SIHEYUAN & MINGTANG. Siheyuan, referring to courtyard compounds, and mingtang, meaning "bright hall," together embody the rules which span the continuum from the simplest secular dwelling to the grandest sacred temple.


The post-and-beam system developed out of simple Neolithic building practices. Here we see a 1:1 scale model of a portion of the Neolithic site of Banpo showing how this system worked. The walls are wattle and daub applied to a woven mesh that is hung from the posts and beams of small rectangular and circular structures. Thatched roofs were supported in the same way.


A model of Banpo village, Yangshao Culture, occupied from 4500 to 3750 BC. It occupied 20 acres.

Learn more about Banpo.

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These are drawings of the mingtang as applied in civil architecture. Notice the absence of circles.

Mingtang structures face structural problems when they become large and multi-storied. The problem is that you can't use load-bearing walls efficiently. For this reason, Chinese architecture developed a post-and- beam system from which walls could be hung wherever needed and spaces left free of obstruction whenever required.


These are the typical courtyard designs reconstructed for the Tang capital of Chang'an. Notice the similarities with the Shang palace, three images below.


A model of the market district of Linze, capital of the Qi Kingdom and the largest Chinese city of its era (ca. 250 to 400 BC). The city wall was 14 km. in length and made of rammed earth.

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A contemporary Beijing courtyard neighborhood. Notice how the architecture is changing.

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A simple Shang palace at Erlitou.


A complex Shang palace.


The Shang palace in plan view.


By the Warring States Period, buildings were being built on a more lavish scale, including those situated atop tombs.


Plan views of the Warring States tomb seen in cross section, above.


Elevation of a Qin Dynasty royal palace.


Lower story of the palace in plan view.


Upper story of the palace in plan view.


This is a schematic drawing of the mingtang used for designing sacred buildings. The outer circles are divine and represent platforms on which the temple is build. The inner square, which contains the nine-in-one square, represents the earthly temple. The center circle is the uppermost part of he temple, which must be built in the form of a circle, symbolizing heaven. Thus the vertical axis of the temple is the heavenly conduit that facilitates worship, while the horizontal axes of the rectangular temple building ground the temple in the land of the living and connect it with the four quarters of the world.


This heavenly mingtang design concept is seen on Neolithic ceramics, such as this Yangshao middle Neolithic vessel.


This is a temple compound at the Tang capitol of Chang'an that has been reconstructed from archaeological evidence. The circles are platforms of rammed earth.


Plan view of the temple at Chang'an. The stippled area is a rammed earth core necessary to provied elevation to the second story of the temple. Even in the Tang period, the Chinese had difficulty in building large, tall buildings that were also stable. This is especially so in this case because of the transition from a square to a circular series of supports, which posed serious loading problems for Tang architects.

You can see that the mingtang design was closely followed. Historically, we know that the Tang Emperor at the time and the chief official overseeing the design and construction of the temple, were ardent advocates of the mingtang.


The upper story and roof of the temple at Chang'an. The pillars supporting the circular dome are footed in the rammed earth platform. Notice that the central area of worship is within the circle of supporting columns.


Elevation of the temple at Chang'an.


Cross section of the Temple at Chang'an showing the rammed earth core and platform.


Temple of Heaven complex in Beijing dating from the Ming Dynasty.


Elevated sketch of the Temple of Heaven complex in Beijing.


The Platform Temple, Beijing. Go to a brief article about the symbolism of this structure.


The Temple of Heaven in Beijing seen from the air.


Pillar's eye view of the Temple of Heaven. Notice the dragon in the clouds in this pillar.


Interior of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Notice the pillars and struts used to support the upper story of the temple. The columns are made of nanmu an extremely stable, decay-resistant evergreen that produces straight trunks up to 35 meters long. Read more about nanmu.


The interior of the dome of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. The interior of the temple is completely open to facilitate the dialog with Heaven.


From my hotel room in Guangdong. Notice the new two-story wings at this old shrine.