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Chinese Traditional Architecture Glossary 中国传统建筑生词


1. Introduction 介绍

2. The Siheyuan  四合院

3.  Chinese Roof Systems 屋顶五种类型

4.   Feng Shui 风水

I. Introduction

China has its own architecture vocabulary and traditions that have been continuously maintained and recorded for thousands of years.  Famous architect Liang Sicheng, who once advocated for the preservation of Beijing’s city walls, also undertook the first comprehensive study of the historical development and traditions of Chinese architecture.  While he attended architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania, he returned to China record and analyze the various architectural traditions of China.  The backbone of Chinese architecture is the wood-beam bracket system used to support the roof and allow for flexibility in wall placement and room arrangement.  The rectangular timber-frame building (sometimes called 殿 dian) has been adapted for a variety of uses in Chinese architecture  from temples to government buildings to palaces and family lineage halls.

The following glossary is designed to give you a basic overview of commonly-used Chinese architecture terms.  The siheyuan is the basic type of residential structure found in Beijing and other parts of north-China, but the enclosed one-story courtyard house is a common type of residential structure found in many cities throughout China.

II.  The Siheyuan

The siheyuan (literally meaning four-sided courtyard) was the basic housing unit of Old Beijing.  Most of the entire old city was composed of courtyard houses, usually oriented from north to south, with the main entrance to the hutong or alley at the southeast corner.  The siheyuan and the hutong form an interlocking urban system, designed to allow privacy within one’s home and a gradual progression from public to more private spaces as one enters the house and proceeds to the rear of the house.  After 1949, many of the courtyard houses were filled with residential structures to accomodate a growing population.  Today, this situation remains for the majority of courtyard houses.

Diagram of Typical Siheyuan

Diagram of Typical Siheyuan

A.  Typical Siheyuan Courtyard House with Labels

宅门:zhaimen, The main gates (size and decoration indicated social status)

影壁:yingbi, Screen Walls (ensure privacy and kept out evil spirits)

倒座房:daozuofang, Reversely-set Rooms

正房:zhengfang, Principal Rooms (the head of household usually lives here)

耳房: erfang, Side Rooms

厢房:xiangfang, Wing Rooms

游廊:youlang, Corridors

垂花门: chuihua men, Chuihua Gate (separates first courtyard from second courtyard)

庭院: tingyuan, Main family courtyard

III. 屋顶五种类型 (Main Styles of Chinese Traditional Roofing Systems)

The most distinctive and recognizable features of Chinese architecture are the sweeping curves and upturned eaves of the roofs.  Liang Sicheng catalogued the common styles of roof design in his work A Pictorial History of Chinese Architecture.  The most common style of roof used in Beijing’s siheyuan is the Yingshan (number 2,  below) style, or “hard mountain” style.  This is a relatively simple style most commonly found in residential structures of North China.  The roof here does not overhang the wall as in type 1.  Types 3 and 4 (wudian and xieshan) are commonly found in temples or official buildings.  Usually the higher in status a building, the more eaves it had.  Therefore types 7-9 below can be found in complexes like the Forbidden City.

Typology of Chinese Roofing Systems

Typology of Chinese Roofing Systems

1. 悬山: xuanshan, Overhanging gable roof

2. 硬山: yingshan, flush gable roof

3. 庑殿: wudian, Hip roof

4. 歇山: xieshan, Gable and Hip Roofs

5. 攒尖: cuanjian, Pyramidal Roof

6. 重檐: zhongyan, Double-eaved versions (of 4, 3)

7-9.  Double-Eaved versions of 5, 6, 3

IV. 风水 Feng Shui

Feng Shui, meaning literally “wind and water” refers to the Chinese tradition of analyzing the natural environment and natural forces in order to situate a building (or town, city, temple) in an auspicious and well-protected area.  While sometimes associated with the belief that situating a house properly can bring the residents wealth or fortune or protect from ghosts, the basic tenets of feng shui are actually quite simple and intuitive.  Feng Shui was used at a variety of scales: sometimes to locate the best sites for new cities but also in arranging the layout of a house or even furniture.

Houses should face south for optimal sunlight exposure.  During the cold North China winter, this maximizes the heat and reduces need for additional energy use.  Ideally mountains (or sometimes man-made barriers) should be situated to the north to protect the house from north winds or evil spirits.  Doors are arranged so as to maximize privacy and security.  The yingbi 影壁 screen door (situated facing the entrance) acts to deflect negative energy or forces from entering the house.  It also ensures privacy for the courtyard within.

At the city-wide level, Beijing was situated so that the northern and western mountains protected the city.  Jingshan hill was constructed just to the north of the Forbidden City to improve the feng shui of the imperial city.  The emperor’s throne always faced south, towards the sun.  And visiting dignitaries or officials always approached the emperor from the south.

The important thing to remember about Feng Shui is that it comprised an important part of Chinese attitudes toward environmental design and ecology.  The city of Beijing represented an ideal complete system, from the city walls to the streets and palaces, down to the most basic house or even room.  Beijing can be thought of as the culmination of thousands of years of accumulated architecture and city planning traditions.  The hutongs and siheyuan are an inseparable part of those traditions.


Liang Sicheng’s A Pictorial History of Chinese Architecture, China Architecture and Building Press 1984


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