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Ancient Chinese Cities And Architecture

Updated on January 18, 2012

Walled Cities

Imagine living in a city with over one million people inside four giant walls that run more than 20 miles around! That’s what it was like inside the imperial capital city of Xi’an in 600 CE. At the time, Xi’an was the final stop on the Silk Road. It was also one of the largest cities in the world.

Until the twentieth century, the Chinese built a wall around almost every one of their cities. They made the walls from rammed earth. At first, walls were a way to protect the city from outside invaders. But even after walls were no longer a good defense, they remained an important symbol of ancient Chinese cities.

Chinese Marketplace: The Shicheng
Chinese Marketplace: The Shicheng

Chinese Market: The Shicheng

Cities were the center for government and trade in ancient China. The market, or shicheng, was located in the middle of the city. The shicheng was one of the few open areas in the city. Farmers came to the shicheng to trade their grain and produce. Silversmiths, embroiderers, tailors, and other craftsmen also sold their handiwork at the market. People could buy medicine and herbs in the market’s apothecaries.

Chinese Palaces: The Forbidden City

The palace was also located near the heart of the city. The palace was like a city inside a city. It had its own gardens, temples, and monasteries. Government offices were here too. The palace showed off the emperor’s power and authority. A magnificent palace reminded the people of his connection to heaven.

The most famous Chinese palace still standing is the Forbidden City in Beijing. It was built during the Ming and Qing Dynasties and has more than 800 buildings within its walls. It is called the Forbidden City because no one could enter or leave without the emperor’s permission.

The Forbidden City in Beijing, China
The Forbidden City in Beijing, China
Old Town, Zouzhuan, China
Old Town, Zouzhuan, China

Chinese Architecture: The Use of Wood

One of the most important contributions ancient China made to architecture was the innovative and creative ways they used wood. The Chinese were brilliant at building wooden interlocking joints. This allowed them to make frames that could support the heavy, sloped roofs that hang over the edge of walls. This style of building can be seen throughout China. Wooden buildings hold up very well during earthquakes, which are common in China. But they can also burn down easily if there is a fire.

Most buildings were lined up perfectly from north to south, like a compass. When it was possible, the Chinese designed buildings to be symmetrical. This meant they looked the same on both sides. This was true for everything except gardens, which were supposed to be as asymmetrical as possible, or different on both sides. The Chinese thought of gardens as works of art that connected nature and the city.

Chinese architects always followed a sacred set of rules for building called feng shui (pronounced fang shway). These rules applied to both peasants and emperors. Feng shui means “wind and water,” and it still has a great influence over life in China today.

Feng Shui

Many Chinese believe that the earth, humans, and the heavens are all connected. What connects them is an invisible energy force they call qi (pronounced “chee”). In order to live a successful life, a person must allow this force to flow around him or her as much as possible. Feng shui is the practice of arranging objects and space to help with this flow.

According to the rules of feng shui, the perfect house would be in a beautiful spot with a view of the mountains to the rear and from both sides. The house might have a peaceful stream flowing right past the front door. Of course, not everyone could afford a house in the mountains. But those rich enough to design their own house would usually hire a feng shui expert. This person would make sure the house was built in such a way that the family inside would always prosper and have a healthy relationship with nature.

The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

The most famous wall in China is the Great Wall. Most people agree that the Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (pronounced “chin shee-hwang-dee”) was the ruler who first began building the wall. Some portions of the wall had been built as early as 700 BCE but Shi Huangdi joined the sections and greatly expanded the wall starting in 221 BCE.

The emperor believed that the Great Wall would keep out China’s barbarian neighbors to the north. Even more of the Great Wall was built between 1368 and 1644 CE under the Ming Dynasty. At one point, the Great Wall stretched over 1,600 miles. Unfortunately, much of the wall is now in ruins. But since UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1987, major parts of it have been restored to their original beauty.

Zhouzhuang: The Venice of China (Video)


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