Ancient Chinese roof systems are amazing architectural structures that have evolved over centuries of time. The roof systems were influenced by the life and culture of the Chinese people. Religion and myth, philosophy and politics, science and superstition, humanity and ritual were all principles that were embedded into architecture. To better understand the architecture in Ancient Chinese roof systems, let’s take a journey back in time on the history of Chinese culture and how the buildings developed.
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The Peking man was evidence of the beginnings of distinct cultures being developed in the Stone Age. In the Neolithic period, the village in Banpo had several centuries of tribal occupation with various types of houses such as huts, tents and caves. The buildings were circular in shape with wattle (stakes or poles interwoven with twigs or branches) and daub (spread of semi liquid substance such as mud) walls, a conical shaped reed (tall slender plant stalks) roof. Later buildings became square or rectangular shape, embedded into the ground a half-story with framework of wood columns, a thatched pyramid roof of lightweight wooden structure tied together at the top, and the building was set to have a southern exposure. The entrance was protected by a gable roof. During this time period, the cultures were formed in tribes and then merged together to form a dynastic concept. The tribal heads were the three emperors, Sue Ren, Fu Xi and Shen Long (all together known as San Huang) being that of legendary or symbolic figures and five emperors, Huang Di (Yellow Emperor), Zhuan Zu, Di Ku, Yao and Shun. These emperors were considered heroes in the eyes of descendants and there importance lived on as a god-like guardian in the hearts of the people. The emperors represented cultural traditions, philosophical thought, political concepts and religious beliefs, becoming the object of worship. Their myths and legends influenced Chinese history. Cities and dwellings such as cathedrals, temples, palaces and pagodas were constructed for the emperors and developed under the influence of politics and religion. The emperors gave great symbolic meaning to the culture.
Also during the Neolithic period, the Yin and Yang principles were formed. Yin meaning, feminine, negative and dark and yang meaning masculine, positive and light. It was a guide to universal life.
After the Neolithic period, the first form of civilization began with a government ruling over cities which functioned as political, economical and cultural center called a dynasty. Many dynasties were formed throughout Chinese history. Architectural developments grew through the rise and fall of the dynasties with the influence of political ideas and religious beliefs. During this time two philosophies, Confucianism and Taoism were developed. Taoism, being the philosophy to the individual and their relationship to nature and Confucianism being the philosophy to a group of people and their ethics such as moral code centered on the will of heaven, harmony with nature, and behaving according to De (virtues) which is the quality of being morally good or righteous. Confucius influenced architecture with harmony and the Zhou Ritual. The Zhou Ritual was established during the Zhou dynasty, a feudal society which was based on the familial and religious concepts.
Buddhism later introduced from India to China during the Han dynasty spiritual elements. This brought a variety of building types and merged with Ancient Chinese architectural styles, creating numerous new forms. Between the Changan and Luoyang city, both being the world’s largest cities at their time period were the greatest cities based on the grid plan. With the growing culture and economy of these dynasties made large scale planning and construction possible.
In researching the history of Ancient Chinese roof systems one specific creator is not noted. The Chinese were influenced by their past principles in cultural traditions, philosophical thought, political concepts and religious beliefs dating back to the Neolithic period with the tribal Emperors.
During the Song Dynasty the first Chinese manual of building construction called Ying Zao Fa Shi was developed. The author was Li Jie, an officer and builder in charge of architectural projects, combined descriptions of traditional construction methods with technical information. He spent three years interviewing construction guilds (an association of craftsman) documenting their principles and process and adding his own. The government at that time used it to monitor construction expenditures.
What are the types of roof structures?
There are four types of roof structures that were used in Ancient China; the hip roof, half-hip roof, conical roof, and the gable roof.
The first was a hip roof consisting of five ridges and is very large in scale. It is characterize by its inward curve and upturned corners. Sometimes the hip roof had a flat top. The hip roof was used for important buildings only.
Second, is a half-hip roof consisting of nine ridges and also being very large in scale. The half-hip was made up of a hip roof with a peristyle and at the end of each gable is and eave board with a hanging fish symbolizing happiness. It was also used for important buildings only.
Third, is the conical roof being spherical in shape. This unique roof could be placed on any compact symmetrical structure such as a square, hexagonal, octagonal, or circular form. The conical can be transformed into a pyramid with gables to all four directions. The pyramid or conical roof sometimes were flattened at the top to have a cross ridge.
Forth, is the gable style having one main ridge at the top of the gable. There are two types; one where there is an overhang and two where the overhang is flush with the end wall and sometimes the walls would be raised above the roof like a parapet. This style is the simplest in construction and was widely used for less important buildings such as houses for common people.
What was the purpose to construct the roof system this way (practical, functional).
Roof structures are the first thing you would see and admire when you look at Classical Chinese architecture. Since the beginning of time, the large roof over thin wooden columns and the beams resting upon a podium are the primary architectural characteristics of Chinese architecture. They are practical and functional roofs serving many purposes such as protection from rain, snow, sun and whatever the weather entails. The eaves are another great feature of the roof. Depending on the type of the building the eaves have a wide overhang. This feature protects the building from the sun in the hot summer months and allows the sun in, in the winter months. They also protect the exterior building walls and columns from the rain. You could say that this feature in today’s economy would be known as sustainable.
What does the roof symbolize?
Symbolism has been part of the Chinese culture and was imbedded into their architecture for centuries creating a dialogue between man and architecture. Architecture’s symbolic language has been developed to represent the character, spirit, feelings and ideas of both the builder and beholder. Sociology, art and philosophy are what shaped the form and character of Chinese buildings. According to my research the roof may have been a representation of heaven; the yang (the light and upper principle). The Chinese worshipped heaven, assuming that the large roof was a symbol of respect to the “Son of Heaven.” The house was a model of Chinese private life.
Structural and material
Chinese architecture brought artistic characteristics such as harmony, which emphasized the feel of the material and unity between materials and structure.
Post and beam
Post and beam construction was used most often in Classical Chinese architecture. The roof structures were based on a series of beams set in parallel tiers. The post and beam gave the interior an open floor plan having the weight of the structure on the posts rather than the walls making the walls non-load bearing.
There are two main types of framework used. The first was a post and beam and it was used in the north for important buildings. It has two posts supporting a horizontal beam on which short vertical posts and struts are placed to lift another beam. On these are fitted purlins that define the shape of the roof and across were the rafters are laid. Small buildings have four pillars and the large buildings have additional sets of pillars added to the four. The outer pillars are typically inclined inwards and may taper towards the top to achieve visual balance.
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The post and tie beam is most commonly used in southern China. The horizontal beam rests directly on notched posts, instead of on beams or struts. This method crowds the interior space with columns and so the post and tie beam is used only in the gable and post and beam frame is used in the middle of the building.
In important buildings a group of cantilevered components called “bracket sets” or puzuo or dou-gong, are placed atop the posts to help support the beams or overhang eaves. They are consisted of block and supporting arms. Bracket sets, are classified by the number and complexity of their horizontal, vertical and diagonal elements. The brackets helped the roof fluctuate during an earthquake. The brackets gave good decoration.
Why was wood the main material they used?
Wood was abundant in the old days. Classical Chinese architecture was constructed mainly out of wood. Wood as a building material was natural and had many advantages: it was lightweight, easy to obtain, easy to work with, easy to transport, and most importantly, easy to standardize. The Chinese sensed advantages of wood construction. The span of a wooden beam is wider and the plan freer and more flexible.
Color and design
Why did the Chinese paint their roofs with abstract forms and calligraphic inscriptions?
Why did the Chinese paint the roof tiles imperial yellow?
Important buildings such as imperial buildings, have colorful glazed tiles or even gilded tiles as roofing materials making them attractive to the eye under the bright sun.
Ceramic roof tiles in rust, yellow, green, or blue are secured to rafters by fasteners with decorative animal motifs. On temples and important public buildings, these motifs symbolize authority, protection from evil spirits, and the blessing of the gods.
Why did they use the colors they did?
The colors are based on the importance of buildings.
Colors are strong and bright because pigments are seldom mixed. The palette includes red (for fire, symbolizing happiness on doors or buildings), yellow (earth), gold, green (prosperity), and blue (heaven). Walls, columns, doors, and window frames may be red. Color and gilding may highlight details and motifs
Why were house roofs different from temples and pagodas?
The house was different from a palace or city. The scale of the halls and courtyard within the complex was much smaller, subtler and of human proportions, making them more intimate and humane.
House design was emphasized on family privacy.
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