How ancient Chinese craftsmen developed the technique of earthquake-resistant architecture

Petra Bjelica
The Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogong Temple. Author: Peellden, CC-BY-3.0

The wisdom and craftsmanship of the Chinese people, as demonstrated by their work in the fields of philosophy, art, music, literature, architecture, science, and technology, have been a profound source of innovation for many centuries.

A piece of traditional wisdom can be seen in the Chinese expression of “defeating hard with the soft” which is especially demonstrated in their unique technique of building complex wooden structures that are resistant to even some of the strongest earthquakes. They used their knowledge of architectural dynamics, mathematics, material science, and structural science to build these impervious and beautiful creations.

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The Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogong Temple. Author: Peellden, CC-BY-3.0

They have managed to develop specific practices which have helped to lessen the impact of earthquakes and create structures capable of resisting the destructive forces of nature. Perhaps most impressive is that their architecture uses wood as a basic building material, but this is also the secret to successfully resisting the forces of earthquakes.

The Pagoda of Fogong Temple, Author: Zeus1234, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Chinese wooden-framework architecture dates back to almost 7,000 years ago. What distinguishes wood from other building materials is its flexibility, resilience, and versatility. When it is hit by a strong exterior force, this lightweight material changes shape quickly and has an ability to rapidly recover. The whole wooden framework is more resistant to movement because it creates a mortise and tenon joint system which makes nails and other fixtures unnecessary. The other even more vital characteristic of the framework is its ability to change shape under pressure, which prevents the walls from collapsing due to instability. The flexibility of the wooden joint connections also gives them the ability to self-recover.

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The close-up view at the Tiber Pagoda, Author: Zhangzhugang, CC-BY-SA-3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0

Chinese craftsmen invented a unique way of interlocking wooden brackets in the frameworks. This type of configuration is called dougong and it has a form of a floating raft foundation on which the building figuratively floats. The dougong layer is the main feature that reduces shearing force and damage to the upper parts of the building. They also built the frameworks to be larger at the bottom and smaller at the top, which serves to increase stability, as do the elegant, large rooftops. All of these techniques combined to make the traditional wooden buildings resistant to extensive upheaval over the centuries.

Corner of the pagoda of the Fogong Temple, Author: Gisling, CC-BY-3.0

Two ancient Chinese buildings that stand as proof of their ingenious design and marvelous production are Dule Temple in Tianjin and The Pagoda of Fogong Temple in the Shanxi province. Their timber-framed structure has been intact for over thousands of years. The Dule Temple, or the Temple of Solitary Joy, is a Buddhist temple whose front gate and the central pavilion was constructed in 984 AD by local architects.

Today, it is on the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list. The Emperor Daozong of Liao built the Pagoda of Fogong Temple in 1056, which is the oldest fully wooden Chinese pagoda and is nicknamed the Timber pagoda. It is reported that this structure has survived seven major earthquakes and until recently needed less than dozen minor repairs. It has also been on the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list for consideration since 2013.

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The Dule Temple. Author: danmairen, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Both of the buildings were made using the basic principles of wooden framework architecture explained above. As the most exemplary piece of Chinese ancient architecture, the Tiber pagoda is in the form of a regular octagon and has a stone foundation with 4.4 m thick bricks. It features the floating raft design which supports 7,400 tons of the whole building during earthquakes. Not a single nail is used; it is entirely composed in the dougong manner and with tenon and mortise joints. This makes it very flexible and resilient, in spite of its great height and elaborate wooden details.

The Dule Temple, Author: Haier7917, CC-BY-SA-3.0

These Chinese techniques are a perfect embodiment of their philosophy. The wisdom of the architects and craftsmen created beautiful structures that can stand up to some of the strongest forces of nature through flexibility and adaptation. These principles are highly useful even today and continue to inspire architects building earthquake-resistant structures around the world.