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Chinese Architecture - Architectural Character

( Originally Published 1921 )

The architecture of China is a faithful index of her civilisation, for both have been practically stationary through many centuries. It must be remembered that Chinese art has always found its chief outlet in painting, which gave full opportunity for the display of the Chinese instinct for fineness of line. The art was poetic rather than material ; for the Chinese revelled in the beauty of nature and had little feeling for architectural design, which they held subservient merely to human needs. Chinese architecture, though subject to Buddhist and Mahometan influence on the religious side, held its own as an indigenous style, and so the forms of to-day reproduce, with little change or progress, those of the early centuries of our era : moreover, there is no distinction between sacred and secular architecture, and temples, tombs, public buildings, and private houses, whether great or small, all follow the same plan.

The roof is the chief feature, supported on timber uprights and independent of the walls, which were as useless for support as were the large traceried windows of the Gothic style in Europe. Elaboration of design was produced by constant repetition of roofs one above another, and thus, while height was achieved, a horizontal effect was retained. The great " Confucian Temple of Heaven " at Pekin was dignified by a triple roof of blue tiles, and this use of bright colours, applied in the form of glazed tiles and porcelain, is a characteristic of Chinese buildings. " Pai-lous," or gateways, of stone and wood, derived from Indian " torans," are features of Chinese architecture and, like many others, might only be erected with government permission. Towers in stone, square like those in the Great Wall, are of early date, and show the influence of Chaldaea in the use of arch and vault. The pagoda, the most typically Chinese building, is octagonal on plan, with numerous storeys and repeated roofs, highly coloured, and with upturned eaves. The Chinese built chiefly in timber or brick, even where stone was plentiful, and this is not surprising among a people who, unlike the Egyptians, cared little for permanence or for the interests of posterity. The Chinese had little religious zeal, and therefore few great temples ; no territorial aristocracy, and therefore no noble country houses ; little pride of family, and therefore no town mansions, while their domestic architecture was trammelled by sumptuary laws to mark the social status of the owner.

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