Ancient Chinese architecture. Photo: iStock
Ancient Chinese architecture. Photo: iStock

Traditional Chinese architecture had many qualities we consider modern today. It used standardization, modularization and prefabrication – all the features of an industrial process, except the machines.

When Chinese rulers ascended the Dragon Throne, they usually built new capital cities. They were built with remarkable speed, indicating a high degree of technical and organizational skill. The ancient city of Daxing, a metropolis of 84 square kilometers, was ready for occupancy in one year.

The adage that architecture is the mother of all arts applies especially to Chinese architecture. It is the foundation of China’s civilization and it provided the framework for all the other arts. The structural and esthetic principles of Chinese architecture developed as early as 1,000 BCE, and did not fundamentally change until the 19th century.

The “building block” of Chinese architecture was the structural skeleton of the building, its modular structure. Walls, doors, and other building components were considered minor carpentry work. The skeleton of the modular units was constructed with beams and pillars of standardized grades called cai.

The Chinese used eight grades in all, a number probably based on the Eight Trigrams that were the basis of the Book of Changes, or I Ching. The larger grades were used for palatial structures, and the smaller grades for minor buildings like pavilions. The dimensions of the pillars, beams, rafters, plinths and so forth were given as multiples or divisions of cai. Once the builder-carpenter knew the cai to be used for a given building, he could use that one measure to calculate the size of all other components of the building.

The cai made a building literally scalable to any size. If the standard cai for a pagoda was 10 by 8 centimeters, and the carpenter changed it to 11cm x 8.8cm, the pagoda would be 10% larger.

Building cities of up to 100 square kilometers required sophisticated organization and streamlining. The logistics involved to source the required wood for these enormous cities impressed even the Chinese themselves. The 12th-century poet Lu You marveled at a huge wooden raft with logs coming down a river:

We saw this timber raft, over 30 meters wide and 150 meters long. On it were 30 or 40 houses. Women and children, chickens and dogs, mortars and pestles, everything was present. Even a small temple was not lacking. I had never seen anything like this before. But the people on the boat said that this was only a small one. On larger rafts earth is spread and a vegetable garden laid out. Sometimes there is also a wine house. These rafts cannot enter the narrow rivers. They can only sail down the great Yangtze River.

Chinese architecture had yet another modern concept: the organization of space. In Living Chinese Architecture, sinologist Michele Pirazzoli writes: “In China, the arrangement of space has always been governed by laws. Architecture has always been an art guided and controlled by the state, aimed not only at organizing the environment but also at providing a frame for the social system. The size of a building, its internal arrangements and its architectural decorations were already determined by the owner’s social position as early as the Zhou dynasty (11th to third centuries BCE).”

Today, standardization, modularization, and prefabrication are used all over the world, the direct result of the Industrial Revolution. Not widely known is that all architects, engineers and designers in the world today use a graphic projection device developed by Chinese builders some 2,000 years ago. The Chinese call it dengjiao toushi, literally “equal-angle see-through.” The name alludes to the drawing of the modular, rectangular skeleton of Chinese architecture.

In the West the Chinese projection system came to be known as axonometry, or “parallel perspective.” Axonometry was popularized by modernist European architects in the 1920. They were developing a “machine esthetic” for industrially produced building materials and  found axonometry ideal to be ideal for rendering their designs without the optical distortion inherent in European linear perspective.

Today, the ancient Chinese projection system is used by every architect in the world. It has become indispensable in modern building, industrial design, and civil engineering. Axonometry is also at the heart of computer-aided design and other forms of visual computing. Our modern world is virtually constructed in axonometric projections.

Jan Krikke is a former Japan correspondent for various media, former managing editor of Asia 2000 in Hong Kong, and author of Leibniz, Einstein, and China (2021).

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