In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Chinese Architecture

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Collected Writings
  • Periodicals
  • Monographs on Major Buildings
  • Beijing
  • Chinese Houses, Gardens, and Geomancy
  • Chinese Building Technology
  • Chinese Construction Manuals

Chinese Studies Chinese Architecture
Nancy S. Steinhardt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0034


Chinese architecture stands in every Chinese province and autonomous region and has been a profound influence on construction in every East Asian country. China’s earliest building remains are from around the sixth millennium BCE. Through all these centuries and across so much space, almost no architects are known by name. Until the fall of imperial China in 1911, the patrons of China’s most significant architecture were rulers and aristocrats, and all Chinese architecture, for emperors and for the most humble subjects, was built by craftsmen. The classical Chinese language has no word for “architect,” only one for “craftsman-builder.” Instead, in every aspect of Chinese construction, public or private, imperial or vernacular, religious or secular, principles and standards established in the first millennium BCE dictated building practices for the next several millennia. Traditionally, Chinese buildings have been categorized in two ways, by purpose and by material. The main purposes of Chinese architecture are palatial, religious, funerary, and residential; the roles of architecture in urban planning and landscape also are recognized. The major material of Chinese architecture is wood. Less often, Chinese buildings are made in brick and stone, and very occasionally metal. Small-scale architecture is made of other materials, such as pottery. Chinese architecture in any material is modular. The module of one component of a Chinese building generates the rest of its pieces. Similarly, a bay unit can be repeated lengthwise or crosswise to turn a small structure into a large one. A result of this process is that traditional Chinese buildings are always recognizable, usually by their roofs as well as by the use of pillars and bracket sets. Critical study of Chinese architecture did not begin until the 20th century. Most of the writing on the subject even today is in Chinese.

General Overviews

The majority of books about Chinese architecture are general overviews. Overview books tend to be highly descriptive and heavily illustrated. They are organized according to chronology, building type, or region. Multivolume overviews are usually multiauthored or produced by research institutes. They are intended to be library references and often include some of the best photographs available of Chinese buildings. Books listed as textbooks include numerous line drawings, often the author’s own. The eight books included in this section represent each major type of general overview: Chinese Academy of Architecture 1982 is a short version of the multivolume surveys; Institute of the History of Natural Sciences 1986 and Tanaka 1998 are technical overviews for sophisticated readers; Li 1986 and Shanxisheng 1986 are regional surveys of the province with China’s greatest number of old buildings; Steinhardt 1984 and Zhongguo jianzhu shi lunwen xuanji 1983 are overviews presented as essays on China’s most important buildings by major authors; and Stein 1990 is the presentation of architecture and related topics by a Sinologist.

  • Chinese Academy of Architecture. Ancient Chinese Architecture. Hong Kong and Beijing: Joint Publishers, 1982.

    An excellent selection of the core monuments of Chinese architecture.

  • Institute of the History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences. History and Development of Ancient Chinese Architecture. Beijing: Science Press, 1986.

    Rare example of collaborative research by a Chinese institute that has been translated into English. Organization is by building material, making the book harder to use than many chronological surveys. However, the translator did a fine job of presenting technical subjects in English.

  • Li Yuming 李玉明, ed. Shanxi gu jianzhu tonglan (山西古建築通攬). Taiyuan: Shanxi renmin, 1986.

    Seventy percent of China’s pre-13th-century architecture is in Shanxi Province. This book provides beautiful illustrations of Shanxi’s most important buildings in color, including some of the lesser-known ones.

  • Shanxisheng gu jianzhu baohu yanjiusuo 山西省古建築保护研究所. Zhongguo gu jianzhu xueshu jiangzuo wenji (中国古建筑学术讲座文集). Beijing: Xinhua shudian, 1986.

    Essays by major architectural historians about buildings in China’s most important province for the study of old wooden architecture.

  • Stein, Rolf. The World in Miniature. Translated by Phyllis Brooks. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.

    Fascinating book by one of France’s greatest Sinologists. Offers much material relevant to Chinese architecture that is not available in more standard studies.

  • Steinhardt, Nancy S. Chinese Traditional Architecture. New York: China Institute, 1984.

    Essays on selected Chinese buildings written in conjunction with an exhibition at the Chinese Institute.

  • Tanaka Tan 田中淡. Chūgoku geijutsushi no kenkyū (中國技術史の研究). Kyoto: Kyōto Daigaku Jinbun Kagaku Kenkyūjo, 1998.

    Comprehensive, technical study of Chinese architecture by one of Japan’s most outstanding historians of East Asian architecture. Based on primary source research and with excellent illustrations.

  • Zhongguo jianzhu shi lunwen xuanji (中國建築史論文選集). 2 vols. Taipei: Wen ming shu ju, 1983.

    Collected essays, many unattributed, on the most important topics of Chinese architectural history.

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