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#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 7

The Mid-Autumn Festival was this past weekend. This is a time for families to reunite, to give thanks for the Fall harvest, and to celebrate the full moon. It is one of the most important holidays on the Lunar calendar. Thinking of family gatherings and celebrations of life led me to think about remembrances in China’s past, which led me to this Issue’s topic of Chinese memorial arches.


Chinese Memorial Arches

Summer Palace, Beijing (author photograph)

Memorial arches, called paifang 牌坊 and pailou 牌楼 since the Ming Dynasty, have a long, distinguished lineage in China. They were a common sight along the roads of ancient Chinese cities and at tombs, temples, and shrines throughout the countryside. They served a memorial, celebratory or decorative function and were an integral part of ancestor worship and the landscape and cultural aesthetics so important in Chinese society.

These arches were made of stone, brick, glazed tile, wood or marble and generally had three openings with four supporting columns and a roof structure. Plaques front and back were inscribed with auspicious or explanatory sayings. They were most often elaborately carved, designed, and painted.

Torana Gate, 9th Century, Madhya Pradesh, India (Suyash Dwivedi, Wikimedia Commons)

Pailous may have evolved from the hengmen gate of the Chinese Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BCE). Another theory is that knowledge of an early form of arch was transmitted to China across the Silk Road from India with the advent of Buddhism in China. This example above of a torana temple gate was a common architectural feature in ancient India. If so, then as with most all of Buddhist architecture, art, and practice in China over the past almost two thousand years, pailous became more recognizably and distinctly Chinese.

Near Ningbo, 1793 Watercolor by William Alexander

This pailou is labeled a Triumphal Arch near Ningbo, Eastern China, and was painted by William Alexander, the draftsman accompanying Lord McCartney’s visit to China in 1793. Alexander notes that “[t]hese monuments are erected for the purpose of transmitting the meritorious actions of good men to posterity.” The inscription on this arch was translated at the time of Alexander’s visit as

By the Emperor’s supreme goodness, in the 59th year of Qianlong, and on the first day, this triumphal edifice was erected in honor of Tchoung-ga-chung, the most high and learned Doctor of the Empire, and one of the Mandarins of the Tribunal of Arms.1

Putuo Zongcheng Temple, Chengde (Gisling, Wikimedia Commons)

In the Qing Dynasty, mountain retreat of Chengde, this glazed tile archway graces the lower rocky road leading up the hill into the Putuo Zongcheng temple complex (built 1767-1771). This temple is a smaller, though still large, copy of the Potala Palace in Tibet. The arch is constructed in the “popular Qianlong Period form of ‘three rooms, four columns, and seven floors’” (三间四柱七楼, sanjian sizhu qilou). The front of this arch bears a plaque with an inscription announcing the “Universal Entrance to the Buddhist World” (普门应现, pumen yingxian), and the rear is inscribed with a phrase signifying the site of the “Solemn Lotus Realm” (莲界庄严, lianjie zhuangyan).2

Tomb of Lady Yu, Confucian Forest, Qufu (

Qufu, the hometown of Confucius in Shandong Province, contains several pailous, including at temples and in the expansive Confucius Family Forest Cemetery, the Kong Lin. The cemetery is the final resting place of more than 100,000 direct descendants of Confucius (551-479 BCE). The three-arched pailou above from 1825 leads to the tomb of Lady Yu. She was the wife of Confucian descendent Kong Xianpei (72nd generation).

Wangu Changchun Memorial Archway, Qufu, 1906-1909 (Ernst Boerschmann)

There is also this majestic five-arch pailou, dating from the Ming Dynasty, in Qufu. It marks the beginning of the long, devotional processional way leading to the walled Confucius Cemetery.

Ancestral Shrine, Yuanmingyuan Forty Views (Wikimedia Commons)

Several arches graced the front of the former Ancestral Shrine at the Yuanmingyuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness) north of Beijing. This shrine was known as the “Vast Compassion and Eternal Blessing (Ancestral Shrine),” Hongci Yonghu, and also as the Anyou Gong. The Qianlong Emperor commissioned a set of forty paintings of scenes at the Yuanmingyuan in 1744. This shrine (and its arches) was one of them.

The Emperor wrote a poem to accompany the scene, including that “[r]espectfully, we face our ancestors now in paradise.…we must come to worship them [the ancestors] on the first and fifteenth day of each month,….Our ancestors will protect us for ten thousand years and will make us good and courageous. We, their descendants, must be careful and make every effort to avoid sins.3

Spirit Road, Ming Tombs, north of Beijing

The seven-kilometer-long Spirit Road at the Ming Tombs north of Beijing is now a famous tourist site. This ink sketch depicts the beginning of the Spirit Road at a massive, five-arched stone pailou.4 This is the official entry to the mountain tombs of thirteen Ming Emperors. The site is laid out to take advantage of good fengshui, with hills, rivers, pavilions, and stone statues of animals, mythical beasts, and military and civil officials. Honor, respect, and order were emphasized.

Wuzhou Mansion, Guangxi, 1906-1909 (Ernst Boerschmann)

Luzhou Artesian Well, Sichuan, 1906-1909 (Ernst Boerschmann)

Ernst Boerschmann (1873-1949) was a German sinologist who lived in China between 1906-09 (his second trip to China). He traveled widely and captured poignant black and images of a China now past. Several of these were pailous, including these in Guangxi Province and Sichuan Province.

Ottawa, Canada (author photograph)

Pailous are not just in China. When we think of Chinatowns in North America, we frequently associate them with a “Chinese gate.” There are several of these pailous in many Chinatowns. The arch above leads into the Chinatown in Ottawa, Ontario. It was built in 2010 to celebrate forty years of diplomatic relations between Canada and China. According to its plaque, the “imperial-style” arch is a “symbol of health, prosperity and good fortune.”



1William Alexander and George Henry Mason, Views of 18th Century China: Costumes, History, Customs, Studio Editions, 1988, Plate LXVII, Page 140

2Chengde City Cultural Relics Administration, ed., Chengde Scenery, China Travel and Tourism Press, 1985, Plate 59

3Victoria M. Cha-Tsu Siu, Gardens of a Chinese Emperor, Lehigh UP, 2013, Page 7

4Nan Shunxun and Beverly Foit-Albert, China’s Sacred Sites, Himalayan Institute Press, 2007, Page 181


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