Traditional Chinese Architecture and Planning. China's perception of "Space" and "City"

Term Paper, 2018

9 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of content


Question 1: SPACE
Emptiness and contrasts
Western architecture and its impacts on China

Question 2: CITY
Modern planning and culture: From Shenzhen to ROC Taiwan



The desire to understand the nature of physical and built space dates back as far as the history of society since the agricultural revolution. One of the oldest societies and a traditionally agricultural oriented one is the historical Chinese society. In China, philosophising about the essence of humankind, its ways of life and its habitat began very early on. As a result, great powers and cultural realms emerged in the eastern Asian regions, which to this day have highly interesting views of nature, man and space. They are at the same time important for the planning of the human habitat and thus for cities as well as for the architectural heritage.

Question 1: SPACE

This first part of the paper is concerned with explaining how "space" has been defined in Chinese urban planning and architecture from ancient times until today.

Emptiness and contrasts

In ancient China, the perception of space was deeply rooted in Taoism. It originated in the fourth century BC with Daodejing of Laozi (Lao-tse) and their believe was that space is not limited only to the physical, visible and sensually tangible level. They instead said that emptiness constitutes space. Besides Confucianism and Buddhism, Taoism is one of the three great teachings that has been influencing China to this day. A few important quotations after the founder and philosopher Lao-Tse gives insights on the ancient way of thinking:1 “Thirty spokes are joined together in a wheel, but it is the centre hole that allows the wheel to function.” / “We mold clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that makes the vessel useful.” / “We fashion wood for a house, but it is the emptiness inside that makes it livable.” / “We work with the substantial, but the emptiness is what we use.” – Laozi Tao Te Ching 11

In addition to emptiness, contrasts also play an important role in this philosophy. Heaven and earth, good and evil, emptiness and completeness. The doctrine of Yin and Yang still reflects this way of thinking in full splendour today. Although it is a question of the description of opposites, the Yin and Yang theory in Taoism should not be understood as a conflict or as an antagonism, but Yin and Yang are connected with each other and are in continuous interaction. Thus, ancient Chinese society strongly believed in harmony.2


The forces of Yin and Yang occur in pairs and together provide harmony and balance between people and their environment. When the five phases of transformation (wood, fire, metal, water and earth) stand in harmony with one another and Yin and Yang are equally balanced, an ideal Fengshui is spoken of. The five phases of transformation also each provide an architectural expression since they represent a colour. Red for example is considered the colour of the south and stands for the element of fire. More importantly it is found in the Fengshui doctrine: The architectural door is an important element in Chinese architecture representing the Yin-Yang system. The door as a symbol often goes along with the red colour telling the person who is about to enter that this door is an auspicious, attractive choice. This is linked to the Fengshui compass, which recognises eight directions and the south representing fire and the colour red is very important. It also represents fame and recognition as it is eye-catching.3

Through the building and city gates the positive life energy is directed into the interior and provides harmony and well-being. In Fengshui this phenomenon is called Qi. Moreover, many historical Chinese buildings have columns that strive upwards and form a vault of heaven – this is considered a communication between heaven and earth.


For their very own conception of space ancient China adopted a so called horizontal and a vertical space concept. With the horizontal space concept, great aesthetic value was placed on the overall construction of buildings and space by aligning the buildings on both sides along a main axis. The most important building is usually located at the end of this main axis.

One of the most important and eye-catching features of ancient Chinese buildings however is their width in contrast to their height and moreover to the perspective of today´s architecture. Ancient China did not like to build tall, expect for pagodas, which are one of the few types of buildings that heighted over their width. Pagodas however have their roots in storing relicts and sacred writings and therefore were sacred buildings with a special purpose. The architectural structure of pagodas spilled over to and from India and Southeast Asia starting in the third century BC and as time went on tall pagoda towers became a factor of recognition of sacred places in the whole of Asia.4

Western architecture and its impacts on China

From my own experience, I can only insist on the importance of a unified understanding of space. This and the respective planning and value understanding of the association of individuals who work on architecture or planning projects must agree with the common social understanding in order to generate the necessary resonance. Since the understanding of planning and building culture in China is fundamentally different from that in Western societies and because China as its own planning culture has existed for thousands of years and favours certain values which the Western world regards as incomprehensible and devaluing, for example the differences in attitudes towards folds and originals as well as the value of replicas, the break in values is very clear and strong and the cultures as different as they can possibly be.5 6

Nevertheless, today, Chinese architects work together with Western architects and produce valuable space - whether this, however, corresponds to the old Chinese values and principles, can at least not be seen at first glance. Spatial and urban planning is always the product of a society's debate on the distribution of land use within its territory and therefore a reflection of its values and power structure. Assuming this, modern China is vastly different in their values and power relations to ancient China. A simple glance at a modern Chinese city skyline reveals that.

There is no trace of Fengshui whatsoever. A traditional Chinese building, whether a hut or a Daoist temple, should be embedded in the landscape like a bird's nest, creating balance and harmony between man and nature. Instead, people in China nowadays try to cramp their way around the irreproducible resource of land. Harmony, contrasts and representativeness of the Fengshui culture have disappeared and a new planning and architectural culture influenced by Western capitalism has replaced the Chinese living environment.

Glass and steel towers rise above where in ancient China there were wide, Fengshui-compliant places of worship or agricultural land. Instead of the Chinese culture, these today carry Western concepts of economic growth and capital cultivation deeply rooted within them.

Question 2: CITY

The second part of the paper is about the city, its symbolism and the importance of Chinese cities in ancient years compared to today.


Ancient China knew of the importance of structure within a city – the design and the spatial alignment of land-uses and built space was sacred and crucial for living in harmony with the society and the universe. Ancient China moreover created a symbolic picture of an ideal city structure. Based on this picture they invented a theory representing the ultimate design of a city, namely “Wangcheng”.

This planning theory with the unique architectural features for building the ideal city has influenced the construction of ancient Chinese cities. Especially the politically important big cities were founded on this basis, because the square of the ideal city symbolises the cosmic form of order, which was very suitable for capitals. Thus, the cities were arranged squarely and aligned according to the laws prevailing in the cosmos. Ancient China was in the centre, which is why it was also called the "Middle Kingdom", which dates back 1000 BC - the centre always had a special meaning in Chinese philosophy. The main axis goes from north to south - so the ruler's palaces stood in the centre of the city, around which residential quarters were found in square or rectangular construction. Depending on the social position of their inhabitants, they were then graded.


The capital was the centre of domination and administration, but this symbol of the centre was only temporary. Because of the changing dynasties and their emperors, China had a "multi-capital system". The most typical examples are the Chang An (today Xi An) in the Tang Dynasty and Bian Liang (today Kai Feng) in the Song Dynasty. The idea of the concentric city, grid-shaped street systems, the walls and gates all reflect the ideas of the ideal city of "Wangcheng". There is both the outer defensive wall that surrounds the outer city and the inner defensive wall that surrounds the inner city. To further demonstrate I want to present a historical map of the city of Chang An during the Tang Dynasty.7


1 Vgl. Soon Teo (2015), Online

2 Vgl. Kazlev Alan (1999), Online

3 Vgl. Deziel Chris (2015), Online

4 Vgl. Wikipedia (2018), Online

5 Vgl. Wang Chiu-Yuan (2014), Online

6 Vgl. Wikipedia (2018), Online

7 Vgl. Chen Xiaoyan (2009), Online

Excerpt out of 9 pages


Traditional Chinese Architecture and Planning. China's perception of "Space" and "City"
Vienna University of Technology
Traditional Chinese Architecture and Planning
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Chinese Architecture, Planning, China, Space, City, Perception, Traditional, Ancient China, Chinese City, Shenzhen, Lao-Tse, Harmony, Fengshui, Spaceconception, Conception, Pagoda, Chinese, Forbidden City, urban planning, spatial planning, architecture, skyline, structure, skyscraper, ideal
Quote paper
Felix Wernisch (Author), 2018, Traditional Chinese Architecture and Planning. China's perception of "Space" and "City", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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