Monumental architecture is distinguished for repeating cosmological themes. Four millennia ago, cities were planned in a spiritually favorable rectangular design, classically facing south on a north-south axis and bordered by a protective wall. Aside from the business and residential districts, the central focus was a separately walled quarter; this later became the seat of the emperor or his local representative.
Due to the emperor was considered as the "Son of Heaven", this plan - still apparent in the layout of cities such as Xi'an and Beijing - was a representation of the cosmos, with the ruler at the centre. The same formula is also reflected in the ground plan of palaces, temples and even big family mansions, complexes of buildings whose organization in numerous ways corresponded to a microcosm of city life.
Buildings, like temples and palaces, are practically identical and have followed a basic building structure, which can be seen in subjects as diverse as two-thousand-year-old pottery models and the halls of the Forbidden City.
The foundations shaped a raised platform of earth, brick or stone according to the building's significance. Columns rested on separate bases with the heads of the columns linked by beams running lengthways and across. Above this, beams of retreating length were raised one above the other on short posts set on the beam below, creating an interconnected structure which rose to the point of the roof where single posts at the centre supported the roof ridge.
The arrangement produced a characteristic curved roofline with uncurled eaves, felt to confer good fortune. Though scale and space were eventually limited by a lack of arches, essential in supporting the massive walls found in European cathedrals, this structural design was solid enough to allow the use of heavy ceramic roof tiles.
Brought in the eighth century, cantilevered brackets also allowed the curving eaves to extend well beyond the main pillars and acquire a gradually more attractive value, complemented by lines of carved animals and figures on the gable ends of the roof.
During the Tang and Song dynasties these features reached a peak of elegance and sophistication. Though almost nothing endures intact from this time, afterward restorations of edifices, including the temples at Wudang Shan in Hubei Province, or Xi'an's central bell tower, convey something of the period's spirit.
Two regional styles also developed: northern architecture was comparatively restrained and sober, while that from the south eventually exaggerated curves and ornamentation to a high degree; Guangdong's Foshan Ancestral Temple is a classic of the latter type. Inside both, however, spaces between the columns were filled by screens providing different combinations of wall, door and latticework, which could be removed or changed to order differently the spaces within.
The columns themselves were sometimes carved in stone, or otherwise painted, with different colors representing explicit religions in temples, or the status of the occupant in palaces. Likewise, imperial buildings may be distinguished by four-sided roofs, by higher platforms reached by wide staircases and by special yellow glazed tiles for the roofs.
In rare occasions, buildings created their own styles without separating from feng shui; Beijing's circular Temple of Heaven, for example, manages to break with convention by reflecting the universe in its overall form.
They are another classic type of monumental structure, formerly introduced from India with Buddhism. Intended to preserve saintly relics, they have intrinsically "positive" attributes, are often used to guard cities or buildings from unlucky directions, or are built along rivers to quell (and indicate) dangerous shoals.
Their general design in China was perhaps inclined by the form of native wooden watch towers, though the most primitive surviving instance, at Shendong Si in Shandong Province, is stone and more closely resembles the equivalent Indian Stupa.
Nearly all, however, are polygonal, with a central stairway rising through an uneven number of floors - anything from three to seventeen. Buddhism also gave rise to the amazing cave temples and grottoes, best preserved in the Northwest at Mogao.