How Did Chinese Architecture Influence Japan

Japanese Architecture: Chinese Influences

The architectural history of Japan is rich and diverse, stretching across centuries of evolution. Chinese influence on Japanese architecture is particularly complicated, with a long-standing and nuanced relationship between the two countries. As a result, Japanese architectural is composed of a mixture of traits from both the ancient Chinese styles and homegrown Japanese innovations and sensibilities.

Introduction of Chinese Architecture

In the 7th century, Japan began to receive direct Chinese influence in the form of Buddhism. As a result of the influx of Buddhist priests, artisans and architects, a brand new style of building and design began to take shape. Most of the early Chinese influences were largely based on the Tang dynasty style of building, with the pagoda-style architecture coming to the fore.
The introduction of Buddhism and its accompanying new styles of building caused a major shift in Japanese architecture. Significant features from the Chinese style could be seen everywhere and were adapted to suit the Japanese landscape. Structures were typically built from timber, making them lighter and more ornate than their Chinese counterparts. Long, sweeping eaves were a major feature of much of the new architecture, lending a graceful elegance to the buildings of the time.

Early Contacts

Japan’s first contacts with the Chinese came in the form of formal diplomatic exchanges and extended periods of close interaction between an imperial court and its Chinese counterpart. This period, known as the Heian era, saw a steady stream of cultural exchange between the two countries, including the importation of books and art detailing the many advances in Chinese architecture. As a result, a number of structures were constructed in Japan during this time which followed the Chinese style of building. One of the most famous examples of this is the Horyu-ji temple in Nara, the oldest wooden structure in the world still standing.

Efficiency, Durability, & Simplicity

The Chinese influence on Japanese architecture was not simply limited to ornamental features. Many of the Chinese influences were based on achieving maximum efficiency, durability, and simplicity in structure design. For example, the Chinese pagoda style is well-known for its structural simplicity and lateral stability. Arches and domes were also adopted from Chinese architecture, both features that were conspicuous by their absence from Japanese architecture prior to Chinese influence.

Japanese Adaptations

Although the Chinese style was adopted in its entirety in some instances, the Japanese also began to adapt the style in various ways that suited their culture. Limitations imposed by the geography of the island nation meant that the scale of the architecture had to be smaller – the pagoda style, for example, was adapted to be more compact and well-suited to the landscape.
The style was also often less ornate in Japan than it had been in China, due to the constraints of the physical environment. For example, building with wood was preferred in Japan as it was more lightweight and easier to build with, whereas in China the use of stone was more common.

Zen & Japanese Gardens

The introduction of Chinese Buddhism by the Chinese priests of the Tang dynasty also brought with it the introduction of Zen Buddhism and the philosophy of wabi sabi. This idea of accepting imperfections and embracing the beauty of change and transience was reflected in the Japanese architecture of the era. Many wooden structures were purposefully made to look aged, and even viewed as ‘beautiful’ in a state of disrepair.
The concept of wabi sabi was especially reflected in the Japanese gardens of the time. Gardens of the Heian period were designed to capture a particular essence which was in accordance with the philosophy of wabi sabi: they were designed to emphasize the concept of impermanence, with changing elements and an emphasis on finding and appreciating beauty in the imperfection and transience of nature.

Modern Influence

The influence of Chinese architecture on Japan is still felt to this day, particularly in the use of curved structures and the overarching idea of wabi sabi in garden design. The close proximity of the two countries has meant that China and Japan continue to share certain cultural elements, and to this day the two countries exchange ideas and trends in art, architecture and design.

Kabuki Theater

The introduction of Chinese influence also led to the development of the distinctive form of Japanese theater known as Kabuki. This style of theater, emphasizing movement and spectacle over spoken dialogue, owes much to the influence of Chinese opera. The exaggerated gestures, melodrama and intricate costumes were all taken from Chinese models, and remain largely unchanged even to this day.

Religious Structures

The introduction of Buddhism to Japan also saw the introduction of many religious structures built in the Chinese style. Temples, shrines and pagodas became a common sight throughout the country, with the most famous example being the soaring five-storied pagoda at the Todai-ji temple in Nara, the oldest wooden structure in the world.

Influence on Townscapes

The introduction of Chinese architecture also led to the development of distinctive towns and cities in Japan, with many elements taken directly from Chinese precedents. Design elements such as geomancy, the use of ramps and bridges, multiple courtyards and walls with gates both distributed and connected open spaces. This style of inspiration from Chinese architecture can still be seen today in many of the towns throughout Japan, particularly in the smaller traditional towns in rural areas.


The Chinese influence on Japanese architecture has been profound over the centuries, with numerous styles and trends being adopted and adapted to meet the needs of the culture. Despite the constant flux of the relationship between the two countries, the similarities in aesthetics and philosophy between the two cultures have meant that many of the Chinese influences remain to this day. From the soaring pagodas of the temples, to the small town streets full of winding alleys and winding pathways, the influence of Chinese architecture can be felt throughout the country.

Anita Johnson is an award-winning author and editor with over 15 years of experience in the fields of architecture, design, and urbanism. She has contributed articles and reviews to a variety of print and online publications on topics related to culture, art, architecture, and design from the late 19th century to the present day. Johnson's deep interest in these topics has informed both her writing and curatorial practice as she seeks to connect readers to the built environment around them.

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