Architecture Planning and Preservation Building Materials of Chinese Architecture
Qinghua Guo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0030


This bibliography is a summation of our present knowledge of building materials used in China from prehistoric (c. 3000 BCE) to premodern times (18th century). Earth, timber, stone, bricks, and tiles are the major materials developed with construction purposes. Earth and wood rendered as tu-mu are a synonym for construction work used throughout the history. In the case of earth, for example, it was used to build not only architecture but also infrastructure (such as city walls) with different techniques (e.g., direct molding and cob, rammed earth with framework and adobe [mud bricks]). China is well known for its long tradition of historical documentation; however building materials in early imperial times were only occasionally mentioned in literature, and their manufacture details were recorded in a few documents. The oldest written source in existence is the Yingzao Fashi (1103). A large number of historic buildings survived from the Ming-Qing times are timber-framed. Therefore, timber architecture has been studied more intensely than the others. And, scholarly attention has put more on the later period of Chinese architecture. Critical study of Chinese architecture did not begin until the 20th century. In the field of building materials, the academic work was scarce. Obviously, the study overlaps with a number of fields: construction, technology, architecture, and archaeology. Within the topic, this bibliography is organized in five categories: timber, stone and earth, bricks and tiles, mortars, coating and painting. Timber includes various prefabricated elements and units, such as columns, beams and block-bracket sets (dou-gong). Over time, Chinese timber architecture developed into a modular design and building standard as a system. Wooden buildings require coatings for weather proofing, which led to application of decorative coatings and paints. Drainage and waterproofing had been major issues for buildings and structures, which resulted in the development from adobe to bricks and tiles. Each section reviews main issues and lists recent scholarly contributions, as well as important database sources.

General Overviews

The earliest information about construction activities, techniques and building materials can be found in Shijing (about 1100–600 BCE). Brief descriptions on city and house construction, carpentry, timber can be found in Wenren 2013. Comprehensive studies on documents relating to construction techniques used in ancient China are presented in Needham, et al. 1971. These are also discussed in Monumentality (Wu 1995). Research conducted in China since the 1960s led to publication of books written by scholars who specialized in architectural history, which provided information on building materials mentioned in historical writings and techniques used in different time periods. These included a compiled publication in Yang 1987, discussing to some extend the building materials on the technique used in early times; the Ancient Chinese Architectural History, compiled by the Institute for Architecture Science with contributions from leading architectural historians of the time (Liu 1980), and a multivolume book of the same title consisting of chronological historical eras (Liu 2003, Fu 2001), which is a successor to the previous edition with a wealth of newly added data and research achievements. However, building materials are not the main focus of the books. An authoritative volume on traditional building technology (Institute for History of Natural Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences 1985) was the first book of such contributed by the eminent scholars in respective research areas. As a collection of essays, it has a chapter dedicated to building materials, and its other chapters also provide technical information on building materials. More readable to the Western readers but less comprehensive overviews on the subject are Thorp 1983 and Pheng 2004.

  • Institute for History of Natural Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences 中国科学院自然科学史研究所. Zhongguo gudai jianzhu jishushi (中国古代建筑技术史). Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe, 1985.

    Chapter 8 of this book provides a concise and accurate summary of techniques including cultivation of raw materials, composition and preparation of composed materials, fabricated products and their applications with reference to historical documents, and excellent drawings and photographs. Written in both a chronological order and architectural typology, its other chapters also contain information on relevant building materials. This book has an English version, titled History and Development of Ancient Chinese Architecture, published by the same publisher in 1986.

  • Fu, Xinian 傅熹年, ed. Zhongguo gudai jianzhushi. Vol. 2. Zhōngguó gǔdài jiànzhú shǐ, dì èr juǎn, liǎngjìn, nánběicháo, suítáng, wǔdài jiànzhú (中国古代建筑史,第二卷,两晋、南北朝、隋唐、五代建筑). Beijing: Zhonguo Jianzhu Gongye Chubanshe, 2001.

    One section is dedicated to the development of building materials in this era, which saw a change in the main type of architecture from mixed earth–timber to timber-framed structures. However, the information provided in this section is very brief.

  • Wenren, Jun. Ancient Chinese Encyclopedia of Technology: Translation and Annotation of Kaogong Ji (The Artificers’ Record). New York: Routledge, 2013.

    Translated as the Record of Trades, Records of Examination of Craftsman, or Book of Diverse Crafts, the Kaogong ji (考工记) is a classic work on science and technology in Ancient China, compiled toward the end of the Spring and Autumn period.

  • Liu Dunzhen 刘敦桢, ed. Zhongguo gudai jianzhushi (中国古代建筑史). Beijing: Zhonguo Jianzhu Gongye Chubanshe, 1980.

    Written from 1959 to 1966, this is the first officially compiled book of architectural history in China, describing the development of Chinese architecture in a chronological order. As an integral part of architecture, building materials used in each historical time are briefly described.

  • Liu Xujie 刘敍杰,ed. Zhongguo gudai jianzhushi. Vol. 1. Zhōngguó gǔdài jiànzhú shǐ, dì yī juàn, yuánshǐ shèhuì, xià, shāng, zhōu, qín, hàn jiànzhú (中国古代建筑史,第一卷,原始社会、夏、商、周、秦、汉建筑). Beijing: Zhonguo Jianzhu Gongye Chubanshe, 2003.

    An excellent summary presented by the authors on building remains discovered in archaeological excavations. Building materials were the essential items and detailed with excellent drawings and a large number of photos; the techniques used in this period are explored.

  • Needham, Joseph, Wang Ling, and Lu Gwei-Djen. Science and Civilization in China. Vol. 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part III: Civil Engineering and Nantics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

    An excellent summary on documents relating to construction techniques used in roads, walls, buildings, ships, and navigation compiled by prominent scholars.

  • Pheng, Low Sui. “Techniques for Environmental Control and Structural Integrity of Buildings in Ancient China.” Structural Survey 22.5 (2004): 271–281.

    DOI: 10.1108/02630800410571599

    Building materials, their preparations, and protection techniques are briefly described.

  • Shijing (诗经). In The Chinese Classics: The She King, or the Lessons from the States. Edited by James Legge, Book 5. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960.

    English title: The Classic of Poetry, or the Book of Odes. First published 1871. Written in the Spring and Autumn period, Shijing is the earliest existing anthology of poetry in China. There are many notable translations of this work.

  • Thorp, Robert L. “Origins of Chinese Architectural Style: The Earliest Plans and Building Types.” Archives of Asian Art 36 (1983): 22–39.

    Materials and construction techniques of early Chinese culture are detailed in context of architectural plans.

  • Wu, Hung. Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0362502800003448

    Chinese decorative, pictorial and architectural forms, often approached as separate traditions, are here explained as a broad artistic movement and contextualized as part of a well-defined cultural and political tradition.

  • Yang Hongxun 杨鸿勋. Jianzhu kaoguxue lunwen ji (建筑考古学论文集). Beijing: Wenwu Chubanshe, 1987.

    English title: Essays on Archaeology of Architecture in China. Research papers on primitive techniques of construction including the materials used in the Yangshao culture to the Qin. An English preface and abstract for each essay are provided.

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