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2.2 Beauty and Aesthetics in Chinese Architecture and Literature

7 min readjanuary 2, 2023

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Introduction to Chinese Beauty and Aesthetics in Chinese Architecture and Literature

In Chinese culture, beauty (美 měi) is often associated with balance (平衡 pínghé), harmony (和谐 héxié), and the natural world (自然界 zìránjiè). This guide will focus specifically on beauty in Chinese architecture and literature. In architecture (建筑 jiànzhú), beauty is often reflected in the use of symmetry (对称 duìchèn) and the incorporation of natural elements (自然元素 zìrányuánsuǒ) such as gardens (花园 huāyuán) and water features (水功能 shuǐgōngnéng). In literature (文学 wénxué), it is associated with inner qualities (内在的素质 nèizhīnǚde sùzhì) such as kindness (仁慈 réncí), intelligence (智慧 zhìhuì), and moral character (道德品质 dàodépǐnzhì).

Related Vocabulary

  • 美 (měi) - beauty
  • 平衡 (pínghé) - balance
  • 和谐 (héxié) - harmony
  • 自然界 (zìránjiè) - natural world
  • 建筑 (jiànzhú) - architecture
  • 对称 (duìchèn) - symmetry
  • 自然元素 (zìrányuánsuǒ) - natural elements
  • 花园 (huāyuán) - garden
  • 水功能 (shuǐgōngnéng) - water feature
  • 文学 (wénxué) - literature
  • 内在的素质 (nèizhīnǚde sùzhì) - inner qualities
  • 仁慈 (réncí) - kindness
  • 智慧 (zhìhuì) - intelligence
  • 道德品质 (dàodépǐnzhì) - moral character

Chinese Architecture

Chinese architecture (中国建筑 Zhōngguó jiànzhú) has a long history (悠久的历史 yōujiǔde lìshǐ), and over the centuries, different styles (不同的风格 bùtóngde fēnggé) and influences (影响 yǐngxiǎng) have contributed to the development of a distinct Chinese architectural aesthetic. One important element of Chinese architecture is the use of symmetry (对称 duìchèn), which is believed to promote balance (平衡 pínghé) and harmony (和谐 héxié)️. This can be seen in the layout (布局 bùjué) of buildings, as well as in the use of decorative elements (装饰元素 zhuāngshì yuánsuǒ) such as doors (门 mén), windows (窗户 chuānghú), and rooflines (屋顶线 wūdǒng xiàn).
Another important aspect of Chinese architecture is the incorporation of natural elements (自然元素 zìrányuánsuǒ). Many Chinese buildings, particularly those built in more rural (乡村的 xiāngcūn de) or traditional (传统 chuántǒng) styles, feature gardens, ponds (池塘 chítáng), and fountains (喷泉 pēnqúan). These elements are often seen as promoting a sense of harmony and balance, and are believed to have a calming effect (舒缓效果 shūhuǎn xiàoguǒ) on the people who experience them.
Some of the most famous examples of Chinese architecture include:
  1. The Great Wall of China (长城 Chángchéng): This iconic structure is a series of fortifications that runs across the northern borders of China. The Great Wall was built over the course of many centuries, and features a number of different architectural styles, including watchtowers (瞭望塔 liàowàng tǎ), walls (墙 qiáng), and gates (门 mén). It was built to protect against invasion and is considered one of the greatest engineering feats in history. 
  2. The Forbidden City (故宫 Gùgōng): Located in Beijing, the Forbidden City was the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties. It is a massive complex of buildings, gardens, and courtyards that served as the home of the emperor and his family. The Forbidden City is characterized by its use of symmetry and balance, as well as its elaborate decorative elements (装饰元素 zhuāngshì yuánsuǒ) such as doors (门 mén), windows (窗户 chuānghú), and rooflines (屋顶线 wūdǒng xiàn).
  3. The Temple of Heaven (天坛 Tiāntán): This temple complex in Beijing was used by the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for annual ceremonies of prayer to heaven. It is a beautiful example of traditional Chinese architecture, with its distinctive blue-tiled roofs and intricate carvings.
  4. The Summer Palace (颐和园 Yíhéyuán): Located in Beijing, the Summer Palace is a large park and palace complex that was used by the imperial family as a summer retreat. It is known for its beautiful gardens, lakes, and temples, as well as its stunning views of the surrounding countryside.
Other notable examples of Chinese architecture include the Terracotta Army (兵马俑 Bīngmǎyǒng) in Xi'an, the Yellow Crane Tower (黄鹤楼 Huáng Hè Lóu) in Wuhan, and the Hanging Monastery (悬空寺 Xuánkōngsì) in Datong. Each of these structures is a testament to the beauty and ingenuity of Chinese architecture and reflects the cultural, historical, and artistic traditions of China.
In addition to these more traditional examples of Chinese architecture, there are also many modern examples that incorporate elements of traditional Chinese design, such as the National Centre for the Performing Arts (国家大剧院 Guójiā Dàjùyuàn) in Beijing, which is an opera house (歌剧院 gējùyuàn) designed by French architect Paul Andreu. The National Centre for the Performing Arts features a distinctive egg-shaped dome (卵形圆顶 luǎnxíng yuándǐng) that is inspired by traditional Chinese architecture, as well as a number of other decorative elements that draw on Chinese design motifs (设计图案 shèjì tú'àn).

Related Vocabulary

  • 中国建筑 (Zhōngguó jiànzhú) - Chinese architecture
  • 悠久的历史 (yōujiǔde lìshǐ) - long history
  • 不同的风格 (bùtóngde fēnggé) - different styles
  • 影响 (yǐngxiǎng) - influence
  • 布局 (bùjué) - layout
  • 装饰元素 (zhuāngshì yuánsuǒ) - decorative elements
  • 门 (mén) - door
  • 窗户 (chuānghú) - window
  • 屋顶线 (wūdǒng xiàn) - roofline
  • 乡村的 (xiāngcūn de) - rural
  • 传统 (chuántǒng) - traditional
  • 池塘 (chítáng) - pond
  • 喷泉 (pēnqúan) - fountain
  • 舒缓效果 (shūhuǎn xiàoguǒ) - calming effect

Perception of Beauty in Chinese Literature and the Four Beauties of China

In literature (文学 wénxué), beauty is often associated with inner qualities such as kindness (仁慈 réncí), intelligence (智慧 zhìhuì), and moral character (道德品质 dàodépǐnzhì). This is particularly true in classical Chinese literature (古典中国文学 gǔdiǎn Zhōngguó wénxué), where characters (人物 rénwù) are often depicted as embodying these virtues. In addition, Chinese literature often portrays beauty as something that is fleeting and ephemeral (短暂 duǎnzàn), and often focuses on themes (主题 zhǔtí) of loss (损失 sǔnshī) and nostalgia (怀旧 huáijù). Overall (总体来说 zǒngtǐ lái shuō), in Chinese culture, beauty is seen as something that is multifaceted and encompasses (包含 bāohán) both physical and inner qualities.
One example of a famous beauty in Chinese literature is Xishi (西施 Xīshī), a legendary figure who was known for her beauty and wisdom. Xishi was a concubine (妃 fēi) of King Helü (河鲁王 Hélǔ wáng) of the Wu kingdom (吴国 Wú guó) and was renowned for her charm and poise. In many Chinese stories and poems, Xishi is depicted as a model of beauty and virtue, and her name has become synonymous with beauty in Chinese culture. According to legend, her beauty was so great that fish would forget to swim and sink to the bottom of the river when she looked at them. She is said to have had a small mouth, long eyebrows, and a slender waist.
Another famous beauty in Chinese literature is Diaochan (貂蝉 Diāochán), a legendary figure who was known for her beauty and intelligence. Diaochan was a courtesan (妓女 jìnǚ) who was instrumental in bringing down the Han dynasty (汉朝 Hàn cháo) and establishing the Jin dynasty (晋朝 Jìn cháo). She is said to have had a delicate and slender figure, bright eyes, and a graceful manner. Diaochan is often depicted as a cunning and manipulative character, but also as a tragic figure who was ultimately betrayed by those she helped to power. Despite this, Diaochan remains a popular and enduring figure in Chinese literature and culture, and is often remembered for her beauty and wit.
Xi Shi and Diaochan are part of a group known as the "four beauties" (四大美女 sì dà měinǚ) of China, four legendary Chinese women who are renowned for their beauty. The other two are:
  • Wang Zhaojun (王昭君 Wáng Zhāojūn) - Wang Zhaojun was a concubine of the Han dynasty. She is known for her beauty and her loyalty to her husband. She is said to have had a fair complexion, bright eyes, and long, flowing hair.
  • Yang Guifei (杨贵妃 Yáng Guìfēi) - Yang Guifei was a concubine of the Tang dynasty. She is known for her beauty, her intelligence, and her cultural accomplishments. She is said to have had a fair complexion, delicate features, and a slender figure.
These four women have become iconic figures in Chinese literature and culture, and their beauty has been celebrated for centuries. They are often depicted in Chinese art and literature as the epitome of feminine beauty and grace.
Other famous beauties in Chinese literature include:
  • Xiangjun (香君 Xiāngjūn) - A character in the classic Chinese novel "The Story of the Western Wing" (西厢记 Xīxiāngjì), Xiangjun is known for her beauty, intelligence, and kindness.
  • Lin Daiyu (林黛玉 Lín Dàiyù) - A main character in the novel "Dream of the Red Chamber" (红楼梦 Hónglóumèng), Lin Daiyu is known for her beauty, wit, and tragic love story.
  • Qingwen (清文 Qīngwén) - A character in the novel "The Scholars" (儒林外史 Rúlín Wàishǐ), Qingwen is known for her beauty, intelligence, and moral character.
Overall, in Chinese literature, beauty is often depicted as something that is multifaceted and encompasses both outer appearance and inner qualities. While physical beauty is certainly an important aspect of beauty in Chinese literature, it is often seen as being closely connected with virtues such as kindness, intelligence, and moral character. As such, famous beauties in Chinese literature are often remembered not just for their physical attractiveness, but also for their inner qualities and the impact they had on the world around them.

Related Vocabulary

  • 古典中国文学 (gǔdiǎn Zhōngguó wénxué) - classical Chinese literature
  • 人物 (rénwù) - characters
  • 短暂 (duǎnzàn) - fleeting and ephemeral
  • 主题 (zhǔtí) - theme
  • 损失 (sǔnshī) - loss
  • 怀旧 (huáijù) - nostalgia
  • 总体来说 (zǒngtǐ lái shuō) - overall
  • 包含 (bāohán) - encompasses


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