epitomizes a graceful simplicity in its seven stories. It is devoid of sculptural detail except for the finial on top, which serves the same function as the stupa mast or spire—that is, to symbolize the axis mundi, or axis of the world. Pagodas are the best-known architectural form found in East Asia. The early Chinese stone pagodas were often solid structures with niches carved out for altars; later, more elaborate versions, such as the wooden pagodas found in Japanese architecture, might have a small ground-floor room and even accessible rooms above. A good example of this larger type is the Liuhe Pagoda, in Hangzhou, China, built during the southern Song Dynasty in 1165. This impressive pagoda is made of 13 square stepped registers with wooden eaves that tilt upward in their corners. It served as a light tower to guide boats traveling along the Qiantang River.
   During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), most political positions were held by the intellectuals, who achieved a high level of respect and maintained important positions in courtly life. Unique to China, this powerful class of scholars helped to shape an architectural culture that combined aesthetic beauty and beautiful garden retreats that asserted their superiority over other peoples. The standard dimensions of these structures were predicated on the length of the timber used for their construction, and the intricate bracketing systems were seen as modules of this initial unit of measure. In 1103, the Ying tsao fa shih,or Methods and Designs of Architecture, written by Li Chieh, codified this module system of construction. In addition, he discusses the type of applied decoration appropriate for structures, as well as the lattice-work and ceiling panels. Later dynasties altered this ratio system slightly over time and added correctives to various optical illusions such as the width and lean of internal pillars and corner pillars.
   The Mongol invasions of the 1200s, led by Genghis Khan, changed the course of Chinese history. His grandson Kublai Khan founded the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368) and built the Mongol capital in Beijing, which was laid out in the traditional format of an ancient Chinese walled city with streets organized on a grid pattern. During the Ming Dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644, the famous Forbidden City palace complex was completed in Beijing. Today, Shanghai is the largest city in China. Its modern history began in the 19th century, when rapid growth necessitated the construction of entire neighborhoods of narrow streets lined with walled houses called shikumen homes. These are two- or three-story stone structures with tall walls surrounding lush gardens that provided an oasis within the increasingly urbanized city. Today, the shikumen are dwarfed by the skyscrapers built to accommodate the rapid growth in population, yet recent attempts to protect the shikumen have successfully transformed some of these neighborhoods into elegant restaurant districts.
   Chinese skyscrapers require the structural innovations first utilized in early skyscraper design that originated in Chicago, and accordingly, many of these 20th-century buildings in China were constructed by western architects. The thoroughly modern High-Tech architecture of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, built in Hong Kong by the English architect Norman Foster in 1986, celebrates the advent of international modern structural advances in China, while at the same time the laws of the ancient Chinese philosophy of feng shui were employed to ensure the selection of an appropriate site for the building. Similar principles can be found in the 30-story apartment building constructed about the same time in the high-priced area of Repulse Bay, Hong Kong, which features an eight-story-high hole in the middle of the building that allows a dragon's access from the mountains behind the building to the water in front. Traditional Chinese architectural features are also found in the Jin Mao Building, currently ranked the fifth largest in the world, which is an 88-story building constructed in Shanghai by the Chicago firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1998. This building, with its stepped registers leading up to a pyramidal cap topped by a tall mast, recalls the ancient Chinese pagoda and reflects in this way its Chinese heritage. Certainly, China, together with its neighboring Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal, each face a challenging future that will require a careful balance between the preservation of their architectural history and the accommodation of modern construction needs.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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