In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Architecture of China-Middle (Han - Yuan Dynasties)

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Architecture Planning and Preservation Architecture of China-Middle (Han - Yuan Dynasties)
Alexandra Harrer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0045


More than fifteen hundred years separate the beginning of the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) from the fall of the Yuan dynasty (1267–1368). Milestones in the formation of traditional building culture were seen during the Han dynasty and the divided period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420–589); construction technology was still in an experimental phase and new cultural imports from Central Asia like Buddhism and influences from the politically separated but economically more advanced South stimulated the process of artistic exchange. New structural principles were imbued with philosophical meaning and connected to social status, once formulated in the Tang dynasty (618–907), were continued and perfectioned over the next centuries. It is an irony of history that the Liao (907–1125), a nomadic people who took over the rule of North China, preserved the iconic features of Tang architecture even better than the contemporary indigenous Northern Song (960–1279), which sheds light on the historical perception of Han-Chinese building culture and the culturally sensible process of Sinification. Design practice was rooted in China’s culture of institutionalization and normalization, and imperially commissioned technical standards for government sponsored construction have survived in the form of several almost intact manuscripts, namely through copies of the original text (Yingzao fashi 1103, 1145), that tell us about the superior level of craftsmanship at the Song court. But official, dynastic style and regional building styles developed next to each other under mutual influence, which is also evident in the architecture of the succeeding Jin (1126–1234) and Yuan dynasties. Magnificent palaces and temples with towering pagodas and multi-storied halls were built in great numbers in wood but due to the events of history, not a single pre-Tang timber building has survived even in the remote areas of Shanxi province. For the one thousand years between the establishment of the Han dynasty and the erection of the timber-framed main hall at Nanchansi (南禅寺, dedicated 782), the study of traditional Chinese architecture has relied on textual records, archeological evidence, and artistic representations on paintings and in relief. Architecture, and Chinese architecture is no exception, refers to both the process and the product of spatial design and in the material form of buildings. It is art, cultural heritage, and applied science, answering the needs of everyday life by providing physical and symbolic shelter. Thus, literature on Chinese architecture is multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary, reflecting a variety of methodologies and a diversity of authors and readers.

General Overviews

From Han to Yuan, Chinese architecture underwent tremendous change both in terms of building practice and theory. And yet, there is an overall thread running through all these stages of development, or at least, there is a continuous search to identify the underlying, most basic qualities that could explain in a simple way the obvious visual and conceptual resemblances among buildings and sites almost all Western art and architectural historians have observed. This trend toward generalization has significantly influenced Western writings and resulted in a large number of sweeping surveys and popular picture books such as Cai 2006. Siren 1970 represents a rare formal approach to writing before the field moved toward periodization into successive dynasties, and is still a good place to start for engineering or design students. Liang 1984 is the long awaited English-language publication of groundbreaking research conducted in the 1930s by Liang Sicheng (梁思成; b. 1901–d. 1972), the most distinguished architectural historian of his time. Although technically accurate, the text is a simplified version of the original Chinese text and would need more editing for convenience of the English reader. Liang 2014 unfolds the story of architecture through accounts of Liang’s adventurous field trips to historical buildings in the 1930s. Sickman and Soper 1971 pioneered the chronological English-language discussion of change and continuity over time just a few years after Liang’s original Chinese publications. Thilo 1977 is a seminal work in the German language that blends German and Chinese methodologies of documentation. Tsinghua University 1985 provides a readable, concise English summary for undergraduates written from the Chinese perspective, and Guo 2006 expands on this in a remarkable way through excellent photos and clear and concise presentations of new archeological and art-historical evidence. Steinhardt 2002 is a collection of translated, thematic essays written by leading Chinese experts and arranged chronologically. Finally, Fu 2017, edited by Steinhardt, takes the next step in advancing the Western understanding of Chinese architectural history from the Chinese perspective, as it is an advanced translation of the life work of one of the foremost contemporary Chinese scholars in all its facets and in full depth. There is no book-length account of the “middle” period spanning from the Han to the Yuan dynasties in English.

  • Cai, Yanxin. Chinese Architecture. Beijing: China Intercontinental Press, 2006.

    Aimed at a general audience, with little scholarly depth. A concise introduction to Chinese architecture, covering in 154 pages the broad categories of cities, palaces, gardens, houses, decoration, and Western influence, without trying to engage in any critical discussion. The updated 2011 version published by Cambridge University Press is well-illustrated and without the previous grammatical and spelling errors.

  • Fu, Xinian. Traditional Chinese Architecture: Twelve Essays. Edited by Nancy Steinhardt. Translated by Alexandra Harrer. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400885138

    This is the most recent translation of the work of Fu Xinian (傅熹年), leading scholar of the Second Generation of Chinese architectural historians after Liang Sicheng (梁思成; b. 1901–d. 1972). Through attention to technical aspects and professional translation, it takes traditional Chinese construction and design beyond the introductory level. Excellent glossary. The twelve essays are arranged loosely according to chronology but without attempting to write a continuous linear narrative. For the expert reader.

  • Guo, Qinghua. Chinese Architecture and Planning: Ideas, Methods, Techniques. London: Edition Axel Menges, 2006.

    Good introduction for undergraduates. The book offers an insightful thematic overview of key questions of Chinese architecture and city planning, with a focus on the early periods until the Northern Song dynasty. Chapters are arranged thematically with essays covering heating systems, tomb architecture, towers and the desire for height, and Yingzao fashi, with a digression on late imperial times through comparison with Choson Korea (1392–1910). Unfortunately there is no glossary.

  • Liang, Sicheng (Liang Ssu-ch’eng). A Pictorial History of Chinese Architecture. Edited by Wilma Fairbank. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984.

    Pioneering English-language version of Liang’s groundbreaking research. Edited by Wilma Fairbanks, a decade-long friend and colleague of Liang and his wife who shared their passion for the survey of historical buildings. Problematic transcription of proper names in Wade Giles, today replaced by Pinyin, might cause confusion for the novice reader.

  • Liang Sicheng (梁思成). Chinese Architecture: Art and Artifacts (为什么研究中国建筑). Edited by Xu Jianzhong. Singapore: Cengage, 2014.

    A collection of eight essays written in English by Liang Sicheng between 1924 and 1941, based on the field survey trips conducted by the Society for Research in Chinese Architecture between 1932 and 1937, covering the history of Chinese art and architecture, Buddhist cave sculptures, pagodas, and China’s second-oldest wooden hall at Foguangsi (佛光寺). With rare hand-drawn drawings and photos of monuments, some of which are no longer present today.

  • Sickman, Laurence, and Alexander Soper. The Art and Architecture of China. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1971.

    Alexander C. Soper (b. 1904–d. 1993), Princeton-trained architect and editor of Artibus Asiae, together with the director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Laurence Sickman (b. 1907–d. 1988), pioneered the English-language discussion according to succeeding dynasties just a few years after Liang.

  • Siren, Osvald. History of Chinese Art. Vol. 4, Architecture. Reprint. New York: Hacker, 1970.

    A synchronic study in four chapters on walls, sacrificial altars (and stairways), timber frame buildings, wall architecture in mud, stone and brick, and framed by introductory remarks and notes on the historical evolution. Historical classic textbook by the Finnish-Swedish art historian Siren. Must be read with caution as it is characteristic of early Western knowledge on Chinese architecture in the 1930s. Wade Giles.

  • Steinhardt, Nancy S. Chinese Architecture. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2002.

    A collection of essays written by the leading Chinese experts who authored the comprehensive five-volume series on the history of traditional Chinese architecture (cited under Multi-volume Series). Chapters are arranged chronologically, following the architectural and archaeological examples found in the relevant Chinese volumes. Edited by Nancy Steinhardt. The only regret is the lack of a glossary of technical terminology. But excellent overview on historical sites and key concepts.

  • Thilo, Thomas. Klassische Chinesische Baukunst. Vienna: Edition Tusch, 1977.

    A seminal work in the German language. Thomas Thilo’s far too little noticed book, internationally better known for his discussion of Sui-Tang Chang’an and his philological studies of text fragments from Turfan, relies heavily on Chinese material published in the meantime by Liang and his colleagues from the Society for Research in Chinese Architecture (Zhongguo Yingzao Xueshe, 中国营造学社). With two chapters organized chronologically that discuss the genesis and transformation of structure and form.

  • Tsinghua University. Historic Chinese Architecture. Beijing: Tsinghua University Press, 1985.

    A concise summary (thirteen pages) for undergraduates of main features of traditional Chinese art and architecture in English, with good sections on the arrangement into building complexes and palace architecture (official government-sponsored construction). Not arranged chronologically.

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