Architecture Planning and Preservation Architecture of East Asia
Nancy S. Steinhardt
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0048


East Asia is a modern geographic designation. Today East Asia comprises China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Mongolia, and Tibet. Parts of all of them except Japan have at one time been part of China. China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam use Chinese characters in their classical languages. Buddhist architecture stands in all six countries. Still, books and articles about East Asian architecture are few. The majority of published material concerns only one East Asian country. Several features characterize architecture across East Asia from the earliest evidence through the 19th century. The majority of buildings are supported by timber frames. The timber pieces are modular, so the measurements of certain components can be used to derive the measurements of others. Buildings usually are part of groups that form around or inside courtyards. Sometimes the courtyards are enclosed by covered arcades; other times they are enclosed by walls. The principles of enclosure and walling extend to cities. A front gate is part of almost any East Asian building group. Although it is rare for a building in East Asia to stand in isolation, every building group has one main structure. Most architecture in East Asia is built by craftsmen. Few names of architects survive, however. The patrons of East Asia’s most significant buildings were rulers and aristocrats.

Pre-1950s Overviews

The earliest general overviews of East Asian architecture were compiled in Japan in the second through fifth decades of the 20th century, the period leading up to and during the Second World War. Two of the most prolific compilers were Sekino Tadashi (b. 1868–d. 1935) and Itō Chūta (b. 1867–d. 1954), both of whom led research teams in territory known as Manchuria that is today the northeastern Chinese provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang, North Korea, and eastern Inner Mongolia. The old books often are extremely important, for they sometimes contain information about buildings lost during the wars of the 1930s and 1940s or later strife. Moreover, the research is sound, offering initial photographs and information about many buildings, including some that no longer survive or have been restored. Some surviving buildings described in early works have been significantly restored in recent decades. The major surveys of East Asian architectural history of the 1910s and 1920s are in Japanese. Itō 1936–1937, Sekino 1929–1930 are examples. Because of changing borders during the decades of warfare, a work such as Sekino 1929–1930, with Korea in the title, includes buildings that today are in northeastern China.

Post-1950s Overviews, including Global Architectural Surveys

Since the mid-20th century, the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the division of Korea into North and South Korea, and the division of Mongolia into Inner and Outer Mongolia have meant that Chinese, North Korean, South Korean, and Mongolian scholars conduct their own research almost exclusively on their own national architecture. The few publications on East Asian architecture are primarily by non–East Asian researchers. The majority of works that deal with the architecture of more than one East Asian country focus on Buddhist architecture. They are listed in the section on Buddhist Architecture. Pryce 2016 is a study of timber architecture, with a long section on Japan. Chakraborty-James 2014 is an exemplary survey that covers East Asian architecture as accurately as architecture from other parts of the world.

The Modern Period

To date, no significant survey of modern East Asian architecture has been written. Galindo 2010 is the only recommended survey of modern Asian architecture. Steinhardt 1990 and Steinhardt 2007 are volumes of conference papers that present aspects of modern East Asian architecture in a global and East Asian historical context, respectively.

General Discussions

General discussions of East Asian architecture are found in more general books on East Asia. A few books or articles provide general overviews of East Asian architecture, both secular and religious. Wang 1982 and Wang 1992 cover material gleaned from excavations. Bussagli 1989 is a general overview written after 1950 that covers China, Korea, and Japan. It has more information than Speiser 1965, although Speiser 1965 has superior illustrations. Hong 2006 and Hong 2012 deal with Korea and Japan. Farris 1998 and Holcombe 2001 are almost unique in their coverage of China, Korea, and Japan, but both have only one chapter focused on architecture. Iida 1953 is one of the most scholarly works and has retained its value over more than half a century. Xu 1999 attempts to accomplish the same thing, but not as successfully. The majority of general works focus on Buddhist Architecture (discussed in its own section).

Buddhist Architecture

Because Buddhism originated in India, and then moved eastward across Asia, Buddhist architecture is a subject that has encouraged authors to write about more than one East Asian country.


Li 2003, Li 2015, and Pichard and Lagirarde 2013 are examples of studies of monasteries across the eastern part of Asia. Other works with long sections on architecture, such as Fisher 2006 and Seckel 1989, include the other arts of Buddhism, including sculpture and painting, as well as architecture. Su 1996 is a study of another trans-Asian Buddhist structural type, the cave-temple. Jayne 1929 focuses on interior temple architecture that has been moved into a museum. Washizuka 2003 is the catalogue for an exhibition that included temple remains and sculpture from China, Korea, and Japan. Zhang 2004 is an erudite study of architectural forms present in China and Japan. The cited issue of Tōhoku Gakuin Daigoku ronshū (2006) includes papers from a conference on early East Asian Buddhist architecture.

Stupas and Pagodas

Pagodas and stupas are a unique architectural form present in architecture across Asia (pagoda is more often used to refer to East Asian structures, and stupa more often refers to buildings in South and Southeast Asia). Combaz 1937, Sahara 1949, Sahara 1963 (updated in 1972), Franz 1978, Dallapiccola and Lallemant 1980, Shiruku Rōdogaku Kenkyū Sentā 1980, Shiruku Rōdogaku Kenkyū Sentā 2007, and Stratton 2000 are exemplary works that trace the origins and development of the form across Asia. Snodgrass 1992, the updated Snodgrass and Reynolds 2018, and Tucci and Chandra 1988 deal with the symbolism of the structure. Glauche 1995 is a very general work.

Collected Writings and Conference Proceedings

A few conferences on East Asian architecture have yielded proceedings with papers on China, Korea, and Japan. When multiple countries are included under one cover, the subject is usually a structural type such as the Buddhist monastery or pagoda. These volumes often extend beyond China, Korea, and Japan to Tibet and South Asia. Finally, a few works on global architecture have significant sections on East Asia. Only two works fit into this category, Tanaka and Taikai 2013 and Brown and Hutton 2015, the latter being a recent compilation of papers used in some surveys of Asian art in North America.

  • Brown, Rebecca, and Deborah Hutton. A Companion to Asian Art and Architecture. Chichester, UK, and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

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    Includes several articles about architecture, but none about East Asia.

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  • Tanaka Tan, and Taikai Takane, eds. Dentō Chūgoku no teien to seikatsu kūkan: Kokusai shinpojūmu hōkokusho. Kyoto: Kyoto Daigaku Jinbun Kagaku Kenkyūjo, 2013.

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    A conference volume (Report of the International Symposium: Landscape Architecture and Living Space in the Chinese Tradition) celebrating the sixtieth birthday of one of Japan’s most eminent architectural historian of East Asia, Tanaka Tan.

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Periodical literature about East Asia is found in journals on the architecture of China, Korea, and Japan, and occasionally in architecture journals in European languages. European-language periodical literature on the art and architecture of Asia, South and East, also contains some of the most important research on East Asia architecture. Usually, however, the subject is the architecture of only one country. Only a few periodicals are designated as “East Asian.”

Monographs on Major Periods

Monographs form a large category. The majority deal with the Buddhist period.


Two authors dominate literature on this archeological period: Gina Lee Barnes and Hong Wontack. Barnes 2017, Hong 1988 (updated 1994), and Hong 2019 are their representative works. Barnes 1990 is a bibliography. They are among the few scholars who also write monographs about Korea.

Premodern Period from c. 400 Onward

The most important monographs on East Asian architecture deal with this period. All of them include information about Buddhist architecture. Steinhardt 2001, Steinhardt 2011, and Steinhardt 2014 are the most scholarly and up-to-date. Soper 1942 and Soper 1947 are seminal works of the early period of the study of East Asian architecture in the West. Barnes 1995 is a survey for an interested nonspecialist, whereas Chie 2002 is for a specialist reader. He 2013, Hu 2014, Kim 2011, and Yu 2018 are dissertations likely to become books in the future. Zhang 2006 deals primarily with China and lands to the west.


Four representative books on East Asian cities—Lo and Marcotullio 2001, Yuen and Yeh 2011, Bracken 2015, and Cheshmehzangi and Butters 2018—all focus on contemporary issues. All also include material beyond East Asia.


Only one book is about Asian gardens, Turner 2011, even though many studies of Japanese gardens include introductory material about Chinese gardens.


Izikowitz and Sorensen 1982 comprises a set of essays on vernacular architecture in East and Southeast Asia.

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