Chinese Connection, Part II

 No, this is not a sequel to the 1972 film starring the one and only Bruce Lee. Nor was there a ‘Part I’ to this series – actually it is an offshoot post from the ‘Orphan: Story of the Gazebo’ set of posts. I’m going rogue, way off track, lost in space-  and hope you’ll join me.

You see, I’ve doing a fair bit of research into Chinese timber frame buildings and have found some astonishing things I wanted to share, starting with a really neat hexagonal pavilion I came across at the Beijing Museum of Traditional Construction:

While on the surface this temple pavilion seems like a fairly standard affair, this hexagonal pavilion surprisingly is open in the middle:

That’s the first time I have seen that – and I’ve been finding out a lot of surprising things in regards to Chinese timber frame structures. There are some highly unusual structures to be found, though generally they are in rather poor condition. One can only imagine how some of these buildings must have looked when newly-built. The mind boggles!

The open center of this pavilion, even more so than having a raised lantern, allows in heaps of light, revealing the intriguing framing system:

The hips and the flanking tail rafters come together just prior to the roof opening, and are presumably in some load point between balancing on the wall bracket complexes and location by compression at the upper end. The three primary roof supports are further tied together about halfway up by an unusual hexagonal facet-form cross tie, with a small pendant at each intersection.

The eave has the standard form of Chinese two-tier eave structure, rectangular rafters atop round rafters, and the hips cantilever out to carry the eave:

The rafter tip lines are hardly tidy in their alignment – not something you would see in Japan unless the building was close to collapsing. Notice the small vase-like strut which help supports the hip atop its supporting tail rafter – that is a component which I could potentially devote several posts to as they are highly varied in form and often quite beautiful. Sometimes they are carved like mythical beings, little beasts of burden if you like.

The Museum’s full name is ‘北京古代建筑博物馆’, which, if I might break it down, translates to Beijing (北京)  Old Era (古代) Building (建筑) Museum (博物馆). It is housed in this imposing 7-bay structure:

This brings up an interesting point about the ‘Four Great Ancient Capitals of China‘. The four are Beijing, Luoyang, Nanjing, and Chang’An (aka Xi’an).

  • Beijing (北京), is literally the North ‘北’ Capital ‘京’. 
  • Luoyang (洛陽) used to be known in the Song Dynasty as ‘Xijing’ the West ‘西’ Capital ‘京’ 
  • Nanjing (南京) is the south ‘南 ‘capital ‘京’
  • Xi’an (西安) is the current name for Chang’An (長安) Which means eternal ‘長’ peace安’
  • There used to be a city called Dōngjīng (東京) in China, the East ‘東’ Capital ‘京’, however today it is called Kaifung and written differently: ‘開封’.

The East Capital, ‘東京’ is also how Tōkyō is written, however this is just a coincidence and has nothing to do, of course, with historic Chinese place-naming practices.

Anyway, the Beijing old Construction Museum has some amazing stuff inside, judging from the photos I came across.  First, there are the models:

This one is unusual. Essentially a Hexagon in plan, and the foundation is in a star pattern. Curiously, the lower eave is flat in profile yet in plan is extended to follow the foundation’s outline, as are the walls. Funky!

Is this a ‘bridge to nowhere’?:

I don’t know anything else about the model or which historic bridge it represented, but very similar bridges were built by the Dong people who live in South West China. The Dong are quite superstitious, holding, among other things that pregnant women should not watch new houses being built and that wood struck by lightning cannot be used for building houses. Today, in Guangxi, one can find the ‘Wind and Rain’ Bridges, one of which, the Cheng-Yang bridge, is of very similar construction to the one seen in the preceding photo:

I recommend you click on that photo for a larger view. What an awesome structure!!!

More Models:

A typical bracket complex:

An octagonal pagoda:

A cut-away view showing the roof framing of a classic 5 x 3 bay temple:

Another pagoda of 7 stories – I wonder which one it was and what happened to it?:

Another temple structure, this one having a perimeter aisle around the core, what the Japanese term a hisashi and moya:

Another – getting bored yet?:

And last a circular fortified clan house from Fujian Province in south-western China, an example of the architecture of the Hakka people:

Here’s a view of a few versions of that sort of structure, in full scale, with earthen walls:

I could see, in a roundabout sort of way, living in a house like that!

For more on traditional Chinese houses like the one above, consider looking in Ronald Knapp’s Chinese Houses. His newer work, Chinese Bridges, is also filled with lovely photographs.

Well, as usual, only scratching the surface here folks. I think there needs to be a part III to this thread! I’ve got some ceilings to show you. Thanks for dropping by the Carpentry Way and see you next time!

4 thoughts on “Chinese Connection, Part II

  1. Seeing all these structures reminds me couple years back when I was in Hong Kong when I visited the Chi Lin Nunnery built in Chinese Tang Dynasty style (my favorite Chinese style Architecture). What shocked me is that the buildings didn't make use of any iron nails, but uses traditional methods of interlocking wooden brackets. Its neighbouring Nan Lian Gardens is also very beautiful.
    I particularly liked the pagodas above. From what I can tell, its form and design is derived from earlier dynasties (before Yuan, Ming, Qing) since it does not feature exaggerated roof curve eaves as well as there moderate use of paint colors (at most, vermillion is used). The first pagoda above looks like the one at Fogong Temple which survived thousands of years of dynastic wars / weathers. For me as a person living in the west, its really a treat to see other architecture from other countries. Your articles have been very full of knowledge and very enjoyable.


  2. Frank,

    thanks for sharing your perspective and glad you enjoyed the read! There is yet much to explore when it comes to Chinese classic wooden architecture.


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