Chinese wooden structure architecture: Houses that can “breathe”

Chinese wooden structure architecture, were widely used to build palaces, mansions, temples, and towers in ancient China. China’s written history is about 4,000 years old, but the history of Chinese wooden structure architecture can be traced back 7,000 years to the Hemudu period.

Chinese wooden structure architecture

UNESCO's List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Confucius Institute Reporter,
Tu Yuanyuan
本刊记者 屠芫芫
In 1996, when UNESCO sent a group of experts to Yunnan Province to review Lijiang City’s application for induction into the “World Cultural Heritage” List, the city had just been hit by a big earthquake. Many new buildings had collapsed and roads had been seriously damaged. Surprisingly, however, damage in the city’s old town was lighter than would have been expected. The walls of some of the old buildings had fallen down, but the buildings’ frameworks remained intact. Lijiang still looked basically the same, with streams purling amongst meandering alleys. The UNESCO experts believed that, after some repairs, the value of Lijiang as a cultural heritage would remain the same, and therefore the city’s “World Cultural Heritage” application was still valid.

The reason why the thousand-year-old houses survived an earthquake that shook down modern concrete buildings has to do with their wooden construction. To put up such a structure, first, wooden pillars are erected; second, horizontal beams are lifted onto the tops of the pillars; then, the roof structure is fitted onto the beams. As the weight of the roof rests on the beams, which then pass it down through the pillars to the foundation, the walls between the pillars are not designed to bear the weight of the building but only serve as partitions. This is why when the ancient City of Lijiang went through the earthquake, walls collapsed but the frameworks of buildings remained intact. Of such architectural wonder, the great Chinese architect Liang Sicheng once said: “The walls have fallen but the house stands.”

Chinese wooden structure architecture

Wooden structures, the most common architectural form in ancient China, were widely used to build palaces, mansions, temples, and towers. China’s written history is about 4,000 years old, but the history of Chinese wooden structure architecture can be traced back 7,000 years to the Hemudu period. A vivid embodiment of Chinese civilization, wooden architecture played an indispensable role in the world’s ancient architecture. Apart from the advantage of withstanding earthquakes, wooden structure are less demanding both in material procurement and in the construction process. According to historical records, construction of the Florence Cathedral started in 1420 and took 50 years to complete, 11 of which were spent on building the dome alone. Even the Arch of Triumph in Paris, a stone archway built in early 19th century, took almost 30 years to build. China’s Forbidden City, built during roughly the same period as when the Florence Cathedral was built, covers an area of 720,000 square meters with its almost one thousand buildings of various sizes, yet its construction took only 13 years, most of which was spent on preparing the materials, with the actual construction work taking less than 5 years.

A vivid embodiment of Chinese civilization, wooden architecture played an indispensable role in the world’s ancient architecture. Apart from the advantage of withstanding earthquakes, wooden structure are less demanding both in material procurement and in the construction process.

Despite the relative convenience in material procurement and construction, wooden structures have the disadvantage of being vulnerable to the elements. Because of this, the upsweeping roof corner and the interlocking wooden bracket were invented. The latter refers to a cluster of bow-shaped wooden brackets interlocked together that bears the load of the eaves. A roof with various kinds of upward-curved corners does a good job of channeling rainwater to fall at a distance from the walls. Up-sweeping roof corners also come in a wide variety of designs, with graceful, august looks. The difficulty of designing up-sweeping roof corners usually lies in finding the right curvature and length. “One inch more and it will be too long; one inch less and it will be too short.” On the surfaces of wooden buildings, craftsmen of old carved hollowed-out patterns or painted exquisite figures. Up-sweeping roof corners, patterns, figures … create the unique artistic appearance that is wooden structure architecture.

Chinese wooden structure architecture

Just as diversity of thinking bespeaks a diversity of sentiments, architectural diversity embodies cultural diversity. If the traditional stone-framed architecture of the West can be called a “stone book of history”, the Chinese system of wooden structure architecture can be called the East’s “wooden book of history”. Architectural diversity is a reflection not only of local building traditions, but also of different climates, customs and religions. Ancient Greece, a cradle of Western civilization, represented the splendid Mediterranean civilization. There, the dividing and connection of islands o f various sizes instilled in the local populations a keen sense of space, and the religions inspired the desire to “reach heaven”. At the Parthenon, 48 solid pillars of white marble point right up to the sky. In Western architecture, it has traditionally been considered essential for the heavy stone roof of a building to be lifted as high up as possible. In China, several thousand years of agricultural society have maintained a spiritual need for stability and peace of mind. Chinese people feel an affinity to the land, which symbolizes continuation of life. Such primal sentiment has produced a culture of earth and nurtured an attachment to wood. This, plus the fact that the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River were rich in readily obtainable timber resources, made wood and earth the most important construction materials in ancient China. To Chinese people, round symbolizes heaven while square symbolizes earth; therefore, large round roofs are frequently seen on ancient Chinese buildings.

Chinese wooden structure architecture

No tradition can be said to have absolute beauty or absolute ugliness. Every architectural form has at once strengths and weaknesses. On the site of the ancient city of Athens in Greece, everywhere are the remains of edifices of various shapes built 2,000 years ago; after so many years they have not perished. In China, however, the oldest remaining buildings are only a few late- Tang dynasty temples, which have undergone countless renovations. Even the thousand-year classic of wooden architecture, the Forbidden City in Beijing, has gone through periodic renovations in order to be able to continuously show the world its true self. After a century and a half, what remain of the Old Summer Palace is only the stone columns of what used to be Westernstyle buildings; numerous pavilions, terraces and towers vanished in flames. In the passage of time, wooden frame buildings have to face the risks of fire and termite infestation. Many fine buildings have “died a natural death” from natural causes. This has been a regret of Chinese wooden structure architecture.

China’s construction is now too dependent on cement and steel. More than 80% of our buildings are not energy-efficient. Our energy consumption per construction area unit is 2-3 times that of developed countries. There are a lot of reasons why China should develop wooden- structure construction.

In 2009, traditional Chinese wooden-structure architecture was inducted in UNESCO’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage” list, becoming a symbol of ancient Chinese wisdom. Although wooden-structure architecture has an ancient history in ancient China, it encounters strong resistance in contemporary China, where many people believe that wooden structures are not as durable as concrete structures and that wide use of wooden structures in buildings would damage forests. However, 200 years of development in North America has turned wooden-structure architecture into a scientific and complete system. In fact, 90% of all buildings in Canada are timber- structured. There are no longer technological barriers in the use of wooden-structure products in construction. Compared to concrete buildings, wooden-structure buildings are resource efficient, environment-friendly, and resistant to earthquakes. For every ton of steel produced, 1.6 tons of carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere; to produce a ton of cement, 0.8 ton of carbon dioxide is emitted. In contrast, every ton of timber produced means 1.82 tons of carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere. For this reason, wooden-structure houses are nicknamed “houses that can breathe”. Mr. Zhu Guangqian, President of the Chinese Association of Timber and Timber Product Circulation, pointed out at the recently held “China Wooden Structure Industry Forum”: “China’s construction is now too dependent on cement and steel. More than 80% of our buildings are not energy-efficient. Our energy consumption per construction area unit is 2-3 times that of developed countries. There are a lot of reasons why China should develop wooden- structure construction. A huge challenge lies in changing people’s opinions.”

Chinese wooden structure architecture

Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, wooden- structure buildings will again be a part of Chinese people’s daily life. As houses that can “breathe” bring people a brand new outlook, this architectural art will regain its brilliance.

More about Chinese wooden structure architecture in ConfuciusMag:


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pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 16. Volume 5. September 2011.
View/Download the print issue in PDF

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