Chinese Architecture History, Beijing

From around 1400 to 1750, Beijing was structured along hereditary class lines, and its architecture was a reflection of that. In fact, many of Beijing’s most famous architectural and cultural sites were built for the sole purpose of promoting and sustaining those class lines.

Chinese Architecture History: The Imperial Palace/ Forbidden City

Perhaps one of the finest examples of architecture built to reinforce hereditary class lines is the Imperial Palace. The Imperial Palace was built by the early Ming Dynasty and took several years to complete. It was started in 1402 and wasn’t completed until 1420.

At that time, the “upper class” consisted of, of course, the Imperial family. Below the Imperial family came the military leaders, and then scholar officials. Everyone else fell into lower class groups.

After being built, the Imperial Palace served as a clear dividing line between the Imperial family and the “commoners.” The Palace, built right in the middle of Beijing, China, was home to emperors and their families for close to 500 years. Much like America’s White House, however, the palace was also an important political center.

The Imperial Palace, as one might expect, is massive, containing 980 buildings and encompassing 7,800,000 square feet.  And, as is to be expected for a building of that size, completing the palace was no easy task. It took more than a million workers to complete the project.

Constructed mainly from wood, marbles, and bricks, the Imperial Palace and its surrounding area, known as the Forbidden City, is fully enclosed by a 26 feet tall wall and a moat. The walls were built to protect the Imperial Palace and to keep certain people within the palace bounds as well.

Though the walls were intended to be functional in nature, that doesn’t mean that some consideration wasn’t given to beauty. Each corner of the wall is home to a large and detailed tower that has 72 ridges .

The south wall features a gate known as the Meridian Gate, and the north wall has a gate known as the Gate of Divine Might. These gates, along with the others that exist within the city, feature decorative gold door nails.

Two large and very decorative courts—an inner court and an outer court--complete the palace’s design.

Chinese Architecture History: Yuanmingyuan Summer Palace

Just five miles away from the Imperial Palace and the Forbidden City, the Old Summer Palace, also known as Yuanmingyuan, was established. Construction began in the 18th century and was completed early into the 19th. Because the Ming Dynasty had its own home and political center with the Imperial Palace, the Qing Dynasty decided to establish its own “epicenter” as well, and thus Summer Palace, a collection of palaces and exquisite gardens, was created.

Though not much is left of the Old Summer Palace, the architecture was once considered quite advanced. Crumbling walls and ruins can still be seen, and some of the gardens remain intact. At the time that the Old Summer Palace was built, however, its gardens were some of the world’s most spectacular, housing extensive halls, rock hills, pavilions, kiosks, chambers, and more.

Chinese Architecture History: The Ming & Qing Tombs

In 2004, Imperial tombs from the Qing Dynasty were added to the collection of remaining Ming tombs.

These three Imperial tombs are the Yongling Tomb, the Fuling Tomb, and the Zhaoling Tomb. All of the tombs were originally constructed in the 17th century and are quite amazing, especially from a historical and architectural standpoint.

The tombs, which were built to house Qing Dynasty emperors, are built based on principles associated with Chinese geomancy and Fengshui.
Each tomb is decorated with stone statues, intricate carvings, and decorative tiles.

As for the Ming tombs, there are 13, and they follow similar architectural and spiritual precepts in terms of their design.

Chinese Architecture History: Peasant Huts/ Town Houses.

While the members of the Ming and Qing dynasties were living “the good life” as members of the upper class, the peasants lived mostly in small townhouses and even smaller huts.

Huts and small city homes of the same style still exist in Beijing today. They are typically built very close to one another, look directly out onto the street and passersby, and sometimes feature a very small patch of grass or “yard.” In fact, peasants of the past likely had more space than those currently living in these small homes today.


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