The History of Imperial Chinese Architecture

When comparing ancient Chinese structures side by side, the untrained eye will struggle to differentiate between their purposes as the vast majority of Imperial Chinese architecture follows the same form as that of its surroundings. A temple and an old house located next to each other will likely share many stylistic traits common to the indigenous architecture, such as building material and roof style. With access to floor plans, one might guess at a structure’s purpose, but in order to truly understand the difference, one must observe the way in which the architecture interacts with people and with its surroundings.

As a result of dereliction and tourism, humans today interact with some structures differently than they did at the time these structures were built, so the best way to organize ancient Chinese architecture is to differentiate based on a characteristic common to all ancient Chinese structures: sacred space. What the Chinese held sacred during Imperial times was a composite of multiple belief systems and the sum of their ideologies.

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Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism fused together to form an amalgam of spiritual and secular beliefs that pervaded almost every aspect of Chinese life.’

Because nearly all structures from Imperial China incorporate some degree of sacredness, they can be categorized based on sacredness into four groups: houses, temples, monasteries, and ancestral halls. More specifically, distinctions can be made between these types of architecture with respect to the amount of space designated as sacred, the background of a structure’s sacred space, the rituals performed within the sacred space, and the natural environment surrounding the structure.

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From the smallest shack to the holiest temple, all Imperial Chinese structures include an element of sacredness, whether it be a small collection of tablets and pictures honoring a family’s ancestors or a great hall enshrining Buddhist relics. The way in which space is distributed between the secular and the sacred tells a lot about a structure’s purpose. A house is typically cluttered with rooms serving as living quarters and only one designated as sacred. The most auspiciously located room in the house incidentally becomes the sacred room “where the family altar and ancestral tablets [are) placed.”

In a temple, open space is much more abundant because of the absence of residential space. As a result, the complex can be arranged in a much more organized fashion, conveying a sense of aesthetic harmony, order, and, by relation, sacredness. The Shaolin Temple, for example, consists of a series of halls placed in a line such that the complex is balanced symmetrically. Since the complex is laid out with worship and pilgrimmage in mind, the entirety of space within the temple walls can be said to be sacred. Monasteries are similar to temples in that they have halls dedicated to the purpose of worship, but monasteries differ in that they allot some areas along the walls to monks as residential space. Halls are kept along the central axis away from residential areas and are occasionally separated from the common ground to denote that they are sacred space. The Hall of Pure Brightness at the Taoist Monastery of Eternal Joy in Shanxi Province is elevated above the rest of the monastery as such an indication. From an overhead view of Shaolin Monastery, one can see the arrangement of halls similar to that of the Shaolin Temple except with monks’ quarters at the periphery.

Consisting of a shrine outside and an actual house inside, ancestral halls are essentially houses that become entirely sacred during family-oriented celebrations but spend the rest of the year as extra space for leisure time. The shrine at least remains sacred year-round as it houses stone tablets commemorating the dead for whom the hall was presumably built. Listing sacred spaces is meaningless, however, without a proper understanding of the reason for which many of these spaces are considered sacred. The honoring of particular deities or supernatural beings within different structures explains why some structures exist in the way they do. Temples tended to focus on anthropomorphic representations of deities. The temples of Sung Shan, for example, were originally built in honor of the local mountain gods, emphasizing the sacredness of the mountains. As Ch’an Buddhism took over in Sung Shan, however, focus shifted from the sacredness of the mountains to the sacredness of relics, which connected humanity more directly to sacredness. Monasteries and temples such as Shaolin and Nan-hua began housing sacred objects and “flesh body” remains, essentially serving as relic guardians. Monasteries further increased their sacrality simply by providing homes for the devout monks who actually practiced the religion, some of whom became well-known enough that their own remains would become flesh body relics.

On the other hand, the reason for the sacredness of houses and ancestral halls was more commonly related to the worship of ancestors rather than deities. With respect to both houses and ancestral halls, it was believed that performing certain rituals at the family altar or shrine would bring good luck to the family. The system of thought for both stemmed from the idea that “the world of the dead often replicates the world of the living.” Further, it was believed that if a man died, “his soul) survives and has to be housed and taken care of.” Herein lies the logic of the ancestral hall’s structure: it is intended to serve as an abode in the spirit world for those commemorated on the shrine’s tablet.

Rituals reveal how people react to sacred space and dictate what the architecture must provide in order to create an optimally sacred space. In the case of a simple family altar in a house, ritual does not demand much of the architecture. Food and other items are burned at the altar as a means of transferring these things to the spirit world. Similar to how the ancestral hall stands to supply the ancestors with a home in the spirit world, the offerings burned at the family altar or shrine are intended to cover their other pseudo-material needs. Rituals performed at the ancestral hall itself revolve mainly around family celebrations often involving feasts. When such is the case, all the food is symbolically offered to the ancestors as a sacrifice, and when they indicate they have had their fill, the rest of the family shares the meal. Obviously, the ancestral hall must be quite large to house feasts for larger families but it cannot simply be a dining hall either. Outside of celebrations, ancestral halls are sometimes treated simply as extensions of the house, like playrooms or studies. An ancestral hall must fill its roles both as a sacred space during celebrations and as a comfortable space the rest of the time.

Temples provide outlets where pilgrims may feel closer to their deities through relics and through the temple itself as a sacred space. Whether relics affect the nature of a temple’s sacredness is a problem that only individuals can answer for themselves. It is clear that some cases take the point too far by treating relics themselves as gods with supernatural protecting powers. For those who refuse to buy into the superficiality of relic veneration, monasteries and their monks stand as a testament to the true nature of human devotion to sacredness. From this perspective it is the monks’ every day activities, sustaining the monastery and worshipping wholeheartedly, that define the very rituals which make the temple sacred.

Another way of differentiating between structures is by examining their surroundings. Aside from aiding in identification and classification, the surroundings and physical situation of a structure can greatly contribute to its sacredness. Land with good feng shui or related to local legend is considered more auspicious and will often attract temples and monasteries as a result. In the case of a structure located near a legendary sacred site, the site essentially becomes a relic, increasing the sacredness of the nearby structure at least in the eyes of pilgrims. Such is the case with the Shaolin temple and the nearby “wall of contemplation” at which the Buddhist patriarch Bodhidharma supposedly sat for nine years in deep thought.”

Feng shui affects all structures depending upon how they relate to their natural surroundings. Ideally a structure should face south with its back nestled against a south-facing slope and its front pointing toward some flowing body of water. Assuming these conditions are met, good feng shui is supposed to bring prosperity to the pertinent structure and those within, contributing to the sacredness of all structures through a feeling of balance with nature. Some buildings are affected differently: an ancestral hall with good feng shui is believed to bring riches to the entire lineage. In the case of houses and villages, feng shui may act as a guide for choosing ideal farmland that avoids floods. On the other hand, bad feng shui is thought to produce bad luck, which creates a self fulfilling prophecy for temples and monasteries.

Potential visitors with any knowledge of feng shui will be feel a sense of foreboding around the structure and be discouraged from entering. Houses, at least, may counter bad feng shui with charms and amulets, but a temple can be marred by bad feng shui. For this reason, it is much more common to see temples, monasteries, and ancestral halls with good feng shui than houses, which are often situated with just practicality in mind. In his essay on the sacred, Jonathan Smith describes Congolese natives who pick up a metal drainpipe from the side of a road to use as a sacred horn. When asked how such a mundane object could be considered sacred, one native simply replied, “What does it matter what the Thornl is made of?”

Since the definition of sacredness depends on perspective, it is possible that anything may be considered sacred. Understanding the differences between sacred spaces is paramount to identifying the different types of Chinese structures. At the two extremes are houses and temples. Houses are composed mostly of secular space with a single room containing the family altar intended for ancestor worship. Temples, to the contrary, contain entirely sacred space, all of which is devoted to the veneration of some deity. Ancestral halls and monasteries, by combining elements of both houses and temples, occupy the middle ground. Ancestral halls are regarded as living space year-round but are converted to sacred space on special occasions. At these times, they are essentially treated like temples devoted to ancestor worship.

Different from ancestral halls, monasteries are basically temples with living quarters added in such a way that the sacredness of the halls is not disturbed. Conversely, some hold that monasteries are more sacred than temples simply because the monks in a monastery practice a purer form of religion than the pilgrims who pray to inanimate relics in a temple. The primary difference between house and temple, however, lies in the contrasting of the secularly-dominated house with the primarily sacred temple.

Works Cited

  1. Bray, Francesca. “The Inner Quarters: Oppression or Freedom?” in House Home Family: Living and Being Chinese. 6 ed. Ronald G. Knapp and Kai-Yin Lo. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005.
  2. Faure, Bernard. “Relics and Flesh Bodies: The Creation of Ch’an Pilgrimage Sites” in Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China. ed. Susan Naquin and Chun-Fang Yu. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992.
  3. Ho Puay-Peng. “Ancestral Halls: Family, Lineage, and Ritual,” in House Home Family: Living and Being Chinese. 6 ed. Ronald G. Knapp and Kai-Yin Lo. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005.
  4. Knapp, Ronald G. “Siting and Situating a Dwelling: Fengshui, House-Building Rituals, and Amulets” in House Home Family: Living and Being Chinese. 6 ed. Ronald G. Knapp and Kai Yin Lo. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005.
  5. Smith, Jonathan Z.“The Topography of the Sacred” in Relating Religion:Essays in the Study of Religion. 13 ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  6. Steinhardt, Nancy S. “The House: An Introduction,” in House Home Family: Living and Being Chinese. 6 ed. Ronald G. Knapp and Kai-Yin Lo. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005.

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The History of Imperial Chinese Architecture. (2021, Sep 12). Retrieved from

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