Chinese roof details on display at The National Museum of Scotland Back Ridge end tile in the form of a water dragon from the Bao’en Temple, Nanjing Left Roof finial in the form of a closed lotus bud, Hongwu from The Nanjing Museum Right Ridge tile in the form of a cow-headed human figure with a dragon tile . . . all on show at Ming The Golden Empire
An interesting section of the current exhibit at The National Museum of Scotland illustrates the fact that roofs were often elaborately decorated with protective figures, zoomorphic ornaments and motifs intended to provide protection from harm or, even, evil spirits. Roofs were also, through use of colour, indications both of building function and of social status.
There were four basic types of roof structures that were used in Ancient China; the hip roof, half-hip roof, conical roof, and the gable roof.
The hip roof consisted of five ridges and was very large in scale. It was characterized by its inward curve and upturned corners. Sometimes the hip roof had a flat top. The hip roof was used for important buildings only.
Second, was a half-hip roof consisting of nine ridges and also being very large in scale. The half-hip was made up of a hip roof with a peristyle and at the end of each gable was an eave board with a hanging fish symbolizing happiness. It was also used only for important buildings.
Third, was the conical roof which was spherical in shape. This unique roof could be placed on any compact symmetrical structure such as a square, hexagonal, octagonal, or circular form. The conical could be transformed into a pyramid with gables to all four directions. The pyramid or conical roof sometimes were flattened at the top so as to have a cross ridge.
Fourth, was the gable style, having one main ridge at the top of the gable. There are two types; one where there is an overhang and two where the overhang is flush with the end wall and sometimes the walls would be raised above the roof like a parapet. This style is the simplest in construction and was widely used for less important buildings such as houses for common people.
Roof structures are the first thing you might see and admire when you look at classical Chinese architecture. Since the beginning of time, the large roof over thin wooden columns and the beams resting upon a podium are the primary architectural characteristics of Chinese architecture. They are practical and functional\; roofs serving many purposes such as protection from rain, snow, sun and whatever the weather might bring. The eaves are another important feature of the roof. Depending on the type of the building, the eaves have a wide overhang. This feature protects the building from the sun in the hot summer months and allows the sun to penetrate in the winter months. They also protect the exterior building walls and columns from the rain.
Symbolic decoration. Roof at the Imperial Palace, Shenyang. Photo Paul Harris
Symbolism has been part of the Chinese culture, and was embedded into architecture, for centuries thereby creating a dialogue between man and architecture. Architecture’s symbolic language has been developed to represent the character, spirit, feelings and ideas of both the builder and beholder. Sociology, art and philosophy are what shaped the form and character of Chinese buildings. In some cases, the roof may have been a representation of heaven; the yang (the light and upper principle). The Chinese worshipped heaven, assuming that the large roof was a symbol of respect to the “Son of Heaven.” The house was a model of Chinese private life.
Chinese architecture brought with it artistic characteristics such as harmony, which emphasized the feel of the material and unity between materials and structure.
Post and beam construction was used most often in classical Chinese architecture. The roof structures were based on a series of beams set in parallel tiers. The post and beam gave the interior an open floor plan having the weight of the structure on the posts rather than the walls making the walls non-load bearing.
There are two main types of framework used. The first was a post and beam: it was used in the north for important buildings. It has two posts supporting a horizontal beam on which short vertical posts and struts are placed to lift another beam. On these are fitted purlins that define the shape of the roof and across were the rafters are laid. Small buildings have four pillars and the large buildings have additional sets of pillars added to the four. The outer pillars are typically inclined inwards and may taper towards the top to achieve visual balance.
The post and tie beam is most commonly used in southern China. The horizontal beam rests directly on notched posts, instead of on beams or struts. This method crowds the interior space with columns and so the post and tie beam is used only in the gable and post and beam frame is used in the middle of the building.
In important buildings a group of cantilevered components called “bracket sets” or puzuo or dou-gong, are placed atop the posts to help support the beams or overhang eaves. They are consisted of block and supporting arms. Bracket sets, are classified by the number and complexity of their horizontal, vertical and diagonal elements. The brackets helped the roof fluctuate during an earthquake. The brackets usually gave good decoration.
Wood was abundant in olden time. Classical Chinese architecture was constructed mainly from wood. Wood as a building material was natural and had many advantages: it was lightweight, easy to obtain, easy to work with, easy to transport, and most importantly, easy to standardize. The Chinese sensed the advantages of wood construction. The span of a wooden beam is wider and the plan freer and more flexible.
Important buildings such as Imperial buildings, have colorful glazed tiles, or even gilded tiles, as roofing materials making them attractive to the eye under the bright sun.
Ceramic roof tiles in rust, yellow, green, or blue are secured to rafters by fasteners with decorative animal motifs. On temples and important public buildings, these motifs symbolize authority, protection from evil spirits, and the blessing of the gods.
These colors are based on the importance of buildings. Colors are strong and bright because pigments are seldom mixed. The palette includes red (for fire, symbolizing happiness on doors or buildings), yellow (earth), gold, green (prosperity), and blue (heaven). Walls, columns, doors, and window frames may be red. Color and gilding may highlight details and motifs
Roofs old and new: view over the Imperial Palace roof, Shenyang Photo Paul Harris
Building ceramics used at The Imperial Palace, Shenyang Photo Paul Harris
Ming The Golden Empire continues at The National Museum of Scotland until October 19 2014