Chinese civilization, growing out of its own Neolithic culture on Chinese soil and independent, to an unusual extent, of contributions from outside, attained to an early pre-eminence and maintained a rather complete and self-conscious continuity from the development of the Bronze Age culture in about 1500 B.C. right into the present century.
Chinese architecture which is typical and in some ways integral part of Chinese civilization, and early developed its own special characteristics, with an unusual degree of systematization, continued, too, in a more or less unbroken tradition, into the twentieth century. It is this continuity, and not, of course, any real antiquity, which helps to make the unique interest of Chinese civilization.
The individual building can be thought of as divided into a number of distinct elements, elements which were indeed kept aesthetically distinct by the Chinese architects. There was the podium or base, of hard rammed earth for humbler buildings, faced with brick or stone for grander ones, varying in height and elaboration according to the ‘rank’ of the building. On the podium timber columns were placed on stone bases, carved in a great variety of forms. The timbers mainly used were pine and a kind of cedar. The columns were tied in both directions by beams, sometimes more than one tier of beams, let into their upper part. But the essential difference from European construction is seen in the cross-section. In the West, besides the timber arch to support the roof purlins, the rigid triangulated truss was developed. In the cross-section, the place of the arch or truss was taken by a system of beams of diminishing lengths placed vertically one over another across the plan between columns and separated from each other by struts, above which the purlins were placed.
The basic bay was capable of expansion in all directions. Across the plan in the direction of the span, the cross-section itself could be increased in width by increasing the number of beams, by adding columns, forming verandah bays or inner spaces of varying widths. Lengthways it could be extended, of course, by mere repetition. It could be extended upwards by varying the heights of different parts of the cross-section, forming lower verandahs with a higher internal room, clerestories, galleries surrounding a higher internal space; or by the addition of upper storeys. It is a striking feature of the Chinese cross-section that, not being based on a triangle above column level, it allowed considerable freedom in the design of the roof-line. The relative positions of the purlins, which controlled this could be varied so as to be either in a straight line or any required curve.