Chinese Architecture, a Miniature of the Cosmos

August 23, 2008 5:16 am Last Updated: August 27, 2008 10:29 pm

Modern architecture juts into the sky, declaring its dominance over us mere humans. It doesn't connect us with the heavens; it seems to challenge heaven for a fight.

Over thousands of years, the Chinese people have developed their own architectural style. Based on the tenets of Taoism and Buddhism, they reflect Chinese understanding that the heavens, the earth and human beings are intimately connected. Japan, Korea and much of Asia copied this style.

Harmony between Heaven and Earth

“I Ching—the Book of Changes” and other writings say that ancient peoples acted according to the laws of heaven, earth, nature and the time of year. Taoist philosophy was based on the central element, that which gives birth to the heavens, the earth and humans.

Confucianism ascribed to the principle of harmony between heaven and earth. Nature is the big cosmos and a human being is a small one. Because it is a miniature of nature, a human being must live and act within the laws of nature's cosmos.

This traditional view held for all areas of Chinese life, including architecture. More than location and its practical use, a building had to harmonize with nature both inside and out.

Chinese architects designed elements of the cosmos into every structure. From primitive caves and simple buildings to complex construction, one finds consistently the elements of the cosmos embedded in Chinese architecture. In a very real way, architecture was a miniature of the cosmos.

Points of the compass

All Chinese architecture started with points on the compass—north, south, east and west.  Architects used charts that astrologers specifically prepared beforehand. Unlike today's maps, the south was at the top, north was on the bottom, west on the right and east on the left.

Based on China's location in the Northern Hemisphere, the Chinese people believed a pleasant climate—warmer winters and summer breezes of southern regions—came from heaven. So South was the point of reference for all building.

The architect insulated buildings on the north, west and east and opened it to the south.  This prevented other weather currents, such as northern winds or other adverse weather conditions, to affect the temperature in the home.

To protect against weather disasters, four mythical creatures were placed on the rooftops of houses, as protector spirits of the four cardinal points. The black Wen, a fictitious animal, was placed in the North. In the South was the cinnabar canary, in the West the white tiger and in the East the green dragon.

Roofing tiles

The first roof tiles were made of clay around 3,000 years ago. Later Ylang-Ylang grass and a clay-and-stone mixture covered the roofs of homes. Soon roofs were enhanced with glazes and glosses of various hues.

Roof tiles were held together by nails and often adorned with animal or plant motifs meant to protect against natural catastrophes.

Specific designs were reserved for the emperors housing, such as splendid yellow roof tiles, which can still be seen today on the buildings in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. Roof tiles on Beijing's Temple of Heaven are blue.

Wood—the primary construction material

Wood was the primary construction material used by Chinese architects. Wood could be easily obtained from the many forests in China, and was not difficult to get rid of.  Wood was preferred as natural construction material, because it gave off a fragrant and pleasant odor in the interiors of a building. Also, the grain and luster of the earth, like clay, brought a natural living atmosphere into the house. For architects, wood was a living building material, which breathed, absorbed and repelled moisture. But it did have its drawbacks as most houses easily caught fire.


Chinese architects preferred constructing a house by first building a frame, as it brought a number of advantages to the builder. In contrast to a solid structure, a frame building has beams and pillars to carry weight at certain pressure points. This construction method allows wide and open rooms.

Chinese architecture provided a smooth transition to the environment and truly harmonized human beings with their world and the heavens.