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Chinese Architecture - Comparative Analysis

( Originally Published 1921 )

A. Plans.--Buddhist temples resemble those of India, consisting of successive open courts and porticoes with kitchens, refectories, and sleeping cells for the priests. The normal type consists of three lofty pavilions of one storey, with parallel open timber roofs, approached by broad flights of steps, gateways, and bridges. Houses, like temples, face south ; the front door opens into a courtyard with rooms on either side and a hall at the end, followed by another and often by a third or women's court with garden beyond ; while all windows, as in French fortified chateaux, face inwards.

B. Walls.—Stone is employed in important edifices, but ordinary building materials are brick and timber. Most Chinese buildings of wood are raised on a stone or brick platform as a protection against damp. Bricks sometimes have a glazed coloured surface and walls are also faced with glazed tiles or majolica. Walls are often constructed hollow, as described by Sir William Chambers, thus saving material and effecting a more equable temperature in the house. The " t'ais " or " pagodas " are of brick covered with highly-coloured glazed tiles or marble, and vary from three to thirteen storeys, each reduced in height and provided with projecting roof (pp. 813 B, 814 E). The verandah or portico of wooden columns is a special feature of dwelling-houses (p. 814 N).

C. Openings.—Doorways are square-headed, but varied in outline by fretted pendants from the horizontal timbers. " Pai-lows " are distinctive Chinese gateways (p. 813 C), sometimes as entrances to temples and tombs, sometimes as monuments to the deceased, and sometimes they stand across a street. Their construction is timber in origin, and they consist of two or more upright posts with horizontal frieze, making one, two, or three openings, sometimes surmounted by a series of brackets like those under the temple eaves. Windows are of similar form, suiting the rectangular framing of timber posts or lashing together of bamboos. They are frequently filled in with the lining of the oyster shell, which is as transparent as talc and admits an effective subdued light. Glass is seldom found in native windows, and rice paper is often used as a substitute.

D. Roofs.—The roof is the principal feature of the building, and contrasts strongly with the Greek, Roman, and Renaissance styles, in which there is often an evident endeavour to hide the roof, whereas the Chinese roof-ridges are laden with elaborate ornamental cresting and the up-tilted angles are finished off with fantastic dragons and grotesque ornament. It is considered a sign of dignity to place roofs one over the other, and this system also serves to protect the interior from extremes of heat and cold. The framing of the characteristic T'ing roof with " I'rimoya " gables is of open timber construction and is supported on wooden posts independent of the enclosing walls (pp. 813, 814). Roofs, which are concave in section, are generally covered with enamelled tiles of S shape (pantiles) set in mortar, which is also used to form cover-joints as a protection from the driving winds. Some derive this hollow curved roof from a " tent" origin ; others think it resulted from the use of bamboos which bend under weight, but more probably it was designed to shelter the house from the direct rays of the sun, while admitting light to the rooms, and to protect the flimsy walls and throw the rain-water clear of the building. The roof-framing consists of a system of trusses in rigid rectangles (not triangles as in Europe) formed of bamboos held together by wooden tenons, and thus the weight of the roof acts vertically and no oblique thrust comes on the walls (p. 814 H, K). The lightness and strength of bamboo were important factors in influencing a system of construction quite different from the framed European roof-truss. The connection between the roof and the pillars which sustain it is often strengthened by brackets, and the soffits are often divided into square or octagonal coffers by means of raised ribs with brass socketings at their intersection.

E. Columns.—Chinese building procedure as applied to columns is peculiar, and is the reverse of that in other countries ; for instead of first raising the columns and framing the superstructure upon them, the Chinese first made the framework of the roof and that determined the position of the columns, which were often of cedar-wood, while the rigidity of the framework and roof-beams was relied on to keep the columns in position on the stone foundations ; in short, instead of putting the roof on the columns, they put the columns under the roof (p. 814 G, M, N). It was therefore essential that the roof beams should be tenoned direct at the various heights into the shaft, without the intervention of a second member or capital, which was therefore omitted, but the roof beams were supported by brackets, often multiplied in number and ornate in character. Chinese columns, whether for temples, pai-lous, palaces, or houses, are unique, for in all other styles the capital is one of the most important of architectural features. Columns, whether free-standing, as in palace halls, or carried up as an integral part of the wall, were without capitals, and were bound direct to the roof beams of the rectangular-framed roof which press vertically down on them, and thus columns and roofs are the chief features of the T'ing type of building, in which the walls of half-baked bricks are of no constructive value.

F. Mouldings.—In China, where roof and columns are the chief architectural features, and where building is generally in brick or timber and much of the ornament is in glazed tiles, mouldings play a small part in decoration. In fact, here as in other styles where wall tiling came in, mouldings went out. They are seen in the cyma and ovolo of the bronze bases of timber pillars, but as there are no capitals they do not appear again in the columns ; simple mouldings, however, occur in the compound brackets supporting the roof timbers, which are chiefly treated with grotesque carving. They are also used in the panelled railing round temple enclosures, but in temples and pagodas the chief relief is found in the boldly projecting up-lifted eaves of the superimposed roofs (pp. 813, 814).

G. Ornament (p. 814).—Chinese ornament expresses national characteristics. All Eastern nations appear to have a natural instinct for colour, and the Chinese are no exception. Colour schemes form an integral part of Chinese architecture ; roofs are covered with brightly glazed tiles, yellow for imperial palaces, red for mandarins, and blue, green, or purple for others, while the outstanding ridges and hips are emphasised with highly coloured dragons, fishes, and grotesque figures in glazed terra-cotta. Coloured ornament is applied to buildings in the form of enamelled glazed tiles, painted woodwork, landscape and figure subjects. The Chinese excel in the minor arts, in silk- and cotton-weaving, in carvings of wood and ivory, and in porcelain ware. The triple umbrella, one of the most important insignia of the Emperor of China, is an old symbol of dominion and power, and is probably the origin of the triple roofs of Imperial palaces and of the many-roofed pagodas. The Chinese national sense for art found its outlet not in architecture, but in painting, of which from early times there were several great schools. The Chinese were past masters in the use of the brush, with which they produced a wonderful fineness of line, as is seen in their caligraphy, for which they used a soft brush instead of a hard stylo. Thus it was that their decoration in architecture took the form of colour applied to surfaces on which were painted landscapes, birds, and flowers ; for they preferred to portray the fields and forests of nature rather than buildings raised by the device of man. The Buddhist religion encouraged their love of mystery and symbolism, and the great yellow dragon, emblematic of the power of the spirit, and the tiger, symbolic of the forces of nature, were freely introduced into decorative colour schemes.

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