Overview of Ancient Architectural Sculpture

Architectural sculpture is an important component of ancient Chinese architecture, as well as an important ingredient in the formation of traditional Chinese architectural style. 2017-09-14

Architectural sculpture is an important component of ancient Chinese architecture, as well as an important ingredient in the formation of traditional Chinese architectural style. They were mostly simple and unadorned images when initially produced, undertaking the specific function of the whole building. With the development of history, they were gradually carved into artistic appearances, thus to comply with people’s growing aesthetic requirements.

Wood Sculpture

Beam frame is the framework forms of traditional Chinese wooden architecture, including columns, beams, purlins, square beams, rafters and attached elements, etc. In the structure mode of single building, the first step is generally to set square beams on the vertical column for enclosing a “frame”, and building up layers of short beams on the main beam through short column for supporting the purlin. The purlin connects both ends of the “frame” from the top of the beam frame down to eave square beam. At last, the rafter is set on the purlin. In this way, the framework of the whole house is completed. Beam frame based on wood of Chinese architecture has both structural functional features and aesthetic significance. 

Sculptures on the beam are mostly concentrated on the center and both sides of the square beam, applying relief, ground relief and line engraving, etc., with subjects including story of characters, living situation, flowers, grasses, birds, auspicious birds and beasts and houses, etc. Some of them remain the natural color of wood, and some get colored and gilded after being carved.

Purlin is a round log set on two square beams in construction for supporting the rafter. Purlin in the middle ridge of the building is known as the “ridge purlin”. Installing the ridge purlin is the last operation of big wood structure, symbolizing the upcoming completion of the building structure. Thus, there are the tradition of “lifting beams” in many places: selecting an auspicious day to put red silk on the ridge purlin, write down the year and month, set off firecrackers, scatter candies and sing the song of “lifting beams”, etc. The purlin has a relatively small engraving area, and most of the contents are stylized auspicious symbols like flowers, grasses and insects, etc.

Stone Sculpture

Our country has a long history of stone sculpture art, and the earliest can be traced back to the chipped stone tool of prehistoric humans. With development of the aesthetic conception and enhancement of techniques for processing stone materials of primitive humans, people began to carve patterns on stone sculptures, turning them into a functional and artistic artwork. Stone sculptures of that period were carved in a concise way, with a simple styling and ancient artistic style.

In the Qin and Han dynasties, there were large stone sculptures in front of the grave. The subject and content included historical figures, fairy tales, deeds of filial piety, stories of heroic women, real lives, auspicious birds and beasts, ascending and becoming an immortal, etc.

In Wei, Jin and Northern and Southern dynasties, large stone sculptures in front of the grave were distributed around Nanjing, Zhenjiang and Danyang of Jiangsu Province. As Taoism and Buddhism flourished, an upsurge of chiseling caves and building temples was set off, which played an important role in promoting the development of stone sculpture art.

Most of Buddhist Statues left over from the Sui and Tang dynasties are large stone sculptures of the Cave Temple. In the Five and Two Song dynasties, stone sculpture art was mainly reflected on building elements like stone column and column base, etc.

Architectural stone sculpture decoration was also popularized in traditional residential architectures. At first, they were mostly imitated wooden framework, but afterwards, they gradually formed their own style. Among the populace, techniques of stone sculpture were mainly applied to parts and components of the building like residence, ancestral hall, temple, memorial archway, pavilion, tower, bridge and grave etc., such as lintel, drum-shaped bearing stone, stylobate, stone column, column base, stone hitching post, balustrade and baluster column, etc.

Brick Sculpture

Gatehouses represent the face of a residence, so gatehouses of most buildings in different regions are greatly decorated. Both of its styling and detail decoration are the concentrated representation of regional characteristics of Chinese architecture. Through a comprehensive analysis of architectural styles of gatehouses in different places, relevant researchers divided gatehouses into several styles including the style of four feet on the ground, archway style, passageway style and ridge frame style, etc., and made a further analysis on main characteristics of each style and regions where they were popular.

Such as gatehouse of style of four feet on the ground, gatehouse of archway style, and gatehouse of passageway style, etc. In southern region represented by Anhui Province, it is common to see a kind of gatehouse with a simple structure, also known as the gate shelter. Splendidly decorated gate shelters are usually set on both sides of the top of door frame with finely carved hanging lotus columns. Architraves, gold ingots and square frames, etc. which are carved with exquisite brick sculpture patterns are set between two columns.

Chinese people attach great importance to the “gate” culture. Thus, regardless of gatehouse in any form, the house owner always greatly decorates the gatehouse, and brick sculpture is the common technique used in gatehouse decoration. In a finely decorated gatehouse, brick sculptures are mostly concentrated on architectural components like through vision, square frame, gold ingot, hanging flower, hanging board and bracket under the eave, etc. The subjects of sculpture are based on patterns with auspicious implications, such as flowers and grasses, birds and beasts, luck and wealth, longevity and happiness, three durable plants of winter, cranes and deer in the spring, kirin lying on the pine tree, antique vases, mandarin ducks and lotuses, etc. These sculptures embody the house owner’s longing for better life.


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