Chinese Connection, Part II (III)

Somewhat absurdly, this it the third part of a part two, a continuing look at traditional Chinese timber framing details. We have so far looked at pavilions, models, and bridges, following up with a post yesterday showing a few examples of architectural carving. In today’s post, we crane our heads up to take in the marvelous sights to behold. Believe it or not, there are alternatives to ceilings of white plastered sheet rock.

Chinese Temple Ceilings.

One Chinese term for temple ceilings is zǎojǐng (藻井) a pair of characters which means the well 
‘ of the floating aquatic plants ‘‘. The first character, ‘, is a rather complex little gem, consisting of ‘‘ (a depiction of chicks in a nest in a tree – the connotation is of activity happening above) plus an abbreviated form of water, ‘‘ to the left. Water plus activity happening above gives the character ‘‘ which means float on the surface of the water. On top of that piece, an abbreviated form of ‘referring to grass/plants, is added to give , and that is how we arrive at the meaning of plants which float on the surface of the water. Neat!

A curious term it would seem, to have this aquatic plant well placed up in the ceiling. Apparently there was constant worry about fire destroying temple buildings, and the placement of a symbolic water feature in the middle of the structure, usually directly above the main throne, seat, or religious figure, was believed to guard against the spirits which brought fire. 

The form of this ceiling is of a sunken coffer bordered in a square, a polygon or a circle, decorated with elaborately carved or painted designs – what would be termed in English a caisson ceiling. ‘Caisson’, a term relating to the word coffer, refers only to this type of Chinese ceiling.

There is even a Chinese knot named after this form – in English termed a plafond knot, the word ‘plafond’ being French for – can you guess? – ceiling:

For more on Chinese knotting, there is a site dedicated to the topic:, and that is where I found the above image. The classic text in the field of knotting is Ashley’s Book of Knots, which features several Chinese knots in a section titled ‘decorative knots’.

Anyway, let’s take a look at some of these aquatic plant wells:

I find this one particularly stunning:

Baoguo Temple in southern China has some incredible ceilings:

Note the lobate posts as well:

A couple more examples:

A large circular hall with a richly decorated ceiling:

A variant on the aquatic plant well is the octagonal heavenly aquatic plant well (八角穹藻井) – notice the scale of the work and the small ‘button’ in the center:

That ‘button’ is actually richly detailed – here’s a closer look:

The center of most of these caisson ceilings feature a more or less flat panel decorated with carving or painting. A pair of dragons circling around chasing a pearl is a common motif, as seen above. This iconography and the theories regarding it is a fascinating area in itself – for more, check out a page in wikianswers (⇐ link). Also, an interesting discussion can be found here (⇐ link).

Another one:

And one more:

Whew! My had is spinning. I hope you enjoyed the brief tour of Chinese timber frame delights and thanks for dropping by the Carpentry Way. Will there be a part 4 of this series, I wonder?

2 thoughts on “Chinese Connection, Part II (III)

  1. Stunning!

    Thanks for bringing these posts on Chinese structures to us – I am gaining a new found respect for Chinese buildings, a subject which I admittedly know very little about.

    I think my favourite is still the bridge from the original part II



  2. Derek,

    there is so much to explore with Chinese traditional wooden architecture, so I'm glad you've found the journey into the topic, so far, to be as interesting a topic as it has been for me.


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