A traditional Chinese house
Most people in ancient China could not afford to live in fancy houses. They lived in small houses made of mudbrick, with only one room and a dirt floor, just the way most people in the Roman Empire or West Asia or Africa lived, and the way most people in the world still live today. In Northern China, the doors of these houses usually faced south, to keep out the cold north wind.
Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City (Beijing, 1450 AD)
Rich people had fancier houses, and people also built fancy temples and palaces. All ancient Chinese architecture was built according to strict rules of design that made Chinese buildings follow the ideas of Taoism or other Chinese philosophies. The first design idea was that buildings should be long and low rather than tall - they should seem almost to be hugging you. The roof would be held up by columns, and not by the walls. The roof should seem to be floating over the ground. The second design idea was symmetry: both sides of the building should be the same, balanced, just as Taoism emphasized balance. Even as early as the Shang Dynasty, about 1500 BC, Chinese buildings looked pretty much like this, with curved tile roofs and long rows of pillars. The palaces of the Chou Dynasty, and then the Chin Dynasty, continued in this same style.
White Pagoda (Chengde)
The biggest change in Chinese architecture came during the Han Dynasty, in the 200s BC, when the new religion of Buddhism first came to China from India. Many Chinese Buddhists began to build pagodas to keep sacred things in. At first these pagodas were related to Indian buildings called stupas.
At the same time, people continued to want Buddhist pagodas. Under the Tang dynasty, architects designed even fancier Buddhist pagodas, with eight sides. One famous eight-sided stone pagoda is the White Pagoda at Chengde.
Under the Sung dynasty, about the year 1000 AD, people wanted their pagodas to be tall and thin, with high spires. To make them fancier, they had complicated wooden lattices all around them.
While the Mongol Yuan dynasty ruled China, about 1200-1300 AD, they built great palaces at Beijing, with many huge halls. The great architectural accomplishment of the Ming dynasty in the 1400s was to build the Forbidden City, a huge palace where the emperors lived. But the Forbidden City's buildings still follow pretty much the same architectural rules as the palaces of the Shang Dynasty, three thousand years earlier.
To find out more about ancient Chinese architecture, check out these books from Amazon.com or from your library:
The British Museum Book of Chinese Art, by Jessica Rawson and others (1996). Rawson is a curator at the British Museum, and she uses the collection of the British Museum to illustrate this book. Library Journal calls it "easily the best introductory overview of Chinese art to appear in years".
Art in China (Oxford History of Art Series), by Craig Clunas (1997). Not specifically for kids, but a good introduction to the spirit of Chinese art. Warning: this one is not arranged in chronological order. Instead, it has chapters on sculpture, calligraphy, and so