In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: The houses in rural China “are generally built on the north end of the space reserved as a courtyard, so as to face the south, and if additional structures are needed they are placed at right angles to the main one, facing east and west. If the premises are large, the front wall of the yard is formed by another house, similar to the one in the rear, and like it having side buildings. However numerous or however wealthy the family, this is the normal type of its dwelling. In cities this type is greatly modified by the exigencies of the contracted space at disposal, but in the country it rules supreme. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg;Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang,a village in Shandong.]

“The numerative of Chinese houses is a word which denotes division, signifying not a room, but rather such a part of a dwelling as can conveniently be covered by timbers of one length. As these timbers are seldom very large or very long, one division of a house will not often exceed ten or twelve feet in length, by a little less in width from front to back. An ordinary house will comprise three of these divisions, though there may be but one partition, forming one double and one single room. There is no ceiling, and the roof, which is usually not lofty, is in full view. Most doors are made with two leaves, projections above and below, like pins, serving as the hinges. There is a movable doorsill, out of which a small hole is often cut to admit of entrance and exit for the dogs and cats. Such doors cannot be tightly closed, for the rude workmanship and the unequal shrinkage of the wood always render it easy to see through the many cracks.

“That the dwellings of the Chinese are cold in winter, hot in summer, and smoky all the year round is inevitable. Even in the coldest weather there is no escape from the bitter cold, except as it may be got by curling upon the kang [heated platform]. For this reason Chinese women often speak of the kang as like an “own mother.” A room in which there is none is considered almost uninhabitable. But from an Occidental point of view they are models of discomfort. The heat is but slowly diffused, and during a long night one may be alternately drenched with perspiration, and then chilled to the bone as the heat diminishes. The adobe bricks of which the kang is composed crumble if an uneven pressure is made upon them, so that one often finds the kangs in an inn full of pitfalls. They are always the lodging places of a multitude of tiny monsters to which the Chinese are too much accustomed to complain. Even when the adobe bricks are broken up in the spring to be pulverized as manure — on account of the creosote — the animal life lodged in the walls is apparently sufficient to restock the universe.

Websites and Sources: Yin Yu Tang ; House Architecure ; House Interiors; Tulou are Hakka Clan Homes in Fujian Province. They have been declared a World Heritage Site.Hakka Houses ; UNESCO World Heritage Site : UNESCO Books: "Houses of China" by Bonne Shemie ; “Yin Yu Tang: The Architecture and Daily Life of a Chinese House” by Nancy Berliner (Tuttle, 2003) is about the reconstruction of a Qing dynasty courtyard house in the United States. Yun Yu Tamg means shade-shelter, abundance and hall.

Construction Materials for a 19th Century Chinese House

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “The mountains furnish an abundance of stone, from which dwellings situated in such districts are built — dark, damp, and unwholesome at all seasons of the year, but especially so in the time of heavy rains. Even more unpleasant are the cave dwellings found in the loamy soil of loess regions, lighted only from the front, and quite free from any form of ventilation, a luxury for which no provision is made in the construction of a Chinese dwelling. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“By far the most common material of which the Chinese build their houses is that which happens to be nearest at hand. Bricks are everywhere made in great quantities, almost always of the same colour as the clothes of the people, a bluish gray. This tint is secured by sealing up the brick-kiln perfectly tight, when the burning of the bricks is finished, and pouring upon the concave top several hundred buckets of water, which, filtering through the soil of which the top is composed, is instantly converted into steam when it reaches the bricks, and alters their hue. The scarcity of fuel, and an unwillingness to employ it where it seems like a waste leads to the almost universal practice of burning the bricks too little to make them valuable as a building material. Instead of becoming hard like stones as do foreign bricks, and coated with a thick glazing, a large percentage of Chinese bricks break merely by being handled, and when examined, they are found to be like well-made bread, full of air-holes. Each of these openings becomes a tube by which the bibulous bricks suck up moisture from below, to the great detriment of the building of which they generally form merely the foundations, or perhaps, the facings.

“The vast majority of country dwellings are made simply of the soil, moulded into adobe bricks, dried till they cease to shrink. The largest of these bricks are two or three inches thick, and a foot wide, and perhaps twenty inches in length, weighing even when thoroughly dried more than forty pounds. The cost of making those which are only dried in a mould is not more than a cash a piece; those which are stamped while in the mould with a heavy stone rammer, are worth three or four times as much. If experts are employed to do this work, the outlay is greater as the owner of the earth not only provides a man to carry the necessary water, but he must furnish tea and tobacco for the workmen.

Parts and Architectural Features of a 19th Century Chinese House

Smith wrote: “The foundations of adobe houses, like those of all others, must be of brick, and at the height of a foot or two above the ground will have a layer of reeds or some other substance, designed to prevent the dampness from rising into the walls, which crumble in such a case like candy houses in a rain. There is so much soda in the soil of all parts of the Great Plain of northern China, that unless extreme care is taken the best built structures will, in a very few years, show signs of decay. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The roof is meant to be supported by posts, no matter of what material the house is built, and this material is regarded as only the filling between them, but in the cheaper houses, the posts are often omitted to save expense. As a result, in a rainy year thousands of houses are literally soaked down whenever the moisture has sufficiently weakened the foundations. In this way many persons are killed and many more injured. In some districts one sees roofs made with the frame resembling that of a foreign house, but the ordinary form is with king and queen posts. In either case the timbers running lengthwise of the building support small purlines upon which rest thin bricks, or more frequently reeds, mats, or sorghum stalks, over which is spread the earth which forms the greater part of all roofs. Their enormous weight when well soaked make them highly dangerous after the timbers have become old and rotten. Where the roofs are flat, they serve as depositories for the crops, and for fuel.

“It is not surprising that the title-deeds to land are in course of years destroyed or lost, for there is in a Chinese house no proper place in which they may be kept. The only closets are made by leaving out a few bricks from the wall. A small board, resting on two pegs often forms the only book-shelf to be found in the apartments even of men of letters. Doors are locked by passing the link of a chain over a staple in the door-frame above; but Chinese padlocks can generally be picked with a wire, a chop-stick, or even with a dry weed, and afford no real protection. Thieves are always provided with an assortment of keys, and often get in by lifting the doors off the pins which serve as hinges. Nothing is easier than to dig through adobe walls. In some of the rich villages of Shanxi house-walls are built quite six feet thick to discourage such penetration.

“The floor of all common dwellings is merely the earth, not smoothed but beaten into fixed inequalities; this we are assured (in reply to a question why smoothness is not cultivated) is much the best way, as by this means every fluid spilled will run out of itself! In the corners of the dwelling stand, lie, or hang, the numerous household articles for which there is no other place. Jars of grain, agricultural implements, clumsy looms for weaving cotton, spinning wheels, baskets of all sizes and shapes, one or two benches, and possibly a chair, all seem to occupy such space as is to be had, while from the sooty roof depend all manner of articles, hung up so as to be out of the way — some of which when wanted must be hooked down with a pole. The maxim “a place for everything, and everything in its place” is inappropriate to a Chinese dwelling, where there is very little place for anything.

Rooms and Main Parts of the House

Smith wrote: “Almost all parts of the eighteen provinces are very hot in summer, but it is only in some regions that a back door will be found opening opposite the front one. The wooden grating, which does duty as a window, is built into the wall, for security against thieves, and is often covered, even in the heat of summer, with oiled paper. Doors do not open directly from dwelling-houses to the street, and if there are any windows on the street side of the house, they are very small and very high. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“Just inside the door is built the adobe support for the cooking-boiler, the latter shaped like a saucer and made very thin in order to economize fuel to the utmost. In all districts where provision is to be made for heating the room, it is done by conducting the smoke from this primitive range through a complicated set of flues, under the divan called a kang which serves as a bed, and which is merely an arrangement of adobe bricks. If the houses are thatched with straw the opening for smoke must be near the ground, as a precaution against fire.

“On the end of the kang are piled the bed-quilts of the household and whatever trunks or boxes they may be able to boast, for this is the only part of the dwelling which is not likely to be damp. As the fire is so near to the outer door where drafts are strong, as the flues are very likely to get out of order, and as there are no chimneys worthy of the name, it is inevitable that the smoke should be distributed throughout the building with the greatest impartiality, often forming a coating of creosote an inch or more in thickness.

“Above the cooking-range is fastened the image of the kitchen-god, popularly supposed to be a deification of Chang Kung, a worthy who lived in the eighth century of our era, and was able to live in perfect peace, although nine generations simultaneously inhabited the same yard. Even his hundred dogs were so polite as to wait for another, if any one of them was late at a meal. The reigning emperor of the Tang Dynasty sent for Chang Kung, to inquire the secret of such wonderful harmony, and calling for a pen, he is said to have written the character denoting “Forbearance” a great number of times. According to tradition the picture of this patriarch was placed in every dwelling as a stimulus to the imitation of his example, a purpose for which it unfortunately proves quite inert.

Yard and Surroundings of a 19th Century Chinese House

Smith wrote: “The small yard is in as great confusion as the house, and for the same reason. Dogs, cats, chickens and babies enjoy a very limited sphere of action, and generally take to the street, which is but an extension of the court. If the family owns animals, some place must be found for them in the yard, though when not in use they spend their time anchored by a very short rope, attached to pegs sunk deep in the ground, in front of the owner’s dwelling. Pigs are kept in a kind of well, with a brick wall to prevent its caving in, and by climbing a very steep flight of brick stairs they can ascend to a little kennel provided for them at the edge of their pits — in many regions the only two-story domiciles to be found!

“The Chinese do not care for the shade of trees about their houses, but much prefer poles covered with mats. Those who are unable to afford such a luxury, however, and who might easily have a grateful shade-tree in their court-yard, do not plant anything of this sort, but content themselves with pomegranates or some other merely ornamental shrubs. When, owing to the fierce heat, the yard is intolerable, they go and sit in the street, and when that is insufferable, they retire to their houses again.

“If the village is situated in a low spot, the precaution is taken to throw up a mound of earth on which to build. But whatever the nature of the country, the removal of so much earth leaves a series of gigantic pits around every village, which catch the drainage of the surrounding region and the possession of which is disputed by ducks, geese, pigs and in summer by small children clad only in the skin garments furnished by nature.

“The abundant moisture is an inducement to the growth of luxuriant groves of trees, which, seen at a distance, produce a charming effect. But on a nearer approach it is seen that the fine old trees are employed exclusively in shading the mud-holes, while the houses of the village are exposed to the fiercest rays of the summer sun. Trees are indeed to be met with in the village street, but they are not designed to shade a courtyard, which is almost invariably utterly destitute of trees of any sort. Even grapevines which would seem a natural and beautiful relief from the hideous bareness of the prevalent earth colour, are, in some regions at least, wholly tabooed. And why? Because, forsooth, the branches of the grape point down, while those of other trees point up, hence it would be “unlucky” to have grapevines, though not at all “unlucky” to roast all through the broiling summer for the lack of their grateful shade.

“A man whose grandfather had been rich, and who was distinguished from his neighbours by owning a two-story dwelling, informed the writer that he could remember that his grandmother, who lived in the rear court, was constantly fretting at the lofty buildings in front, and at the magnificent elms which shaded the compound and left no place to dry clothes! In course of time the family was reduced to poverty, the two-story building was demolished, and the trees felled, so that the present generation, like other families, swelters in a narrow courtyard, with an unlimited opportunity (very little used) to dry their clothes. Luxuries which are denied to dwelling-houses, are cheerfully accorded to the gods, who have no clothes to dry, and a very small temple may have in front of it a grove of very old trees.

Problems with Chinese Houses in the 19th Century

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “Chinese houses are nearly always ill-lighted at night. The native vegetable oils are exceedingly disagreeable to the smell, and 'only afford sufficient illumination to ( make darkness visible: the great advantages of kerosene are indeed recognized, but in spite of them, it is still true that throughout enormous areas; the oil made from Beans, cotton seed and peanuts continues to be used, long after kerosene has been known, simply from the force b? conservative inertia, backed by profound indifference to the greater comfort of being able to see clearly, as compared with being able to see* scarcely at all. Chinese furniture strikes a Westerner as being clumsy and uncomfortable. Instead of the broad Benches on Which our ancestors used to recline, the Chinese are generally content with very narrow ones, and it will not be surprising if some of the legs are loose, or are so placed as to tip Off" the unwary person who seats himself when there is no one at the other end. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“The greatest objections which Westerners have to Chinese dwellings are undoubtedly the dampness and the cold. Of the radical error in the construction of building, which economizes in the foundation, we have elsewhere spoken. The enevitable and permanent result is dampness. Floors of earth, or of imperfectly burned brick are to most foreigners not only sources of great discomfort, but extremely prejudicial to health. Not less annoying are the loose doors, resting on pivots. The double leaves of these doors admit the cold air at each side, at the top and at the bottom. Even if the cracks are pasted up with stout paper, a door is but an imperfect protection against the bitter winter weather, because no one will shut it. It is almost impossible to teach Chinese to keep an outside door shut in winter. The notice which a business man posted on the outside of his office door, "Everybody shuts the doors but you, " would be a gross falsehood in China, where nobody shuts a door.

“A Chinese dwelling in winter always appears to a Westerner a thesaurus of discomfort, on account of the absence of artificial heat. The vast majority of the people, even where the winters are severe, have no other heat than that modicum obtained from the fuel burned in cooking, and which is conveyed to the kang. This, is the point of minimum discomfort in the establishment, but to Occidentals who wish to feel positive heat from some source diffusing itself in grateful currents all over the body, a Chinese kang on a cold night, is a very inadequate substitute for the "chimney-corner, '' or for the stove. In regions where coaljs accessible, it is indeed employed as fuel, but as compared with the whole country, these districts are very limited, and the smoke always escapes into the room, which becomes gradually filled with carbonic acid gas. Charcoal is very sparingly used even by those who are in good circumstances, and the danger from its incautious use, like that from the use of coal is very great. The houses are so uncomfortable that even at home if the weather is cold the inmates often wear all the clothes they can put on. When abroad, they have no more to add. " Are you cold?” We ask them. " Of course, " is the constant reply. They have never been artificially warmed in an Occidental sense, during their whole lives. In the winter their blood seems to be like water in the rivers, congealed at the surface, and only moving with a sluggish current underneath. Considering these characteristics of Chinese dwellings, it is no wonder that a certain Taotai who had been abroad, remarked that in the United States the prisoners in jail had quarters more comfortable than his yamen.

Few houses have a north door opposite the main entrance on the south side. Such an arrangement would produce a draught, and somewhat diminish the miseries of the dog-days. When asked why such a convenience is not more common, the frequent reply is that “we do not have north doors." North of the thirty-seventh parallel of latitude, the common sleeping-place of the Chinese is the kang, a raised “brick-bed" composed of adobe bricks, arid heated by the fire use for cooking. If there happens to be no fire, the cold earth appears to a foreigner the acme of discomfort. If the fire happens to be too great, he wakes in the latter part of the night, feeling that he is undergoing a process of roasting. In any event, the degree of heat will not be continuous throughout the flight. The whole family is huddled together on this terrace. The material of which it is composed becomes infested with insects, and even if the adobe bricks are annually removed there is no way to secure immunity from these unwelcome guests, which are fixed occupants of the walls of all classes of dwellings.

Parasites and Smells in a 19th Century Chinese House

Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “Foreign familiarity with Chinese parasites does not tend to induce toleration of them, as it has done in the case of the Chinese. A foreign lady who was in the room with a company of Chinese women, met a specimen of the pediculus capitis which had apparently lost its way. Holding it up, the lady inquired earnestly, “Whose louse is this?” [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“Other universally prevalent animal infestations there are with which most Chinese are very familiar, but there are few who seem to regard parasities as a preventable evil, even if they are. recognized as an evil at all. The nets which are used to keed winged torments at bay, are beyond the means of all but a minute fraction even of the city population, and so far as we know are rarely heard of elsewhere. Sandflies and mosquitoes are indeed felt to be a serious nuisance, and occasionally, faint efforts are made to expel them by burning uromatic weeds, but these pests do not annoy the Chinese a thousandth part as much as they annoy us.

“* Many Chinese, Who live all their lives in dwellings, in which the sensitive foreigners, like Coleridge in Cologne, might count “two and seventy stenches, all well-defined, and several slinks," are yet much annoyed at many odours which they encounter in foreign houses. They are not extremely disgusted with the smell of kerosene (which perhaps is not surprising) but they frequently manifest repugnance to what we consider our most fraerant flowers. A foreign lady who had kindly gathered up from their dirty and repulsive homes, a few neglected Chinese girls, and brought them into her own sitting-room to learn to read, found them one day holding their noses, because the house was pervaded with an odour of fresh roasted coffee, which thev declared to be a horrid smell 1" We have heard of a Chinese nurse-woman, who emphatically declined to sleep in the same ship-cabin with the children under her care, on the ground that they “smelly all same sheep!"

Foundations and Good Bricks: A Low Priority

Smith wrote: “It appears to be a general defect in the architecture of the Chinese, that in the construction of their buildings, the base is the part which receives the least attention, and upon which the smallest expenditure is bestowed. Millions upon millions of people in China never in the whole course of their -lives see a mountain, or even a hill. Where there are no mountains, stone is sure to be very expensive, and for building purposes, so far as the bulk of the population is concerned, may be said to be practically unknown. The next best substitute is brick. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“Owing to the high price of fuel, Chinese bricks are almost certain to be very imperfectly baked. The mud of which they are composed is thrown loosely into the mold, the surface is scraped to a rough level, and when the brick is sufficiently sundried to bear transportation, it is placed in the kiln. Owing to the fact that it has not been pressed, and that it has been only half burned, the completed brick is full of cavities, and is almost as porous as a sponge. Wherever the soil is impregnated with soda, as is the case in a large part of the great plains, the soda is drawn up by capillary attraction into the bricks, and also into the structure above, which gradually scales away, at the base, till it comes to. resemble a wall of cheese which has been persistently nibbled at by rats. To counteract these results, various substances such as stfaw, thin boards, etc., are introduced above the foundation, but these are merely palliatives, and do very little to hinder the disintegration, which is often so rapid, that in a few years it becomes necessary to renew the foundation a little at a time without disturbing the wall above.

“Besides the inherent defect of the bricks, Chinese builders almost invariably add two others, too shallow an excavation for such foundation as there is, and the use of a very insufficient quantity of lime. It is not uncommon to see a brick wall laid almost upon the surface of the ground and not unfrequently with no lime at all, in situations where a foreign contractor would dig a trench, five feet deep and use lime by the ton. The object which the foreign builde'r has in view is durability, the object which the Chinese builder has in view is economy of materials. Whoever wishes to see an example of this defective construction on an immense scale, in a situation where one would have looked for more thorough work, has but to walk for a few miles along the base of the wall surrounding the Imperial city in Peking. It would seem as if the only Chinese structures which are sure to be adequately built, are the pawn-shops, which are in reality, a kind of treasure-houses, in which security is of capital importance.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, “Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894, The Project Gutenberg

Last updated September 2021

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