Paifang or Pailou, meaning archway in English, is a traditional Chinese gateway with a memorial or decorative nature. Traditional Chinese memorial archway could be made of wood, brick, stone or glaze, and is built mainly to commemorate the great achievements or loftiness of a family's ancestors. Most Chinese archways are placed in front of a tomb, temple, bridge, and ancestral hall or along the road.
As an accessorial architecture, the archway firstly serves as a gateway and decoration of the main building. Many shops create archways to prettify its entrance and attract customers. Meanwhile, traditional Chinese archways generally carried inscriptions to propagate certain moral principles or to extol government achievements. In ancient China, for example, many widowed women, fettered by the feudal ethical code, refrained from remarriage just in the hope to have "archway of chastity".
It is suggested that the Chinese memorial archway may have been derived from the torana temple-gate in ancient India, though it has taken on traditional Chinese architecture characteristics such as multi-tiered roofs, various supporting posts, and archway-shapes of traditional gates and towers.
During the Tang dynasty, it was called wutoumen (black top gate), because the top of the two posts were painted black. By the Ming and Qing dynasties, it was called Paifang or Pailou, and evolved into more elaborate structure with more posts and gates, with super-structural gable on top.
Wooden archways: Wooden archway involves placing wooden pillars onto stone bases, and bound together with wooden beams. This type of archway is always beautifully decorated, with the pillars usually painted in red, the beams decorated with intricate designs and Chinese calligraphy, and the roof covered with colored tiles, complete with mythical beasts - just like a Chinese palace.
Stone or brick archways: Another form of Chinese archways is s made of stone or bricks; the walls may be painted, or decorated with colored tiles; the top of the archways are decorated like their wooden counterparts. Yet another form of stone archways, built mainly on religious and burial grounds, consists of plain white stone pillars and beams, with neither roof tiles nor any colored decoration, but feature elaborate carvings created by master masons.
Famous Chinese archways
According to relevant records, there used to be some 57 archways in old Beijing. A well-preserved archway is the one in front of the main entrance to the Summer Palace. Built 200 years ago, it is composed of four columns forming three arches and carrying on top seven roofed ornamental units.
Shexian near Huangshan City is regarded as the Town of Archways in China. Here stand many outstanding memorial archways, among which Tangyue Memorial Archway Group is the most famous. Built in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, it is a collection of seven memorial archways winding their ways into the group.