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Chinese Architecture

Palace (Gong)

The (Chinese word for "palace" is gong. However, it may refer to anyone of several different meanings.

In the earliest Chinese writings it meant no more than an ordinary house. After the founding of the Qin Dynasty (221- 207 B. C.), gong came gradually to mean the group of buildings in which the emperor lived and worked. At about the same time, Chinese palaces grew ever larger in scale. The Efanggong of the First Emperor of Qin measured "5 li (2 1/2 km) from east to west and 1,000 paces from north to south". The Weiyanggong of the Western Han Dynasty (206 B. C.-24 A. D. ) had, within a periphery of 11 kilometres, as many as 43 halls and terraces. The Forbidden City of Beijing, which still stands intact and which served as the imperial palace for both Ming and Qing emperors (1368-1911) covers an area of 720,000 square metres and embraces many halls, towers, pavilions and studies measured as 9,900 bays. It is one of the greatest palaces of the world. In short, palaces grew into a veritable city and is often called gongcheng (palace city).

Apart from the palace, other abodes of the emperor are also called gong. The Yiheynan Park used to be the Summer Palace; the Mountain Resort at Chengde and the Huaqingchi thermal spa near Xi'an were both 2inggong or "palace on tour. " Then there is another type of gong called zhaigong, where the emperor prepared himself abstinence before he offered sacrifice at grand ceremonies. There is one such zhaigong on the grounds of Beijing's Temple of Heaven.

Inside a great gong, certain individual buildings may also be called gong. The Qing emperors used to live at Qianqinggong (Palace of Heavenly Purity) in the Forbidden City, whereas the living quarters of the empresses were at Kunninggong (Palace of Female Tranquility). The imperial concubines of various ranks inhabited the six gongs or palace quadrangles on either side of the central axis of the Forbidden City. When the monarchs or their spouses died, they were buried in digong (underground palaces ).

The name gong is also used for religious buildings of great dimensions. The Potala in Lhasa is a gong to the Chinese; the lame temple of Beijing is Yonghegong. The temples of Taoist priests are generally called sanginggong ( palace of triple purity).

For thousands of years, the word gong was reserved exclusively for naming imperial and religious buildings. With the passage of time and political changes, many of the old gongs have been opened to the general public for sightseeing. Furthermore, a number of buildings have been named gong or palace. For instance, Taimiao of the Imperial Ancestral Temple in Beijing has been renamed the "Working People's Palace of Culture". On West Chang'an Jie, a comparatively new building serves as the "Cultural Palace of National Minorities". Similar gongs or palaces have been built in many cities of the country for the cultural, scientific and recreational activities respectively for workers and children.


The Number "Nine" and Imperial Buildings (Jiu yu Huangjia Jianzhu)

It may not be common knowledge among Western visitors that the number "nine" carried a special significance in old China. Ancient Chinese regarded odd numbers as being masculine and even numbers as being feminine. "Nine", which is the largest single digit number was taken to mean the "ultimate masculine" and was, therefore, symbolic of the supreme sovereignty of the emperor. For this reason, the number "nine" (or its multiples) is often employed in palace structures and designs. A noticeable example is the number of studs on palace gates. The studs are usually arranged in nine rows of nine each, totalling eighty-one. This is even true of the marble gates of the " underground palace" of the Dingling Mausoleum in Beijing: 81 (or 9 X 9) studs carved out of the stone. If visitor go to the Temple of Guan Yu in Luoyang, he will also find on the red gate nine rows of nine wooden studs each.

Ancient palaces generally consist of nine courtyards or quadrangles which is the same as the Temple of Confucius in Qufu. Shandong Province - a magnificent architectural complex worthy of an imperial household and testifying to the importance attached to the great sage by the courts of various dynasties.

The buildings of the Forbidden City of Beijing are traditionally measured as having a total floor space of 9,900 bays. Some even say 9,999 bays but this may be an exaggeration. The picturesque towers guarding the four corners of the palace compound each have 9 beams and 18 columns, and the three famous screen walls have nine dragons on each.

The number "nine" was sometimes combined with "five" to represent imperial majesty. The great hall on Tiananmen is 9 bays wide by 5 bays deep.

There is a seventeen-arched bridge in the Summer Palace of Beijing. This too, has much to do with "nine". Count the arches from either end, and you will find that the largest span in the middle is the ninth.

An extreme example of the "game of nine" is perhaps the Circular Mound Altar (Huanqintan) in the Temple of Heaven. Site for the Ming and Qing emperors to worship Heaven, the altar is arranged in three tiers. The upper terrace is made up of nine concentric rings of slabs. The first ring or the innermost circle consists of nine fan-shaped slabs, the second ring 18 (2 X 9) slabs, the third 27 (3 X 9). . . until the last or ninth ring which is made up of 81 or 9 X 9 slabs.

The number "nine" is not only used on buildings. The New Year dinner for the imperial house was composed of 99 dishes. To celebrate the birthday of an emperor, the stage performances must comprise of 99 numbers as a sign of good luck and longevity.


Dragon and Phoenix (Long yu Feng)

The dragon and the phoenix are the principal motifs for decorative designs on buildings, clothing and articles of daily use in the imperial palace. The throne hall is supported by columns entwined by gilded dragons, the central ramps on marble steps were paved with huge slabs carved in relief with the dragon and phoenix, and the screen walls display dragons in brilliant colours. The names in the Chinese language for nearly all the things connected with the emperor or the empress were preceded by the epithet "dragon" or "phoenix". Thus "dragon seat" for the throne, "dragon robe" for the emperor's ceremonial dress, "dragon bed" for him to sleep on, and "phoenix carriage", "phoenix canopies" and so on were used for imperial processions. The national flag of China under the Qing Dynasty was emblazoned with a large dragon. The earliest postage stamps of China were called "dragon-heads" because they showed a dragon in their designs. Even today, the dragon is sometimes adopted as the symbol of Chinese exhibitions held abroad or the cover designs of books on China printed by foreign publishers. "The Giant Dragon of the East" is becoming a sobriquet for the country.

Belief in the dragon, and drawings of the imaginary animal can be traced back to primitive society when certain prehistoric tribes in China adopted the dragon among other totems as their symbol and guardian god. Some of the recently unearthed bronze vessels of the Yin Dynasty are decorated with sketches of dragons of a crude form. Earliest legends in China described the dragon as a miraculous animal with fish scales and long beards. As time went on, it became more and more embellished in the minds of the people, acquiring the antlers of the deer, the mane of the horse and the claws of the eagle. In short, it obtained the distinctive features of other creatures until it became what we see today in the imperial palaces.

Likewise, the Chinese phoenix also exists only in legends and fairy tales. Sovereign to all birds, it has the head of the golden pheasant, the beak of the parrot, the body of the mandarin duck, the wings of the roe, the feathers of the peacock and the legs of the crane. Gloriously beautiful, it reigns over the feathered world. An early design of the phoenix can be seen on the silk painting discovered in a tomb of the Warring States Period (475-221 B. C. ) near Changsha in Hunan Province.

The dragon and the phoenix serve in classical art and literature as metaphors for people of high virtue and rare talent. Together, the two symbolize happiness and love in marriages. As an important part of folk art, dragon lanterns, dragon boats, dragon and phoenix dances are still highly popular during Chinese festivals.



A common sight in the country, the Chinese pavilion (ting, which means also a kiosk) is built normally either of wood or stone or bamboo and may be in any of several shapes - square, triangle, hexagon, octagon, a five-petal flower, a fan and more. But all pavilions have columns for support and no walls. In parks or in scenic places, pavilions are built on slopes to command the panorama or they are built by the lakeside to create intriguing images by the water.

Pavilions also serve diverse purposes. The wayside pavilion is called liangting (cooling kiosk) to provide weary wayfarers with a place for rest. The "stele pavilion" gives a roof to a stone tablet to protect the engraved record of an important event. Pavilions also stand by bridges or over water-wells. In the latter case, dormer windows are built to allow the sun to cast its rays into the well as it has been the belief that water untouched by the sun would cause disease. Occasionally one finds two pavilions standing side by side like twins. In modern times, kiosks have been erected in urban areas as postal stalls, newsstands or photographers' sheds for snapshot services.

Rare among pavilions are those built of bronze. The most celebrated of these is Baoyunge Pavilion of Precious Clouds in Beijing's Summer Palace. The entire structure including its roof and columns is cast in bronze. Metallic blue in colour, it is 7. 5 metres tall and weighs 207 tons. Elegant and dignified, it is popularly known as the "Gold Pavilion. "

The largest pavilion in China is also in the Summer Palace. The ancient building, named Kuoruting (the Pavilion of Expanse), has a floor space of 130 square metres. Its roof, converging in a crown on top and resting on three rings of columns (24 round ones and 16 square ones), is octagonal in form and has two eaves. With all its woodwork colourfully painted, the pavilion looks at once poised and majestic, well in harmony with the surrounding open landscape.


Terrace (Tai)

The tai was an ancient architectural sturture, a very much elevated terrace with a flat top. Generally built of earth, stone and surfaced with brick, they are used as a belvedere from which to look into the distance. In fact, however, many well-known ancient tai as we know it today is not just a bare platform but has some palatial halls built on top.

A good example is the Round City of the Beihai Park in Beijing. A terrace five metres high, it has an area of 4, 500 square metres on its top and a main hall with side corridors.

The tai could be built to serve different practical purposes. For example, it could be used as an observatory as is the one near Jianguomen in Beijing which dates back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. It could also be used for military purposes like the beacon towers along the Great Wall, to transmit urgent information with smoke by day and fire by night. Also on the Great Wall, there is a square tai at intervals of every 300 to 400 metres from which the garrison troops kept watch. On the track of the ancient Silk Road, ruins of the old defence fortifications in the form of earthen terraces can still be seen.


Storeyed Building (Lou)

When the Chinese speak of a lou, they refer to any building of two or more storeys with a horizontal main ridge. The erection of such buildings began a long time ago in the Period of the Warring States (475-221 B. C. ), when chonglou ("layered houses") was mentioned in historical records.

Ancient buildings with more than one storey were meant for a variety of uses. The smaller two-storeyed buildings of private homes generally has the owner's study or bedroom upstairs. The more magnificent ones built in parks or at scenic spots were belvederes from which to enjoy the distant scenery. In this case, it is sometimes translated as a "tower". A Tang Dynasty poet upon his visit to a famous riverside tower composed a poem, two lines of which are still frequently quoted "To look far into the distance, go up yet one more storey".

Ancient cities had bell and drum towers (zhonglou and gulou), usually palatial buildings with four-sloped, double-caved, glazed roofs, all-around verandas and coloured and carved dougong brackets supporting the overhanging eaves. They housed a big bell or drum which were used to announce time, and the local officials would open the city gates at the toll of the bell early in the morning and close them with the strike of the drum in the evening.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties ( 14th to 20th century), in front of each city gate of Beijing stood an archery tower which formed a defence fortification. Two of them can still be seen today, at Qianmen and Deshengmen gates. Also in Beijing, a "corner tower" still remains relatively intact at the south-eastern corner of the old Inner City. It is put under state protection as a cultural relic, being the only one left in the ancient capital.

The art of constructing tall buildings was already highly developed in China during ancient times. Many multiple-storeyed towers of complex structure had wholly wood frameworks fixed together with dougong brackets without the use of a single piece of metal. Yueyang Tower in Hunan and Huanghelou (Tower of the Yellow Crane) in Wuchang are masterpieces among ancient towers.


Storeyed Pavilion (Ge)

The Chinese ge is similar to the lou in that both are of two or more storey buildings. But the ge has a door and windows only on the front side with the other three sides being solid walls. Ge are usually enclosed by wooden balustrades or decorated with boards all around.

Such storeyed pavilions were used in ancient times for the storage of important articles and documents. Wenyuange for instance, in the Forbidden City of Beijing was in effect the imperial library. Kuiwenge in the Confucius Temple of Qufu, Shandong Province was devoted to the safekeeping of the books and works of painting and calligraphy bestowed by the courts of various dynasties. Visitors to the city of Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, can still see Tianyige, which houses the greatest private collection of books handed down from the past. Monasteries of a large size normally have their own libraries built in the style of a ge and called cangjingge to keep their collections of Buddhist scriptures. Some of the ge, notably those erected in parks, like other pavilions or towers (ting, tai and lou), were used for enjoying the sights.

The name ge is also used to describe the towers which shelter the colossal statues one finds in some great monasteries. A prominent example is the Guanyinge of Dulesi Temple in Jixian County of Hebei Province. Twenty-three metres high and housing the huge idol of the Goddess of Mercy (Guanyin), it is the oldest exitsing multiple-storeyed structure of its kind in China. Built in the Liao Dynasty (916 - 1125 A. D. ), it has withstood twenty-eight earthquakes including three of a devastating nature. When all the houses in the area collapsed, it was the only one that survived the disaster. This goes to show how well its wooden frame was structured. Other well-known religious buildings housing Buddhist statues, big or small, include Foxiangge in Beijing's Summer Palace, Dashengge in Chengde's Puningsi Temple and Zhenwuge in Ronxian of Guangdong Province. All of them, tall, graceful and dignified, can be listed as representative works of classical Chinese architecture.


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