japanese vs chinese architecture

Japanese vs. Chinese Architecture: A Battle of Design and Cultural Influence

Ian Mutuli
Updated on
Ian Mutuli

Ian Mutuli

Founder and Managing Editor of Archute. He is also a graduate architect from The University of Nairobi, Kenya.
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Architecture is a form of artistic expression that embodies a society's unique cultural values. It can evoke emotions, imprint ideas in our minds, and change and influence lifestyles. Both Japanese and Chinese architecture have long and storied histories, with the former dating back over a thousand years and the latter spanning over one and a half thousand years.

Having evolved over many centuries, Chinese and Japanese architecture have become two of the world's most recognized and influential styles. They share some commonalities, such as a preference for using natural materials and elements, but they also differ significantly from one another in terms of aesthetics, cultural influences, and historical context. In this article, we will explore all of these factors and compare both styles.

Design Patterns

Generally speaking, there are numerous connections between Chinese and Japanese architectural styles. Natural materials, basic geometric forms, and a focus on balance and symmetry are common denominators between the two styles. Many traditional Japanese building designs take cues from Chinese architecture. For example, Buddhist pagodas in Japan share numerous aesthetic features with their Chinese counterparts.

Japanese Architecture Design

Image Credit - KCP International

Traditional Japanese houses emphasize minimalism, practicality, and the use of sustainable, organic materials. Wood, paper, and stone are predominant, and the design is simple and uncluttered. Japanese architects highly value the natural world, and their buildings often incorporate elements derived directly from it. Known as "Minka," traditional Japanese wooden structures are distinguished by their sweeping Japanese roofs.

Most traditional buildings are made of wood and rest on a low elevated platform. Thatched roofs are commonly seen on Japanese houses. The preference for relaxing on cushions on the floor has also inspired the design of low seating and tatami mats in living rooms. The low table, or Chabudai, is a multifunctional staple in Japan. The inclusion of taller tables in layouts became commonplace starting in the 19th century (Meiji period). A notable innovation in Japanese homes is the use of sliding doors instead of fixed walls, allowing for more open spaces and Zen gardens.

Zen gardens, also known as dry gardens, are meditative spaces typically constructed around traditional Japanese homes. They are designed to reflect the essence of nature and the ultimate purpose of living. Hills can be represented using stones, while rivers and oceans can be suggested with sand and gravel, and so on.

Early Japanese architecture consisted of simple and practical pit homes that catered to the needs of the country's hunter-gatherer inhabitants. However, the Han Dynasty in China helped popularize the concept of more elaborate buildings.

Chinese Architecture Design

Image Credit - WIki Media

Chinese buildings are renowned for their grandiosity, complexity, and intricate ornamentation. Vivid colors, elaborate carving inlays, and symbolic motifs are all hallmarks of this style. When constructing buildings in Chinese culture, common materials used include brick, stone, and glazed tile. The three major religions of Chinese culture – Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism – have all left indelible marks on the country's architectural traditions.

The incorporation of chairs into daily life in China had a significant impact on the development of its architecture, but this trend never caught on in Japan. Symmetrical balance, enclosed open spaces, a focus on the horizontal, and various allusions to symbolism, cosmology, and astronomy are all characteristics of Chinese architecture.

Feng shui, or geomancy, as well as the use of mythical creatures, help to explain how Chinese architecture achieves harmony between humankind and the natural world. This approach is based on the belief that the layout of a property significantly affects the owner's fortunes in life. The practice of building homes against the side of a mountain with a water view was common.

While the Chinese emphasize wooden construction, the type of wood used and the design of each building vary greatly depending on its intended purpose. In China, for instance, the emperor's palace and the common people's residences were constructed from different materials, and each region and ethnic group had its own unique architectural style.

Cultural Influence & History

Image Credit - Google Arts & Culture

It is common knowledge that many Japanese cultural traditions were imported from China, which explains why numerous buildings in the country appear foreign. This process began as early as the Han Dynasty, reaching its zenith during China's Golden Age in the Tang Dynasty. Some well-known aspects of modern Japan, such as the country's architecture and Japanese swords like the Katana, can trace their origins back to this period of Chinese influence.

Over the past 1,500 years, Buddhism has served as the connecting cultural and technological thread between China and Japan in the realm of architecture. After adopting Buddhism, Japan began incorporating ancient Chinese wooden building techniques into its own culture, with the Horyuji temple being the earliest example. As noted by Ito Chuta, the leading architect and architectural theorist of early 20th-century Imperial Japan, Japanese architectural styles history is primarily a story of assimilation and adaptation of Chinese architectural principles.

Consequently, Japanese architecture underwent significant changes starting in the Nara period, known as Asuka-style buildings, and eventually diverged considerably from Chinese influence by the end of the Heian period, the name derived from the modern city of Kyoto. This departure from Chinese cultural influence resulted in slightly different architectural styles in the Korean peninsula as well as Japanese culture and buildings.

This change was partly due to China's weakening influence, but natural factors also played a significant role. First, Japan is an island nation prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and typhoons. As a result, Japan's natural surroundings have influenced its preference for wooden architecture due to the material's accessibility, ease of restoration, and high earthquake resilience.

The second reason for the distinctiveness of Japanese design is the country's climate: it has a temperate maritime monsoon climate, resulting in both rainy and snowy summers and winters. This climate significantly impacted the development of Japanese architecture later on.

Over time, moving from the Muromachi to the Edo period, the Kami and Buddhas Separation Act was enacted, marking a further step away from the architectural designs of Buddhist temples and Japanese Shinto shrines associated with Buddhism and Shintoism.

Modern Changes

Modern-day capital of China - Beijing - [Credit - Drone Travel]

The architectural style has shifted and changed more in Japan than that in China in modern times, which is primarily thanks to the westernization route of Japan. The goal of Japan's westernization initiative was to make the country more competitive with those of the first nations.

Building styles were largely influenced by those of other countries since many of the Japanese architects took courses in other regions of the world and brought back more modern approaches. Builders like Kenzo Tange, who successfully combined traditional Japanese architecture with modernism even in Japanese buildings throughout its capital city Tokyo, became household names on a global scale after Japan's postwar (World War 2) reconstruction.

Modern-day capital of Japan - Tokyo - [Credit - 8K Earth]

In contrast, Chinese architectural design has changed little over time, with most of the shifts occurring only at the aesthetic level. It did not draw as much on external architectural influences as it spread its own styles to countries as diverse as Japan, Korea, and Mongolia, which were all impacted by historical periods dating back to the Tang Dynasty.

As the 20th century progressed, Chinese architects in China successfully adapted traditional Chinese architectural styles for use in cutting-edge modern constructions. The push for urban expansion is a fundamental factor in this change.

The rise of cities necessitated taller skyscrapers than the typical three-story buildings found in China. Many of the classic elements and techniques of ancient Chinese architecture, such as carpentry, masonry, and stone masonry, are still used in modern buildings.

Conclusion on Japanese vs. Chinese Architecture

Overall, the competition involving Japanese and Chinese architecture isn't a contest of who is better; rather, it is a celebration of the uniqueness and variety of each culture. Each has made an indelible mark on the history of architecture, and both are magnificent in their own right. By learning about and appreciating these aesthetics further, we have a richer respect for the cultures from whence they sprang.

Ian Mutuli

About the author

Ian Mutuli

Founder and Managing Editor of Archute. He is also a graduate architect from The University of Nairobi, Kenya.
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