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Traditional Chinese Roof

The roof played a vital role in ancient Chinese architecture and its formations were greatly changed and diversified with the time. Originally, the Chinese traditional roof only functions as shelter of rain and sun, but it is given some religious and feudal colors to represent the status quo of the proprietor.

Types of Traditional Chinese Roofs

There are general two classes of roofs, one is for important architectures and those inhabit imperials, ministers and eminent individuals and the other is for commons.

Hierarchic Classifications of Roofs of Chinese Ancient Buildings.

1. Double-eave Hip Roof. It's used in the most important Buddhist temples and the main hall of the imperial palaces, symbolizing honor and authority.

2. Resting Hill Roof. It's common in palaces, gardens and temple buildings.

3. Single-eave Hip Roof. It is used in some important buildings.

4. Single-eave Resting Hill Roof. It's also used in some important buildings.

5. Hanging Hill Roof. It's mainly applied in some residential buildings, divine cabinets and treasuries.

6. Hard Hill Roof. It's mainly used in common residential buildings.

7. Round Ridge Roof. It's mainly applied in folk buildings.

Other roofs symbolizing no hierarchy: Pavilion Roof. It's mainly used in pavilions, terraces, halls and pagodas.

Hip Roof

It is also known as the four crests, with five ridges and four slopes, also called five ridges.

Also known as the four-crest roof or five-ridge roof, the Hip Roof has four slopes and five ridges. The double-eave hip roof represents the highest architectural roof and is mostly used in the main halls of the imperial palaces or the most important temple buildings, like the Hall of Supreme Harmony of the Forbidden City, Tian'an Hall of Dai Temple in Tai'an city, Dacheng Hall of Confucius Temple in Qufu city. The single-eave hip roofs are mostly used in the side palace halls or chambers of ceremonial and religious architectures, like Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and Hall of Abstinence in the Temple of Heaven, and the Daxiong Hall in Huayan Temple.

Resting Hill Roof

Also called nine-ridge roof, the Resting Hill Roof has one formal ridge, four vertical ridges, and four diagonal ridges. It also has four slopes in back, front, left and right. The slopes in the back and front are called full-face slopes and the ones in the left and right are regarded as half slopes, and the triangular area above those half slopes are called Shanhua. The double-eave resting hill roofs rank second only to the double-eave hip roofs and are mostly used in important buildings like Hall of Preserving Harmony, Gate of Supreme Harmony and the Gate of Heavenly Peace in the Forbidden City, Bell Tower, and Drum Tower. While the single-eave resting hill roofs are mainly used in other buildings in the palace, governmental houses such s ancestral temples, administrations and departments, as well as the public halls.

Hanging Hill Roof

The hanging hill roofs have five ridges and two slopes. The roofs usually extend beyond the gable and get supported by the trusses protruding from the below. The four surfaces of the hanging hill roofs also extend beyond the eaves. Such roof is the early practice of two-slope roof, but it's not used in important ancient buildings.

Hard Hill Roof

The hard hill roof appeared relatively late and it was mainly found in the residential buildings of Ming and Qing Dynasties. Such roof is usually flush with the gable. As it's only used in common residential houses, the roof can only be tiled with the green slab tiles. The  imbrex and glazed tiles are not allowed to be use on such roofs. Thus, there is no hard hill roof in royal buildings or large temple buildings.

Round Ridge Roof

The Round Ridge Roof has no full-face ridge, but vertical ridges and it is only used in buildings like attics, towers, pagodas with small area. The plane of the roof is mostly in the shape of square, regular polygons or circle and there is a roof crown on the top. Such roofs are mostly found in the landscaping architectures like Guoru Pavilion in the Summer Palace and the pavilions in the Heilongtan Park. It seldom appear in important buildings, but the Hall of Central Harmony and Hall of Union and Peace of the Forbidden City and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests are exceptions.

Components of Traditional Chinese Roof

1. Roof covering

The roof covering is the surface of the roof and it mainly refers to the part between the roof and the eaves. This part occupies a large area of the roof.

2. Edging Finishing

In some buildings in ancient China, the roof near the eaves often had a different color from the upper part. For example, the roof was mostly green, but the eaves was decorated with a horizontal yellow band. It is called "edging finishing".

3. Full-face Ridge

The full-face ridge refers to the ridge at the highest point of the building roof that formed by the intersection of the front and back slopes. Observed from the front of the building, the full-face ridge is a horizontal line. Generally speaking, among the ridges of a building, the full-face ridge is the largest, longest and most outstanding ridge.

4. Full-face Ridge Decoration

In many buildings, especially the higher-level buildings, various kinds of decoration are often set on the roof ridge. In addition to the common roof crown set in the middle of the full-face ridge, different decoration carvings in the shape of flowers, grass, or dragons are also found on the front and back elevations of the full-face ridge.

5. Vertical Ridge

In the  Hip Roofs, Hanging Hill Roofs and Hard Hill Roofs, any ridge other than the positive ridge is called a "vertical ridges". While in the Resting Hill Roofs, the ridges other than the full-face ridge and the diagonal ridge are called "vertical ridges". The vertical ridges are all drooping along the gable board.

6. Diagonal Ridge

In the buildings with Resting Hill Roofs, the ridge starting from the end of the gable board below the vertical ridge and ending in the entrangled animal heads is called diagonal ridge.

7. Eaves

In buildings with eaves, the part of the eaves that protrudes beyond the truss is called "eaves".

8. Ridge Beast

At the lower end of the building eaves, there is a protruding beast head fixed on the corner beamcasing tenon to protect the beam head from being eroded by rain. This beast head is called "ridge beast".

Ridge Beasts

On the ridge of traditional Chinese buildings, it's common to see tile or pottery decorations in animal shapes, this is called ridge beast. In feudal society, the ridge beasts were only allowed on the palaces and temples. If the relatives of the emperor or ministers wanted to set ridge beasts, they must acquire special permission from the emperor. There is also strict hierarchic rules, generally the singular numbers of ridge beasts are used like 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 (singularity indicates innocence in Buddhism). The more ridge beasts a building has, the more important the building is and the more honorable the owner is.

3.The Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Preserving Harmony, and Hall of Central Harmony in the Forbidden City all used 9 ridge beasts. After Qing Dynasty was founded, one more ridge beast was added to the roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony to show the grandness of a new dynasty, making it the only building that used ten ridge beasts. According to Code of Great Qing Dynasty, those ridge beasts are sequenced as dragon, phoenix, lion, Pegasus, sea horse, Suanni, Xiayu, haechi, Qiu dragon, and the tenth beast.

1. Dragon

Dragon, the animal leader of all animals, has horns like deer's, scales like fish's, and claws like eagle's. It can walk, fly and swim. It's regarded as the symbol of blessings in Tang and Song Dynasties. While the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty emperors called themselves the true dragon, and thus it became a symbol of imperial power.

2. Phoenix

Phoenix is the king of all birds and it can bring peace to the world. As the symbol of honor and virtue, the Phoenix is also the name of the empress.

3. Lion

Lion is the king of all beasts, symbolizing courage and majesty.

4. Pegasus

The Pegasus is said to run thousand miles a day, like a gust of wind. It mainly refers to the good horses from western area.

5. Seahorse

Seahorse is the incarnation of luck in ancient mythology, symbolizing that power and virtue can reach everywhere, even sea and sky.

6. Suanni

According to ancient records, Suanni is similar to lion, but some people think it’s one of the nine sons of dragon.

7. Xiayu

Xiayu is a special beast from sea. It is homophonic to rain in Chinese, so people believe it can bring rain to protect the houses from fire.

8. Xiezhi

It’s a legendary beast, like lion. People say it can distinguish good from bad, making it a symbol of justice.

9. Qiu Dragon

It’s a lot like dragon and can make cloud and fog in rainy days. Therefore, it was believe to protect people from disasters.

10. The Tenth Beast

It only appeared in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. People just named it the tenth beast based on its position. In fact, it has wings and hands that hold metal sticks to fight demons. It’s said it is the embodiment of Leizhengzi.

Functions of Ridge Beasts

1. To prevent rain leakage

Ancient Chinese ancient buildings are mostly wooden structures and the ridges are just woods covered with tiles. Where the ridge beasts were arranged are in the intersection of the two slopes on the front and back, sealing those ridge beasts can prevent rain leakage.

2. Cover the unaesthetic and prevent rust

The tiles at the front end of the vertical ridge are easy to slip off due to the thrust of the tiles above, and the tile nails were used to fix them. However, the tile nails are higher than the tile surface, which is unsightly and easy to rust. Those ridge beasts can cover the tile nails and prevent them from rusting.

3. Pray for blessings and safety

Fire is the most dangerous thing for wooden structures, and the high officials and the nobles were quite superstitious. Therefore, they placed the molded heads of the most powerful and fierce beasts on their roof in hope of bringing them blessings and keep them safe.

4. Decoration

Those ridge beasts can also decorate the roof and make it more graceful, characteristic, grand and majestic.

5. Hierarchy

Take ridge beasts on the roofs of the palaces in the Forbidden City, the roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony has 10 ridge beasts, the roof of the Palace of Heavenly Purity (where emperor lived) has 9, the roof of the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (where empress lived) has 7, the roofs of other palaces where the emperor’s concubines lived have 5, and other subordinating palaces only have 3 or 1.


In traditional Chinese architecture, the triangular wall formed on both sides of the Resting Hill Roof is called Shanhua.

Before the Ming Dynasty, the Shanhua was mostly hollow and slightly decorated with hanging fish and grass. After the Ming Dynasty, bricks, glazing, and wooden boards were often used to seal the hollow part of Shanhua and the carved sculptures were used as decoration. Since then, the Shanhua gradually developed an important decorative area.

Hanging Fish is located under the gable boards on both sides of the Hanging Hill Roofs or Hard Hill Roof. It’s a architectural decorating part, mostly carved in wood. Because it used to be in fish shape and hangs on the full-face ridge, people also call it the Hanging fish. It’s quite common in folk buildings as the common people were only allowed to use Hanging Hill Roofs and Hard Hill Roofs.

Chiwen (鸱吻)

On the endings of the full-face ridge are a pair of mysterious animal sculptures looking like dragon, beast, bird, but are not any of them. These are called the Chiwen, usually set with exquisite flowers and waves and reply on flames, stars, sun and moon. The location of Chiwen has made it extremely important in ancient Chinese architecture. Where exactly to put them on the full-face ridge can determine how the building looks.

Sunk Panel

Sunk panel is a decorative wooden structural ceiling in ancient Chinese architecture. It’s usually sunk ahead to form a vault and it’s built above the throne of a palace or above the Buddhist shrine of a temple. It has different shape like square, circle, or octangle or is overlaid in multiple shapes, and fashioned with beautiful patterns, carvings and color painting.

Chinese ancient architecture attaches great importance in details, especially the decorations on the roof. It’s not only aesthetic, but also expresses the ethical norms, making it one of the dazzling pearls in the world of architectural aesthetics.