The enigma of China is as fascinating as any other country but its charm lies in the simplicity that has grown from the lands. China is a land where numerous tribes lived for centuries, and who have grown in wisdom about its nature. Their culture, history, and architecture indicate the nearness to the environment and forests. Their architecture invites nature indoors while keeping the extremities out. Their art shows the simplicity of living and high thinking. This paper tries to explore the architectural realm of Chinese architecture and the use of walls as a reflection of their principles.
Chinese architecture mainly encompasses imperialistic buildings, gardens, vast variety of residential buildings, and religious temples and mausoleums. The imperial buildings are highly symmetric in plan, main court, and palaces aligned in the central axis and smaller buildings on the left and right of the main complex (Example Imperial Palace, Forbidden City, and Beijing.) They were a complex of one or more courtyards with buildings flanking on all sides. Imperial buildings are like proto types, residential buildings are much smaller in scale, but have similar features. Columns support roofs, and walls separate spaces. Walls do not support the roof and are not part of the structural system (Cultural China, 2014). This is a unique feature in all Chinese buildings and is found in most residential buildings too. Large roof spans are supported by bays of columns but space in the interior is undivided in most places. Interior walls in palaces are wooden screens offering required privacy yet keeping the flow of space. The buildings align north-south axis with entrance invariably facing south. Openings on the other sides of the building are minimal. Courtyards of different sizes provide sufficient light and air circulation in the interiors. Courtyard sizes vary depending on the local climate, small courts in hot parts and large courts in cold parts of the country. Roofs are kept low to the ground with large overhanging eaves. Exterior walls are built with bricks or mud rammed and columns are wooden pillars. Roof structure is also in wood and tiled.
Residential buildings across the country may be categorized into five main styles – courtyard houses, cave houses, earthen buildings, seal-like buildings, and stilt houses (Travel China Guide, 2014). Courtyard houses have one courtyard with buildings enclosing it. The main block facing the entrance belongs to the owner or the parents, and sons and daughters living quarters are on the left and right of it (example Courtyard houses in Beijing). Cave houses have been traditional housing for many centuries and farmers still live in them. Long rectangular halls built like caves with wood, mud or brick align the nearby hills (example Farmers caves at Northern Shaanxi Province.) Earthen buildings are two or three large circular buildings with outer most wall up-to four storeys high. Central building is square, usually the dining place or entertainment center. Completely built in mud and wood these buildings offer best protection from heat and cold and are excellent insulators (Example Haka’s houses at southeast China's Fujian Province). Seal-like buildings are square shaped, two storied residences. Small openings to the exterior protect the residents from outside heat and offer cooling interiors (Example at Yunnan province). Stilt houses are built on the banks of rivers in wood and overhanging eaves (Examples in Southern China.) While the exterior walls in all these houses are built in mud bricks or rammed earth, interior walls are almost nonexistent. Wooden screens and in some cases stone screens are used to separate spaces. This is again a unique feature indicating the transparency of space.
Function, significance, aesthetics of walls
Walls signify separation of space. Interior walls create privacy and security. The first wall that one would encounter in Chinese houses is the decorated wall facing the front entrance. This wall prevents prying eyes into the main courtyard, which is the central focus of activity in most homes. Chinese people are reserved in nature and do not mingle with strangers easily. Their activities are screened from the passersby or visitors by the entrance, screen wall. The other walls in the interior are the screens that separate the interior courtyard from private sleeping and eating spaces. Wooden screens are often used in some cases, foldable screens that expand or reduce space as required.
Walls in Chinese culture are an extension of their beliefs and notions. Houses are notably un-hindering and least obtrusive in nature. Roofs hang low and appear to hug the earth. Walls enclose a space as a house but internally they do not block visually or functionally. According to Chinese folklore screens protect against bad luck and they are seldom plain (Thorp, Robert, 1986). They are decorated with symbols and artifacts enhancing their dignity and purpose. One other significant wall in the house is dedicated to the ancestors. It has a low table near it to hold incense and offerings to ancestors and is adorned with ancestral pictures or gods.
The screen walls in Chinese homes display the aesthetic nature of the residents. They filter sun light and breeze and create serene environment in the interior. The light and shadow patterns created by the screen add drama to the spaces. Like an old proverb ‘be heard than seen’, these walls create beauty and lattice like ambience. The interior courtyards add magic to the spaces with clever color combinations evoking nature. Fengshui concepts of water, wind, and earth are invoked in the interiors while the walls ensure transparency of space. Nature seems to flow through the houses due to the unobstructed breeze and sun light passing through the screens.
Though the Great Wall of China signifies the division of Chinese land from invaders, it is a symbol of separating space again. It does not enclose a piece of land per se. Built over centuries to protect against invaders it signifies the Chinese need for solitude.
The wisdom of Chinese vernacular architecture has survived the veracities of time. For centuries, Chinese have built their buildings and gardens based on nature and its preservation in pristine state. Their architecture reflects their affinity to environment and beauty. It is interesting to note that the age-old beliefs and traditions still holding strong in the modern times. It is only commendable that Chinese, despite the teeming population, continue the tradition of nature preservation by their construction methods and materials.
Cultural China, 2014. The Imperial Palace of Beijing. Web. Accessed on March 1, 2014. Available at http://www.cultural-china.com/chinaWH/html/en/20Scenery83.html
Travel China Guide, 2014. Traditional Chinese residence. Web. Accessed on February 28, 2014. Available at http://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/architecture/styles/residences.htm
Throp, Robert, 1986. Architectural Principles in Early Imperial China: Structural Problems and Their Solution. http://www.jstor.org. Web. Accessed on March 1, 2014. Available at http://faculty.oxy.edu/yuhas/articles/ArtH362/Thorp-ArchitecturalPrinciples.pdf.