Built Spaces.
The Cultural Shaping of Architectural and Urban Spaces

Vol. 9, No. 1
November 2004




___Lu, Yi



The Spatial Concept of Chinese Architecture





In intellectual discourses on Chinese culture and context, no aspect has been more neglected than architecture. It results partly from rapid change and growth of the modern society, partly from the current research which is largely focused on aesthetics and form of the traditional Chinese architecture.
This paper attempts to point out some important space conceptualizations in the mind of Chinese people from the cultural point of view, as well as how these concepts influence and reflect the form and pattern of Chinese architecture.
It may seem odd to discuss the spatial concepts or principles in an architecture extending over two thousand years. However, the development of Chinese architecture and its culture is the process of accumulated evolution, rather than outright revolution. The continuous tradition knows no bound. The specific pattern could take place anywhere, whether in a farm house or in a theater, whether in an official building or a tea house in a common street.

The distinction of spatial concepts in traditional China is the product of its unique culture and geographic environment. Not only the form of architecture but also its theories and philosophy differed from the rest of the world for a long time.
Our discussion is composed of two parts. The theories and philosophies are introduced first. They are believed to be of importance for the Chinese spatial concept, and include Dao, Yin-Yang, feng-shui, and Confucianism. In the following, the distinctive principles and meaning of Chinese architecture are discussed in general. They could be identified as: walled closure, axiality and cardinal orientation, and courtyard spaces.


2.      Spatial concept in ancient Chinese mind 

2.1.               The origin of spatial concept

The traditional Chinese rarely discussed space and time in abstract terms. The traditional discourses of temporal and spatial concepts were almost always close to everyday life.
However, early classical texts occasionally used yu-zhou,
referring to the great cosmos of space and time. This term is the combination abstracting completely from what is inside space and time.
Liu An (179-122 B.C.), in his Huan-nan-zi, suggested that the “four directions and the above and the below are called yu; the past, the present and the future are called zhou”[1]. Zhuang Zi, in his book Zhuang-zi, believed that “reality without anything in it is yu”[2].
Therefore, in ancient Chinese thought, space is the whole universe filling different locations. It is in a way objective and real but untouchable. Space could be perceived from a subtle experience, rather than from directed observation.
Also the concept of yu is strongly associated with the resident of a house. From the standard dictionary Shuo-wen, yu refers to lower border of roof that overhangs the wall. From this definition, it is obvious that the spatial concept originates from the everyday human life in a house. The cosmos, yu-zhou, is believed to be some kind of great house for human beings in the Chinese mind. Thus, the establishing of traditional settlements is often interpreted as a revelation of “a city or a house of cosmic order” based on the cosmic pattern.

2.2.               Dao

The philosophy of Dao (also Tao) contributed to the Chinese understanding of the space. The founders of Taoism primarily include Lao Zi (also Lao Tzu) and Zhuang Zi (also Chuang Tzu). It presents the concepts of the universe, natural order, and society in the way of life and handling things.
Lao Zi, in his Dao-de-jing (also Tao-Te-Ching), maintained that “carving out a void to create a room, only where there is emptiness does the room acquire utility”. The void is also called wu, or non-being. Also to Dao philosophy, you, the general term for “being”, i.e. all entities in the phenomenal world, have been produced from an original state wu[3].
The distinction between wu and nothing argued by many scholars is important. Wu as a philosophical term does not indicate an absolute zero but rather an undifferentiated whole in which “there are none”, i.e. “there are not yet any disparate objects, no individualized entities”[4]. If the origin of things is said to be wu, this “non-being” denotes a primordial state of mixture from which yu, i.e. the disparate constituents of existence emerge. This idea of wu as “mother of all things” is matched by that of a primordial chaos: “there was something mixed and complete, which preceded the birth of Heaven and Earth”.
The idea of the unnamable wu and void is the most pervasive thought in the later Chinese cosmological development and concept of space. Void permeated every aspect of Chinese culture. The agents of the concept of void can range from a landscape painting to the housing building, from a private garden to the imagination of a poem.

2.3.               Confucianism

The most popular philosophy school of Confucianism also exerted some influence on the Chinese thought of space. To emphasize Li, the moral order, this school argued that everything should reflect the order and structure of society and ration. According to Confucius and his followers, Li is the integral part of human being. Thus, space also should express the social hierarchy that keeps a society prosperous. Besides the stress to Li, Yue, the emotional harmony, is also suggested by Confucianism. The combination of Li and Yue, i.e. difference and harmony, exists in the Chinese aesthetic principle, including almost every field of arts in traditional China[5].
The growth of Neo-Confucianism during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), had an important influence on development of the Chinese spatial concept. Through the rediscovery and drastic reinterpretation of ancient Confucianism and old texts, the Neo-Confucianism stressed the metaphysical and ethical system. The main term of this system includes “Li (principle), Qi (material force), Ti (substance), and Yong (function)”[6]. The central concepts of Neo-Confucian cosmological philosophy are Li and Qi. To Zhu Xi (1130-1200), who synthesized the Neo-Confucianism, “every human possesses Li (principle), also every separated thing possesses Li”. In addition, the brother of Cheng Hao (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi (1033-1107) elaborated the concept of Qi as center and vertical communication between heaven and earth. Zhu Xi maintained Li and Qi as integral entities with dual aspects: Li as the substance (Ti) and Qi as the function (Yong). Ti is the condensed form of solid matter by the aggregation of the universal material force, while Qi is the basic material from which concrete things are produced, and to which Li or principle supplies the pattern or form. Therefore, to establish a building, a kind of Ti, the Li or principle is needed to be found and used. According to the reality Li, the arrangement and orientation of a building and its elements, whether it is a city or a house, a hospital or a temple, has some particular pattern and order.

Figure 1
A typical Feng-Shui diagram
(from Li, 2002)


2.4.               Feng-shui

Feng-shui, the practical geomancy for selecting a favorable site for dwelling since ancient time, both for the living and the dead, is of importance in Chinese perception of space (Figure 1). Literally, feng-shui is a combination of the words feng, wind, and shui, water. Though the meaning and implication of feng-shui are quite suggestive, such as “wind is what cannot be seen, and water is what cannot be grasped,” or the controlling of wind and water, the terms feng-shui (wind and water) do not imply any idea of the thing meant.

The theoretical basis of feng-shui lies in the concept of Qi (the material force). The basic premise of feng-shui theory is that man and everything, both the living and dead, is under the control of Qi prevalent in heaven and earth[7]. The Qi is believed to flow underneath the earth as a conduit and to be related to the growth and change of all the phenomena in the world[8]. If this Qi is not properly treated, the destiny of man in relation to the site will be affected. Accordingly, man and his physical environment are strongly linked. The ends of feng-shui are to establish a harmonious relationship between the cosmos and the physical environment and the man-made structure. Thus, feng-shui is concerned not only with the practical aspects of managing the physical features of earth for human dwelling but also with issues in Chinese cosmology. In ancient Chinese view, a building is not simply something that facilitates human activities. It is an intervention in the universe, which is composed of the physical environment and men.
Another theoretical foundation of feng-shui is the theory of Yin-yang school which is commonly attributed to Zou Yan (305-240B.C). The Yin-yang theory provides Chinese cosmology with the fundamental source of all natural phenomena. Its central assumption is that all things and events are products of two elements, forces, or principles, yin and yang. They are interrelated and interdependent. The fundamental and philological meanings associated with them were to explain the complementary and balanced aspects of the worldly phenomena; however the distinction between the yin and yang is not absolute.

Figure 2
Animal symbolism expressed in Feng-Shui, reproduction from an ancient print



As most of feng-shui theory is related to Chinese cosmology, the model of prototype feng-shui site corresponds to the Chinese cosmology of correlative thinking. The ancient Chinese considered the heaven to be divided into the four quadrants of the four superbeings at the four cardinal directions (Figure 2). These quadrants protectively surround the central region of the heavenly palace. They are called “Qin-long (Azure Dragon), Bai-hu (White Tiger), Xuan-wu (Black Turtle), and Zhu-que (Red Phoenix) and are located to the east, west, north, and south respectively” . Accordingly, feng-shui theory requires that the ideal site for dwelling must be provided by the four quadrants of the four superbeings surrounding the feng-shui spot, where a dwelling will be established, to maintain positive Qi. This criterion for judging a good space affected the Chinese to believe that a balanced, steady symmetrical and south-facing space is best for the purpose of maintaining the harmonious relationship with the environment.


Figure 3
The ideal city (Tang)
reproduction from an ancient print


3.      Architectural form

As we have discussed above, the underpinning ideas and theories of architectural form and space were multifaceted. These theories are interrelated and also interdependent. For the ancients, the cosmology is the most important for founding the theory of architectural and urban form. The ancient Chinese conceived the cosmos as an extension of their own personalities whether they are a farmer’s house or the great palace. The method of establishing settlements could often be regarded as a revelation of “a city or a house of cosmic order” based on the cosmic pattern[9]. In other words, the aim of the architectural space and form is trying to produce a reduced version of the great cosmos that is close and important to the human life. In the ancient Chinese cosmology, which considered Heaven round and Earth square, space is imagined as a series of imbricate squares. The cosmos is also believed to be divided into the four parts of the four superbeings at the four cardinal directions (Figure 3). The center of this ‘ranked’ space is the capital – a square core marked by four gates at the four cardinal points. This leads to a geometrical image of the universe, enlivened by an elementary network of spatial correspondences.
Chinese architecture, stressing the harmony with nature, incorporated some essential principles of the ancient theories, such as orientation, pure geometrical forms, and a symmetry that mirrors the alternation of summer and winter, day and night[10]. They appeared early in the tradition and were applied very widely, whether to the plan of a little homestead, the layout of a temple, or even a city. These physical features could be identified as walled enclosure, axiality and cardinal orientation, the courtyard[11].

3.1.               Walled enclosure

The Chinese word for city and wall (cheng) was the same. Not only was a house or a city walled, but also the entire country is walled by the Great Wall. For example, in Beijing, the Imperial City was a walled enclosure within the Inner City, and the Palace was a walled enclosure within Imperial City again. Every important complex of building was a walled enclosure and if large enough would be composed of separate walled enclosures. Thus, architectural space is like a series of closed worlds, and the smaller units repeat on a reduced scale the forms of the larger one. A building may be viewed as a city on a tiny scale, while the town is a huge building on a vast scale[12].

3.2.               Axiality and cardinal orientation

Another distinguished feature shared by almost every city and resident house was cardinal orientation and axiality. In China, this pattern appeared even in the plans of some of the earliest cities, but even the smaller cities and towns usually exhibited the rule of cardinal axiality and orientation. The roads of a city ran from north to south or from east or west and divided it into a rectangular grid. The principal gate typically was in the centre of the south wall. The enclosure walls, both of a city or its constituent parts, were the most massive elements. In the Chinese city the principal street running from south to north, was of much greater significance than any venue running from east to west. Along this axis were ranged the most important official building. Without exception, the main buildings usually faced south whether it is a palace, a house, or a library.
The physical feature of axiality and cardinal orientation was of symbolic rather than visual significance[13]. This axiality implied a median avenue and the gradual discovery of the architectural complex as one advanced along it. The complex, whether a town or palace, was never designed to be grasped at first glance but only through gradually approaching it in space and time. Therefore, the ancient architecture is also temporal art, like a piece of music or a scroll painting.
There was a definite trend toward horizontality, particularly in Northern China. The main building was distinguished by its site, its area, its more costly materials and more refined decoration and inevitably at the far end, facing the entrance.
The concept of order and harmony in the universe is reflected in the feature of axiality and cardinal orientation. Since for the Chinese north represented the rigors of winter and the threat of barbarian invasion – namely evil influence – all important buildings opened towards the south. Also according to feng-shui, south is preferable for it is occupied by Zhu-que (Red Phoenix), which represented the positive Yang Qi.

Figure 4
Houses of Han dynasty
pottery models (from Boyd, 1978)


Figure 5
Simplified plan of Beijing, Inner and Outer Cities (from Boyd, 1962)


Figure 6
Plan of house in Peking, showing service quarters enlarged into a courtyard of their own, separated from main courtyard
from Boyd, 1962)



3.3.               Courtyard

Buildings, usually rectangular on plan, were established around a courtyard or series of courtyards. Even compact houses of two or more floors will often be found to be planned round a small courtyard. There were three different ways of arranging the courtyard. The first and perhaps earliest consisted of four buildings surrounding a courtyard, which was often a square. This symmetrical arrangement already existed during the Han period (300B.C.-300A.D.) and continued virtually unchanged until the nineteenth century; even today many rural areas still use this style (Figure 4). Its application was universal because for large ensembles (palaces, temples and so on) it could be multiplied at will.

The second way was symmetrical relative to the south-north axis and entirely enclosed by a wall. This arrangement, which reflected a dualistic conception of the universe, was chosen for the tombs of emperors and the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. The third was a combination of the other two as exemplified by the Imperial Palace in Beijing. (Figure 5)

Almost every building unit is planned to equally-sized open space. This is to obtain the balance of Yin and Yang[14]. Yin signifies the shadowy slopes, the cold and rainy season, and everything that is passive and female; Yang the sunny slopes, warmth and dryness and everything that is active and male. According to Yin-yang school, yin and yang are interdependent, for there is no yang without yin and no yin without yang.
The favor of courtyard in Chinese architecture could also be explained by the relationship of wu and you proposed by Taoism. According to Lao Zi, this is to achieve “the balance of wu and you, also non-being and being”[15]. He believed that wu and you also contain its opposite within itself. Wu is “the mother of everything”, thus, the open space also has its own value and function. In fact, the courtyards became the central feature in some buildings, such as the house, opening up the buildings to nature and meeting man’s need for meditation. (Figure 6)



In conclusion, there are definite cultural conditions surrounding the Chinese architecture whose general pattern varies little from one setting to the next. Prominent among these cultural conditions of the ideal Chinese space were the need to maintain harmony between the world of nature and world of men. In other words, the aim of reproducing the macro-cosmos leads to a striking uniqueness of the architectural form and pattern. Therefore, it is valid to conclude that the cultural parameter exerts an important role on the form and space of traditional Chinese architecture.
For several reasons, the study of the spatial concept is believed to be important. It could shed lights on meaning and patterns of traditional Chinese architecture. Furthermore, the cultural conditions are an integral part in the research and design
especially in the area of environment-behavior study and vernacular research. In addition, the cultural parameters are critical for understanding particular environments and responding to specific planning and design problems. Even if culture proves not to be critical in some specific design, it will still be quite important regarding understanding and explanations.





Blaser, Werner. Courtyard House in China: Tradition and Present = Hofhaus in China: Tradition Und Gegenwart. Basel; Boston: Birkhauser, 1979.

Boyd, Andrew Charles Hugh. Chinese Architecture and Town Planning, 1500 B.C.-A.D. 1911. London: A. Tiranti, 1962.

Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1989.

Huang, Junjie, and E. Zurcher. Time and Space in Chinese Culture, Sinica Leidensia; V. 33. Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1995.

Lee, Sang Hae. "Feng-Shui: Its Context and Meaning." Cornell University, 1989.

Li, Xiao Dong. "The Aesthetic of the Absent the Chinese Conception of Space." In Journal of Architecture, 87: E & FN Spon Ltd., 2002.

Liu, Peilin. Feng Shui: Zhong Guo Ren De Huan Jing Guan. Shanghai: Shanghai san lian shu dian, 1995.

Lung, David Ping-yee. Heaven, Earth and Man: Concepts and Processes of Chinese Architecture and City Planning. Eugene, Or.: University of Oregon, 1978.

Wheatley, Paul. The Pivot of the Four Quarters: A Preliminary Enquiry into the Origins and Character of the Ancient Chinese City. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1971.

Wu, Kuang-ming. On Chinese Body Thinking: A Cultural Hermeneutic, Philosophy of History and Culture, V. 12. Leiden; New York: Brill, 1997.




[1] Huang and Zurcher, 1995, page 56


[2] Ibid. page 57


[3] Ibid. page 135


[4] More readings in Graham, 1989


[5] See more in Lee, 1989, Wu, 1997


[6] Lee, 1989, page 75-78


[7] Ibid. page 58


[8] Ibid.


[9] Wheatley, 1971, page 457


[10] Blaser, 1979, page 9


[11] Ibid.


[12] Li, 2002, page 90


[13] Lung, 1978


[14] Lee, Lung


[15] Li, page 93




Vol. 9, No. 1
November 2004