Architecture Planning and Preservation Buddhist Architecture in Imperial China
Aurelia Campbell
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0073


Buddhist architecture in China encompasses a vast and diverse range of buildings spanning more than fifteen hundred years, from the first centuries CE, when Buddhism was introduced into China, and extending through the 21st century. The three main forms of Chinese Buddhist architecture—temples, pagodas, and cave shrines—evolved from Indian precedents, the knowledge of which was imported into China alongside the religion. These three building types are all distinct in form and construction, contributing significantly to the richness of the Chinese architectural tradition. Because the earliest surviving timber-frame buildings in China are all Buddhist, the history of Chinese Buddhist architecture is in many ways synonymous with the history of Chinese architecture. Most of the surviving early wooden buildings are located in North China, with a particularly high concentration on Mount Wutai in Shanxi Province. These buildings were researched by the first group of Chinese architectural historians who formed the Society for Research on Chinese Architecture (Zhongguo Yingzao Xueshe 中國營造學社) in the early 20th century, and are the starting points for students of Chinese architectural history. Over the course of Chinese history, Buddhist architecture went through several significant developments; scholars have only begun to scratch the surface of Buddhist architecture after the Mongol-ruled Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), especially with regard to non-imperial buildings. Considerable regional variation is also exhibited Buddhist architecture, and much more work needs to be done in relation to architecture outside the main economic and political centers of the country in the north and southeast.

General Overviews

Given the prominence of Buddhist architecture in China, a great deal of excellent scholarship has been written on the subject. For those who can read Chinese, the best place to start research is the volumes published by the Chinese Architecture and Engineering Publishing House (Zhongguo jianzhu gongye chubanshe中國建築工業出版社). Each volume of this well-illustrated and chronologically divided series is written by a top scholar in the field and contains detailed entries on the most important examples of Buddhist architecture in China (Guo 2009, Fu 2009, Pan 2009). Sun 2018 also gives an excellent chronological introduction to the surviving temples and pagodas in China. Readers limited to English will find excellent surveys of Buddhist architecture in Liang 1984, Steinhardt 2014, and Steinhardt 2019. All of the books within this section address multiple building types, including cave shrines, pagodas, and timber-frame temples and monasteries.

  • Fu Xinian 傅喜年, ed. Zhongguo gudai jianzhu shi, di er juan: Sanguo Liangjin, Nanbeichao, Sui-Tang, Wudai jianzhu (中國古代建築是,第二卷:三國、兩晉、 南北朝、隋唐、五代建築). Reprint. Beijing: Zhongguo jianzhu gongye chubanshe, 2009.

    An essential reference (The history of Chinese architecture, Vol. 2: Three Kingdoms, Two Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties, Sui-Tang, and Five Dynasties architecture) by one of the most authoritative scholars in the field. Includes discussions of cave temples, above-ground temples, and pagodas between the Han (206 BCE–220 CE) and Tang (618–907) dynasties. Full of high-quality line drawings. First published 2001.

  • Guo Daiheng 郭黛姮, ed. Zhongguo gudai jianzhu shi, di san juan: Song, Liao, Jin, Xixia jianzhu (中國古代建築史,第三卷: 宋、遼、金、西夏建築). Reprint. Beijing: Zhongguo jianzhu gongye chubanshe 中國建築工業出版社, 2009.

    An essential reference (The history of ancient Chinese architecture, Vol. 3: Song, Liao, Jin, and Xixia architecture) by one of the most authoritative scholars in the field. Heavy focus on timber-frame buildings and pagodas during what is considered the height of Buddhist architecture in China. First published 2001.

  • Liang, Sicheng. A Pictorial History of Chinese Architecture. Edited and translated by Wilma Fairbank. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984.

    A comprehensive overview of Chinese architectural history by the most renowned 20th-century scholar in the field. Introduces short discussions of China’s most prominent Buddhist temples and pagodas. Illustrated with Liang’s own carefully labeled renderings of the buildings.

  • Pan Guxi. Zhongguo gudai jianzhushi, di si juan: Yuan-Ming jianzhu (中國古代建築史,第四卷: 元明建筑). Reprint. Beijing: Zhongguo jianzhu gongye chubanshe, 2009.

    A standard reference (History of ancient Chinese architecture, Vol. 4: Yuan and Ming architecture) for Chinese architectural historians by one of the most authoritative scholars in the field. Heavy, but not exclusive, focus on Buddhist architecture, including Tibetan Buddhist architecture. Numerous detailed line drawings. First published 1999.

  • Steinhardt, Nancy. Chinese Architecture in an Age of Turmoil, 200–600. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780824838232

    Essential introduction to the architecture in China between the Han (206 bce–220 ce) and Tang (618–907) periods. Includes a chapter on the emergence of Buddhist architecture in China, as well as on early Buddhist architecture in Korea and Japan. Full color images and original line drawings.

  • Steinhardt, Nancy. Chinese Architecture: A History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780691191973

    Comprehensive survey of the most famous buildings within the Chinese architectural tradition. Not about Buddhist architecture specifically, but a good reference for scholars interested in learning about the surviving buildings from the pre-Buddhist period through the early 20th century.

  • Sun Dazhang 孙大章. Zhongguo Fojiao jianzhu (中国佛教建筑). Beijing: Zhongguo jianzhu gongye chubanshe, 2018.

    The most comprehensive resource to date on Buddhist architecture in China, written by one of the leading scholars in the field. The extensive discussion of pagodas, generously illustrated with photographs and line drawings, is particularly useful.

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