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The Influence of Chinese Architecture

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    The Influence of Chinese Architecture on Japanese Temple Design


    Any discussion of the influence of Chinese architecture upon the design of Japanese temples must acknowledge that the relationship between the two design aesthetics is not simply one of Japanese acquisition of foreign styles and forms. Rather, this essay will argue that this influence may best be described as a dialectic or a "conversation" taking place in Japanese culture over centuries. In the course of this "conversation" Chinese Buddhist architectural styles – themselves influenced by earlier Indian models – influenced the design of native Japanese Shinto shrines. However, the more direct transplantation of Chinese Buddhist temple architecture in Japan was likewise often influenced by older Japanese architectural principles – as most famously embodied in the Shinto shrines – to finally evolve into a architectural style that – in Zen Buddhist temples – may best be described as an amalgam of the two forms.

    This essay will argue that a key point of disagreement, and eventual harmonization, in this "conversation" revolved around the role of nature in the architecture of Japanese temples. While earlier Shinto models reflected a Japanese aesthetic of harmonization with nature, the Buddhist temple architecture imported directly from the Asian mainland emphasized a more abstract and monumental disregard for the natural environment. Through an analysis of the similarities and the differences of Japanese Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple design, this essay will outline the parameters of this conversation between native and 2 foreign forms in Japanese architecture.

    Shinto Shrines

    Given the fact that most early Japanese architecture consisted of wood structures, and so were particularly vulnerable to the ravages of time, very little is known of their design style. What we know of native Japanese, pre-Buddhist architectural styles consists, to a large degree, of what may be learned from Shinto shrines. The architecture and design of these shrines dates back to around the 6th or 7th centuries B.C., and their forms have been preserved over time as a result of intense religious conservatism causing them to "have been rebuilt, time after time, in a ritually scrupulous imitation of the past" (Soper, 5). However, the examples of Shinto shrines, as they exist today, also show signs of the influence of Buddhist temple architectural forms imported from China. In order to better illustrate the nature of this influence, it would be useful to first comprehend the architecture of Shinto shrines.

    The typical Shinto shrine reflects, in both form and function, the religious aesthetics of the Shinto belief system. The most striking feature of the Shinto shrine – in Japanese jinja or "place of deities" (Earhart, 18) – is the minimal amount of decoration and a deliberate plainness of design, with straight lines and earth colours predominating. This is in accordance with the Shinto ideals of purity and simplicity (Anesaki, 13, 15). Even the great shrines of Ise are, in comparison with Buddhist 3 counterparts, not very large and purposely simple in construction (Aston, 223, 226). Over time, however, Shinto shrines have assumed a wide diversity of forms, to the point that today a Shinto shrine may be anything from a tiny shrine by the roadside to a sectioned off corner of a factory (Anesaki, 12). Critics consider that this diversity of forms is representative of the diversity of influences – and amalgamation of conservative native traditions and foreign traditions such as Buddhism, upon the development of Shintoism over the centuries (Anesaki, 7, 13).

    In general, however, Shinto shrines share many characteristics in their design. The most common of these is the torii, or traditional Shinto gateway; one of the most familiar sights in the Japanese landscape (Reader, 138). Usually made of wood, but sometimes of stone or even metal, the torii consists of one or two unadorned long cylinders – often tree trunks – mounted horizontally upon two upright posts set on the either side of the approach to the shrine (Holtom, 22). The word torii means "birdperch", which is indicative of its physical form but gives no hint of its symbolic significance within both the design of the Shinto shrine, and within the faith itself (Aston 231-32; Holtom, 22).

    A Shinto shrine most often occupies a rectangular area of land defined as sacred by the use of a surrounding sacred fence or wall. The opening in this fence, at the front and placed in the exact middle between left and right sides, is guarded by the torii. Thus the torii functions, in religious terms, to protect the opening in the shrine fence against the contamination of the 4 outside world (Holtom, 22). While a singular torii is most common, there may even be a succession of torii of diminishing size, each one smaller than the one previous, lining the avenue to the shrine. In this configuration they serve to gradually prepare and purify the worshipper on the path from the secular world to the sacred ground of the shrine itself (Anesaki, 14).

    This importance, within Shintoism, of the ideal of purification may also be seen in the next characteristic feature of a Shinto shrine encountered by worshippers once they pass through the torii gateway (Earhart, 6). Water, a predominant feature in Shinto rites, plays an equally important symbolic role in the landscape design of the traditional Shinto shrine. Worshippers must cross a bridge, a sori-bashi or taiko-bashi representing the floating Bridge of Heaven (the rainbow), over a stream whose waters symbolically wash away the impurities of those who pass over it, preparing them to greet the kami, or deities, in a state of spiritual cleanliness (Aston, 232; Reader, 140). The ideal of purification by water is also represented in Shinto shrines by the ever-present fountains of running water, the temizuya, which often flow out of the mouths of bronze dragons. At these the worshippers may wash their hands or rinse out their mouths to further cleanse and purify themselves (Reader, 140).

    However, while the path to the shrine is dominated by features which possess a spiritual function or symbolic significance, aesthetics also play a role in the design of the shrine. This may be seen in the stone lanterns which often line 5 the path to the shrine, sometimes in great number, and decorate the gardens of the enclosure. When lit at night, these lanterns function practically as a light source; but their "gentle illumination" also serves to convey a sense of peacefulness and serenity of the shrine, thus marking the sacred ground off from the disorder of the secular world (Anesaki, 14).

    Finally, after making their way through the usually wooded landscape of the shrine's enclosure, the worshipper comes to the shrine buildings themselves. There is the haiden or "worshipsanctuary" – open on all sides between supporting pillars – before which worshippers may ring a suspended bell to get the attention of the gods, and kneel or pause briefly in prayer. The haiden and honden, as well as the secondary shrines often located about the grounds (massha), sometimes show Buddhist or Chinese influences, but most often they reflect the Shinto emphasis on simplicity; often built on ancient models, raised on poles above the ground, and with thatched roofs (Anesaki, 13; Earhart, 18). The deliberate lack of decoration in these buildings, and their noted cleanliness, are representative of the design of the shrine as a whole in reflecting the ideal of purity at the heart of Shinto (Anesaki, 13).

    Buddhist Temples

    The arrival of Buddhism in Japan in the 6th century A.D. can be considered the architectural antithesis to the thesis of native architecture as represented by Shinto shrines. As will be seen, 6 out of the combination of these a synthesis in Japanese architecture was to develop.

    While the European architectural vision of man's interaction with the natural world has famously consisted of concrete examples of physical conquest, the Chinese architectural approach has generally been to represent this opposition symbolically. The Chinese philosophical vision of the cosmos was focused on a celestial ideal, with the role of man being to extend the Heavenly order to the natural chaos of the world (Soper, 15).

    Thus, Chinese architecture has reflected a preoccupation with geometrical purity of form and symmetry that

    shows no interest in the world around it. Its qualities – the inflexible axes, the symmetry, the mathematical rhythms, the geometrical forms – are entirely opposed to the picturesqueness of Nature. Even decoration does all it can to obscure any idea of relationship between the building and its environment; the wood members are brightly painted and stand on a stone or brick platform well above the ground level; the gleaming glazed tile roof is completely artificial in appearance. (Soper, 16)

    This Chinese architectural vision of man's interaction with nature is distinct from the native Japanese view which stressed harmony as opposed to conquest. Note, for example, how the torii 7 gateways and other structures of traditional Shinto shrines – which are conspicuously unadorned and unpainted – are in contrast with the Chinese emphasis upon obscuring the natural origins of building materials (Alex, 18-19). This is due to the fact that, given the gentler landscape of the islands of Japan – in contrast to the environmental extremes of the Chinese mainland – the Japanese perception of Nature

    in their earliest poetry spoke of as "beautiful" and "beloved," using the metaphors of a lover addressing his mistress; in which the earliest Japanese heroes were victors over other men, not over the forces of Nature. (Soper, 17)

    This being said, the Chinese architectural focus on order was largely in agreement with the Japanese emphasis upon order, rhythm and predictability (Kidder, 20). Thus, the earliest Buddhist temples carefully ordered design fitted comfortably within Japanese architectural perspectives. Indeed, for a century or two after the initial arrival of Buddhism from China, the Buddhist temples complexes constructed in Japan were almost entirely adopted forms; the ease of the adoption being facilitated by the similarities between the two cultures preoccupation with structural principles of order (Kidder, 15).

    Note, for example, how the above-noted symbolic function of 8 the fence and torii of Shinto shrines – to demarcate the contamination of the secular world from the purity within the shrine – echoes the architectural form of Chinese temples and cloisters that isolate their occupants from the outside world and is thus "symbolic of its inmates' renunciation of the world and separation from it" (Kidder, 15). Even the symmetrical designs of early Chinese Buddhist temples in Japan presented united fronts against the evil forces of the outside that may come from any direction (Alex, 18).

    However, while the Japanese clearly had not issue with Chinese architectural preoccupations with order, the typical Chinese emphasis on symmetry and artificial forms were alien to the Japanese mindset. The architectural evolution of temples in Japan thus reflects the gradual adaptation of foreign forms within Japanese culture.

    For example, the earliest Japanese Buddhist temples were closely modelled on Chinese and Korean designs. According to this design:

    In line on the major south-to-north axis were the outer south gate, then the inner gate marking the southern end of the rectangular enclosure, next the pagoda seen first in the courtyard with the "Buddha" hall directly behind it, finally the lecture hall centered at the north end of the compound. Additional buildings were placed on axis north of the enclosure. (Alex, 20)

    It is interesting to note, however, that when these early temples – such as the Horyuji Temple near Nara – burned down or required repair as early as the 7th century, the principle of axial balance was abandoned in preference for the native Japanese taste for asymmetry (Alex, 20-21). As well, the natural thatched roof and structural simplicity of Shinto shrines were adopted to replace the artificiality of the tile roof and painted adornment of the original structures (Kidder, 37). However, it should also be noted that Shinto shrines were themselves influenced by Chinese Buddhist temple architecture, with more paint and structural adornments being used. The overall effect of this exchange of architectural design ideas of native Japanese and imported Chinese forms was to render Shinto shrines respectable for urban sites, and Buddhist architecture more suitable for rural or forested sites (Kidder, 37).

    Zen Buddhism

    Perhaps nothing so well illustrates this Japanese synthesis of architectural forms as does the architecture of Japanese Zen Buddhist temples. Zen Buddhism, which arrived in Japan in the 13th century, differed dramatically from the Buddhism that had arrived in the 6th century. Its fundamental tenets of simplicity and restraint were reflected in the design of its temples; which was more in keeping with the Japanese character than the monumental 10 structures accompanying the earlier wave of Buddhism teaching (Alex, 40).

    Many of the architectural principles of Zen Buddhist temples echoed that of the earlier Shinto shrines. In Zen gardens and ponds

    Emphasis on nature was intensified. Even where the crowded cities attenuated nature, nature could be created. There emerged a cult of garden design and the garden became a refuge for reflection and introspection. (Kidder, 46)

    From this perspective, Zen Buddhist temples in Japan may be seen to be a characteristically Japanese amalgam of native forms and foreign influences. Their simplicity and disciplined aesthetic, and emphasis upon harmony as opposed to opposition to Nature, were in keeping with traditional Japanese attitudes; a fact that may serve to explain the rapid growth of Zen Buddhism in Japanese society.


    As has been seen, the influence of Chinese architecture upon Japanese temples has been a complex story of aesthetic crosspollination. In a sense, we may see the thesis of native tradition combining with the antithesis of foreign ideas, to culminate in the eventual synthesis of styles in later Buddhist and Shinto architecture. Thus, this influence is not simply a one-way process. Rather, it involves a "conversation" or exchange of cultural ideas between Japanese and Chinese civilizations that was physically represented in the Japanese landscape by the evolutionary narrative of Japanese temple design.


    1. Alex, William. Japanese Architecture. New York: George Braziller, 1963.
    2. Anesaki, Masaharu. Religious Life of the Japanese People. Tokyo: Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai (Japanese Cultural Society), 1970.
    3. Aston, William. Shinto: The Way of the Gods. New York: Longmans, Green, 1905.
    4. Earhart, H. Byron. Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity. Belmont, California: Dickenson, 1969.
    5. Holtom, D.C. "Shinto Shrines" Religion in the Japanese Experience: Sources and interpretations. Ed. H. Byron Earhart. Belmont, California: Dickenson, 1974. 19-23.
    6. Kidder, J. Edward. Japanese Temples: Sculpture, Paintings, Gardens, and Architecture. Tokyo: Bijutsu Shuppan-Sha, 1964.
    7. Reader, Ian. Religion in Contemporary Japan. London: MacMillan, 1991.
    8. Soper, Alexander Coburn. The Evolution of Buddhist Architecture 13 in Japan. New York: Hacker, 1978.

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