Spanning the Centuries:The Beauty of Chinese Arch Bridges
By Zhu Yu & Qing Cha
In the vast landscape of China, arch bridges which are highly varied in form and material make a common picturesque sight. Most Chinese bridges were built in ancient times and they are an important legacy in the history of bridge building. The traditional design of these arch bridges combined the use of materials such as stone, wood, brick or bamboo with traditional architectural tools and superb craftsmanship, to create bridges of distinct structural styles and features. It is precisely the curved design that allows loads to spread out to the abutments, which are supports on the ground at both ends of the bridge.
Stone Arch Bridges
• Zhaozhou Bridge
Located in Hebei Province, the bridge is also known as Anji Bridge or Great Stone Bridge. It was designed by a craftsman named
Li Chun. The oldest arch bridge in China, construction began in 595 CE and continued for 11 years. It is also the world’s first stone open-spandrel segmental arch bridge. In the 1,400 years since its construction, it has survived several wars and calamities, the most recent being the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that happened in Xing Tai in 1966.
The bridge’s design allows water flow to be better controlled during floods, as its central arch consists of a curved part less than half of a semicircle that helps water to pass underneath. This design also makes its surface less steep. In days of yore, carts and carriages could cross this bridge with ease. The design has the added benefit of being lighter than most bridges, which meant fewer materials were needed during construction.
An elegant structure with a well-proportioned layout, it is looked upon as a delicately crafted piece of art. The 50.82-meter-long bridge with a central span of about 37 meters is still in use by pedestrians today.
• Lugou Bridge
Also known as the Marco Polo Bridge, it is located 15 kilometers southwest of Beijing, spanning Yongding River. Construction of this 266.5-meter-long granite bridge first started about 800 years ago and resulted in a structure which is supported on 11 segmented arches and 281 pillars.
There are hundreds of finely crafted stone lions lining both sides of the bridge, each standing on a pillar. Smaller lions hide on the heads, backs and under the bellies or on paws of each of the big lions.
Famed for its aesthetic features, the beauty of this masterpiece has won much praise from many emperors, poets and writers. Marco Polo, an Italian merchant and explorer, wrote: “Over this river there is a very fine stone bridge, so fine indeed that it has very few equals in the world.”
• Baodai Bridge
Located in the south of Suzhou and spanning the Dandai River is the Baodai Bridge, also known as the Precious Belt Bridge. Made from quality granite, it measures 316.8 meters long. The impressive 53 arches built underneath the structure make it one of the most famous and celebrated multi-arched bridges in the world.
The bridge was named Baodai, meaning “precious belt,” in tribute. It was first built in 816 CE to commemorate Wang Zhongshu, the governor of Suzhou, who donated his precious jade belt to finance the construction of the bridge. From a distance, the bridge indeed resembles an exquisite jade belt hovering over the water.
Timber Arch Bridges
Timber arch bridges are comprised of matchless structures employing engineering principles believed to have died out in China some 900 years ago. Ancient wooden arch bridges in Fujian Province and Zhejiang Province are still in full function today, a testament to the skills of the master craftsmen who built them.
There are simple and straightforward bridges as well as intricate and novel ones. Some are supported by intermediate poles, columns and crosspieces while others are supported by stone piers.
Some of these timber arch bridges are roofed. The coverings provide protection for both the wooden structures and the pedestrians. They are relatively level structures with gradual approaches. Many others rear up abruptly from their abutments and soar dramatically as they cross over chasms.
Many of these masterpieces have been listed as cultural relics. Suspended between two banks of lush greenery and constructed using wood of the trees surrounding them, these magnificent bridges are tributes to Mother Nature that blend naturally and beautifully into their environment.
These historic bridges provide the opportunity for local residents to meet and exchange information. Many of these covered bridges serve as gathering sites: places for travelers and workers to rest, places to make offerings and pray, places for women to make handicrafts and watch over their children, as well as places to spread out goods to sell.
Being located at an elevated position, usually in the middle of a gorge, means that the upper structures experience breezy conditions. Residents like to spend time here to sit and talk, or even spend the night. In other sections, small and large altars are set up for personal worship as well as community rituals.
Composition of couplets used to be a popular pastime among both scholars and people interested in literature. Combining poetry with calligraphy, the couplets were inscribed on paper. Many couplets adorn the interior of bridges such as at Wanan Bridge, Sanxi Bridge and Huilong Bridge.
These ancient bridges serve as powerful reminders of what is possible through ingenuity and hard work. The art and science of ancient bridge construction must be preserved to inspire future generations. These architectural wonders have withstood the test of time and give the modern era an opportunity to reflect upon their beauty and construction, as well as the culture which gave rise to them.