China is a major bridge country in the world. There are various types of bridges across the land: the Broken Bridge on West Lake famous because of the story Baishe zhuan (Legend of the White Snake); the Maple Bridge well known because of the (Tang) poem “Berthing for the Night at the Maple Bridge”; the Qiantang River Bridge, the first railroad bridge constructed in China in 1937; the Zhaozhou Bridge, the oldest bridge built more than 1,500 years ago; the Jiangdong Bridge, a stone bridge with the heaviest structural components which include a beam weighing 200 plus tons; the Seventeen-Arch Bridge, the largest garden bridge which is 150 meters long and 8 meters wide; the Anping Bridge, the longest ancient bridge which is 2,500 meters long and 5 meters wide; the Inner and Outer Bridges over the Jinshui River, which are the most beautiful bridges of all. The scientific, aesthetic, and historical value of these bridges all are recorded in history.
Bridges not only are a means of transportation, but also harmoniously integrate architecture, art, and science into an organic whole.
From a historical perspective, the earliest bridge built in China was the beam bridge. Inspired by swinging rattan to cross a river, the cable (chain) bridge was invented. Inspired by riding a boat to cross a river, the durable floating bridge was thus created. The arched construction method used in building city gates was applied to construct bridges, and the arched bridge was thus created. Soon thereafter arched bridges were widely used.
Bridge building material was selected based on location and local resources. Some were constructed of stone blocks and wooden beams, some were made of a mixture of stone and brick, bamboo and wood, or bamboo and rattan. Even a bridge made solely of stone often included metal components such as iron pincers. Whether built of wood, stone, bamboo, rattan, or iron, bridges in China are diversified and colorful.
The various forms of bridges in China are highly artistic. Decorative components such as Chinese characters, paintings, sculptures, and architecture are integrated into the bridges. They convey people’s noble aspirations or even philosophical chan ideas.
Many bridges have ancillary buildings constructed on both ends, which ingeniously match the beautiful form of the bridge and further perfect the overall layout of the bridges.
Bridge railings are protective measures installed on both sides of the bridge—people can lean against the railings and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Railings are also the focal point as a way of beautifying the bridge. In many private gardens in areas south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, there are many bridges decorated with curved and colored balustrades, horizontal balustrades with vertical railings, or stone balustrades. Depending on the building material, there are wooden, bamboo, stone, and iron balustrades.
A house built on top of the bridge is common in hot and rainy southern China. It is a dwelling used to shelter people from the wind and rain, a site from which to view the scenery, a market for staging a country trade fair, and a place in which to rest. Building a hall over the bridge is very rare. The storied structure of the Qiaolou Hall of the Fuqing Monastery in Jingjing, Hebei province is one example. Building a hall over the bridge makes the entire layout of the monastery complex even more uniform and compact. Constructing a storied building over the bridge is also rare. It generally is built over a multi-span bridge. Images of deities are enshrined and worshipped inside the storied building. In addition, there are also many examples of pavilions constructed over bridges, especially garden bridges built to enhance their ornamental value.
Bridge carvings are mostly concentrated on the balustrades, piers, and arches. They include carvings in relief, carving in the round, and open work carving. The themes include flowers, plants, trees, birds, animals, insects, fish, human figures, and mythical animals.
Southern China, especially in the network of rivers region, including Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, is crisscrossed by rivers and canals with bridges over them. The Zhouzhuang water town and Shaoxing water city are two well-known such places. Bridges are closely related to the local people’s daily life. Bridges associated with folk customs often express people’s longing for a better life.
The ancient Chinese bridge is solid and graceful, and became a subject about which people often wrote and praised in their poetry. Chinese ancient bridges not only are beautiful, but also blended with the natural scenery into a single organic whole, thus forming a scene of dazzling beauty.