A “ siheyuan “ is a traditional one-story courtyard home. Liu Heung Shing, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who lives in $1 million restored hutong house told the New York Times,Chinese believe that in a siheyuan you can feel the spirit of the earth because unlike in a high-rise apartment, you step on it every day. The traditional lanes of Shanghai are known as lilongs. Traditional houses are called shikumen. Shikumen, which literally means “’stone door frame” were developed in the early 1900s to meet the housing demands of booming old Shanghai. The houses are urban Western adaptations of traditional Chinese courtyard houses and were once described as “Chinese houses with a Parisian sensibility.”

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “By the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644) we have substantial evidence of how people lived. Not only do some houses survive, but we also have thousands of items of furniture from the period, numerous illustrations of homes in novels and plays published in the period, and even manuals describing how to build houses and furniture. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

“How people constructed, decorated, and furnished their homes tells us a lot about their resources, aesthetic preferences, and social habits. In China, as in most other societies, houses are a form of material culture with strong connections to family structure. Indeed, like the English word house, the Chinese word jia can be used to refer both to the physical building and the family that occupies it.

Homes all over China in pre-modern times had a lot in common. The way of laying out a house was similar among the rich and poor, both in earlier and later times. Certain materials and techniques, such as pounded earth foundations, timber framing, and use of bricks and tile were present throughout the country. Nevertheless, houses were by no means identical in all parts of China. If we look at houses in different regions we can see much that differed from place to place.

Western-style preservation is a new idea to some Chinese. One Australian man told the New York Times his Chinese friends were flabbergasted by his desire to reuse old bricks, doors and wooden beams in the renovation of the 200-year-old building. My neighbors would come in and say, “You’re spending so much money on your place but can’t afford new materials?” The problem is the workers all want to use everything new because it’s easier and the Chinese don’t appreciate the old, he said.

Websites and Sources: Yin Yu Tang ; House Architecture ; 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.

Three-Bay Houses and Traditional Chinese Courtyard Houses

Rural homes are typically built on one, two, three or four sides of an enclosed courtyard. Sometimes one family owns all the units around the courtyard, sometimes different families do. Most houses have peaked tile roofs although slate roofs are common and thatch is still used in some places. In high density areas multistory houses built in rows along streets predominate. They have a courtyard in the front or the back and have a flat roof. In commercial areas families often live upstairs and have a shop or business or animals or storage in the bottom floor. [Source: Stevan Harrell, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia — Eurasia / China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “The three-bay house can be understood to be the basic unit of Chinese homes. Depending on the size and the wealth of the family, these houses were added on to, often in standard ways. One common extension of the three-bay house was the creation of a courtyard dwelling. Traditionally, one family would share a courtyard space. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

“The sizes of courtyard houses vary greatly depending on the wealth, size, and the taste of the family, but generally the compounds had an inner courtyard (or a series of inner courtyards) and were built on a north-south axis. The courtyard was not only the basis of design for Chinese homes, but was also used in the design of more complex structures such as palaces and temples. Although the three-bay house and its elaboration in the form of courtyard houses were the basic module of Chinese architecture, there was a great deal of regional variation. Looking at the variation of house design can tell us a lot about climactic differences throughout China, as well as the different aspirations of people from different regions.

How Construction Materials Have Shaped Traditional Chinese House

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “The foundation of a house generally is made of pounded earth, and in some situations where wood was rare, earth was used in the construction of walls. Earth can be pounded into shape or made into bricks for walls. For roofs, depending on the wealth of a family, the material could vary. Clay is a fairly common material for making tiles for roofing. Click here to see how tiles are made. In some areas, for poorer people, thatch and bamboo were also common material. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

“Where wood was available and affordable, it was used to frame houses, providing support for the roof. The wood framework systems for Chinese homes and other buildings were standardized by the Ming dynasty and differ from wooden frameworks used in other parts of the world. Ordinary people could do much of the construction, but often experts were needed for framing. Click here to see examples of wooden framing.

“Wood framework systems are important to consider because they determine the size of the house. The basic building block of Chinese architecture is the bay or "the space between, " which is the space defined by roof supports. Chinese houses almost always consist of an odd number of bays; an even number of bays is considered unlucky. Therefore, three- or five- bay houses are common.

Features of Traditional Chinese Courtyard Houses

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “A notable feature of the courtyard house is that the complex is fully enclosed by buildings and walls. There are no windows on the outside walls, and usually the only opening to the outside is through the front gate. It was not easy to see what a house contained by peeking through the front gate. Courtyards were constructed so that when one looked through the first doorway of the house only a brick screen was visible. Access to the rest of the house required first turning a corner. Ideally, the main door did not line up exactly with the inner quarters.

“Privacy was a main concern. This is also why walls had few if any windows. In addition, according to Chinese folk beliefs, bad spirits can only move in a straight line, so a screen blocks their access to interior living space. Like the simple three-bay house, the door of the main building faced south. New courtyards could be added creating a multi-courtyard dwelling. Doorways to the east or west could open into a garden. One of the most impressive features of courtyard homes is the flexibility of the courtyard space. Traditionally, much time was spent in these courtyards. Plants and trees often grew in courtyard spaces, providing shade from summer sun. Courtyards could be used as a place for carrying out household tasks, or as a place to relax.

The primary elements of a typical two-courtyard house plan were: 1) the main entrance; 2) rooms facing the rear, with those near the entrance to the courtyard reserved for the servants if the family was well-off; 3) first courtyard, where cooking was done; 4) the second courtyard, which served a living space; 5) East and west-side rooms, for the sons and daughters, or the sons' families; 5) Inner Hall, where the members of the family greeted guests or where family ceremonies were held and ancestors were honored; 6) main building, with living space for parents; and 7) small side rooms, used for children and extended family members.

Interior of Traditional Chinese Houses

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: ““One of the most important spaces in Chinese homes was reserved for the family's ancestors. Chinese families encompassed the dead as well as the living. As a result, traditionally Chinese families, rich or poor, devoted a space to the ancestors of the family. In ordinary homes this usually consisted of a small shrine set up in the main room of the house. In richer families, an entire hall may have been made into the ancestral shrine. Shrines might take the form of tables, upon which tablets were set. Families would also hang couplets on either side. Often offerings of food and incense are placed on this table to show reverence to the ancestors. The table underneath, as in the image above, would serve as extra surface area to hold offerings. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

“As in the west, homes in China have places where people eat and sleep. Chinese sleeping areas often had at least one bed, but the style and the quality of beds could differ greatly. Sometimes you can find curtains around the bed. There are sometimes table that are higher than what people in the West are used to. This is because in many northern homes, the living quarters are dominated by this kang, a raised platform with flues underneath for heating. Inhabitants slept on the kang and in the winter much of the daily activity took place there. Most items of furniture, such as tables and chairs, are also common to Western usage but often have different designs that respond to specific customs or practical considerations. Screens were used to divide space in Chinese homes. Eating was not confined to a single room. People could eat in courtyard, garden, or inside. During the winter, people often took their meals on the kang.

“Chinese kitchens are different from Western kitchens. Often kitchens were not included in house plans. For richer families, cooking was done in the servants' quarters. In poorer families, cooking was done in the main room of the house or in a separate shed. In general, Chinese kitchens are more compact than Western counterparts. In the Chinese kitchen, the focus of activity generally centers on the stove, which dominates the kitchen space. In the space above the stove, there was often a nook for the kitchen god, who was said to protect the home. There is often a nook for the kitchen god. The kitchen god guaranteed domestic harmony. His image is on paper because it is burned each Chinese New Year, so that he can take a report of the family to the Emperor of Heaven.

Siheyuan: North China's Courtyard Houses

Siheyuan (a square courtyard with houses on four sides) is the traditional, local-style dwelling of northern urban Han people. According to historical analyses, they appeared and developed more than 2,000 years ago in the Han Dynasty and were used extensively by the Tang Dynasty. The size of Siheyuan varies. Large ones have gardens and pavilions inside. Large or small, the roof is built with the axis as the center. The Siheyuan is built to quiet and closed to the outside world. It feels cool in summer and warm in winter. Beijing Siheyuan are mostly built along of lanes and streets. Large families living in such residences were described in Lao She's "Si Shi Tong Tang" and Ba Jin's "Family". [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, ~]

In a traditional northern Chinese courtyard house, the family residence is situated in the north of the compound and faces south. There are often of inner and outer yards. The outer yard is horizontal and long with a main door that opens to the southeast corner, maintaining the privacy of the residence. Through the main door to the west in the outer yard are guest rooms, servants' room, a kitchen and toilet. North of the outer yard, through an exquisitely shaped, floral-pendant gate, is the spacious square main yard. The principal room in the north is the largest, erected with tablets of "heaven, earth, the monarch, kinsfolk and teacher," and intended for family ceremonies and receiving distinguished guests.[Source:,, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China /=]

The left and right sides of the principal room are linked to aisles that were inhabited by family elders. In front of the aisle is a small, quiet corner yard often used as a study. Both sides of the main yard have a wing room that served as a living room for younger generations. Both the principal room and wing rooms face the yards, which have front porches. Verandahs link the floral-pendant gate and the three houses, where one can walk or sit to enjoy the flowers and trees in the courtyard. Sometimes, behind the principal room, there is a long row of "Hou Zhao Fang (back-illuminated rooms) that served as either a living room or utility room. /=\

Beijing's Siheyuan is cordial and quiet, with a strong flavor of life. The courtyard is square, vast and of a suitable size. It contains flowers and is set up with rocks, providing an ideal space for outdoor life. Such elements make the courtyard seem like an open-air, large living room, drawing heaven and earth closer to people's hearts; this is why the courtyard was most favored by them. The verandah divides the courtyard into several big and small spaces that are not very distant from each other. These spaces penetrate one another, setting off the void and the solids, and the contrast of shadows. The divisions also make the courtyard more suited to the standards of daily life. Family members exchanged their views here, which created a cordial temperament and an interesting atmosphere. /=\

In fact, the centripetal and cohesive atmosphere of Beijing's Siheyuan, with its strict rules and forms, is a typical expression of the character of most Chinese residences. The courtyard's pattern of being closed to the outside and open to the inside can be regarded as a wise integration of two kinds of contradictory psychologies: On one hand the self-sufficient feudal families needed to maintain a certain separation from the outside world; on the other, the psychology, deeply rooted in the mode of agricultural production, makes the Chinese particularly keen on getting closer to nature. They often want to see the heaven, earth, flowers, grass and trees in their own homes. Certain appropriately sized square courtyards of Beijing's Siheyuan help absorb sunshine in the wintertime. In areas south of Beijing, where the setting sun in the summer is quite strong, the courtyards have become narrow and long on the north-south side to reduce the amount of sunshine. /=\

Famous Courtyard Houses in Shanxi Province

Qiao Family Compound (Qiaojiabao Village, Qixian County, 54 kilometers north of Taiyuan) is where Zhang Yimou’s 1991 classic “Raise the Red Lantern” was filmed. This courtyard was built in the late 1700s by the then influential Qiao family. The complex covers an area of 4,175 square meters and consists of six main courtyards and 20 smaller ones, with 313 rooms altogether.

Looking from the pavilion on the southwest corner is a great way to have a bird's-eye view of the entire compound. Beyond the gate is a wall on which is carved Chinese characters, evoking the theme of longevity. Various kinds of red lanterns hang in courtyards, and the carving on the roof is very delicate. It has been featured in many famous Chinese movies and TV series, not only "Raise the Red Lantern, " which fully demonstrated the house's character.

Wang Family's Grand Courtyard (60 kilometers north on Linfen) 12 kilometers east of Lingshi County 150 kilometers southeast of of Taiyuan) is the largest folk residence among all the well-known grand courtyards. Known in Chinese as "Wang Jia Da Yuan, ", it was built and owned by Wang Family, one of the four grand families of Lingshi County during the Kangxi Emperor's Reign (1661-1722) to the Jiaqing Emperor's Reign (1796-1820) in the Qing Dynasty.

Regarded as a fine specimen of Qing architecture, It consists of five alleys, five fortresses and five ancestral halls. It has 231 small courtyards and 2,078 rooms, covering an area of 80,000 square meters (8 hectares). The layout of the yards shows the strict hierarchical system of ancient China. Rooms and yards with different scales were offered to people in accordance with their social status.

House of the Chancellor in Huangcheng (in Beiliu Town of Jincheng City, southeast Shanxi, 300 kilometers south of Taiyun) is the former home of Chen Tingjing, who was the prominent prime minister of Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the editor-in-chief of the dictionary Kangxi Zidian. It is divided into inner town and outer town, which has 16 courtyards with 640 rooms altogether, covering an area of 36,000 square meters. The inner town was built in the fifth year of Chongzhen Emperor (1632), which has eight courtyards, featuring Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) architecture. The outer town was finished in the 24th year of the Kanxi Emperor (1703). [Source: Lu Na,, May 9, 2012]

House of the Huangcheng Chancellor is like a palace town. Featuring a group of castle-style buildings, it was designed in two architectural styles. The inner palace was designed in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) by his uncle Chen Changyan in 1633. The outer complex was finished in Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) by Chen Tingjing himself in 1703. The palace has 19 gardens and yards, and nine castle gates. The entire property covers an area of nine hectares. Its wall is 1, 700 meters long and 12 meters high.

Dingcun Village Ancient Building Cluster

Dingcun (28 kilometers south of Linfen, Coordinates: N35 50 E111 3) sits with Mountain Cong in the east and Fen River in the west. The Ancient Building Cluster in Dingcun Village is part of the Ancient Residences in Shanxi and Shaanxi Provinces were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Dingcun and Mountain Ba, which was written in the county annals of the ancient Taiping, face each other across the river. In the village, well-preserved civilian residential houses built in picturesque disorder during Ming and Qing dynasties are peaceful and beautiful. It is rare to see such elaborate, skilfully decorated and well-preserved houses that were built in such a large scale with in the north of our country. The discovery and unearth of the site of Dingcun is of great significance to provide the very important real materials for the research into the mid-period culture of the old Stone Age of our country and at the same time fill in the gaps in this period of Chinese history.[Source: State Administration of Cultural Heritage, People’s Republic of China]

“The residential houses that were built during Ming and Qing dynasties in Dingcun are with-in the stockade village built in the years of Chongzhen in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). There are 40 houses now. The earliest ones were built in 1593 and the latest ones in the period of the Republic of China. They have a history of more than 400 years. According to the record in Ding family Book, the first father might come into Dingcun in the early years of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and began to build houses, which were expanded year by year, then "Dingcun" got its name.

“The distribution of the houses stretches from the northeast to the southwest and can be divided into four parts-the north yard, the middle yard, the south yard and the northwest yard. The main part in the north yard is buildings in Ming Dynasty and the middle yard has buildings in early or mid-Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In the south yard, a lot of buildings were built in Daoguang and Xiangfen periods in Qing Dynasty while the northwest yard has buildings built in Qianlong and Jiaqing periods. The private residential houses were built with a rational layout and imposing style. The houses are either independent on each other or link up. The styles of the buildings are different with one another. In addition to the 40 private residential houses, three temples built in different periods are preserved in Dingcun. One is Sanyi Temple built in the 22nd year of Zhizheng of Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) and the other two belong to the buildings of Ming Dynasty and are well preserved.

“In 1961, the People's Government of Shanxi Province announced that Dingcun local inhabitants dwellings in Ming and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was the heritage site under provincial protection. In 1988 the state council announced that it was under the national protection. Dingcun ancient houses are in the same place with the world famous Dingcun Old Stone Age. They are constricting pleasingly with each other and fascinating. In 1985 Dingcun ancient houses museum was founded and was responsible for organizing the villagers in Dingcun to protect the ancient houses. With the caring and supporting of higher administrative department, on the 27th of December in 1989, the police office of Dingcun ancient houses museum was founded, aiming to strengthen the protection of Dingcun ruins, and ensure the safety of world ruins.

Comparing with Ancient Building Cluster in Dingcun Village and Dangjiacun Village with Qiao Family Mansion, Wang Family Mansion and houses of Shanxi businessmen in the middle of Shanxi province as example, their building styles are quite different from the overall arrangement, decorative characteristics, and other aspects. The business houses in the middle of Shanxi are on a grand scale, in an imposing manner, and puffed up with self-importance, which shows its owners show off their wealth and look down upon the poor.

Siheyuan (Courtyard Houses) in Dingcun Village

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Among the 40 private residential houses existing now, many of them are Siheyuan. Private houses of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) arranged the gate at the southeast corner. These buildings are usually lower with over hanging gable roof and gentle tiles. The materials are bulky and the eaves and lintels are drawn with colours. The woodcarvings are fewer but simple and unsophisticated. The distribution of the whole buildings is in order and the courtyards are not only spacious and comfortable but artistic and pleasing to the eye. Buildings built in the early or mid periods of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.) adopted the shape of ‘ ', the middle hall separates the front and back yards and the gate is designed on the axis. The yard is long and narrow and the small yard is deeper. [Source: State Administration of Cultural Heritage, People’s Republic of China]

Compared with the buildings in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), they are taller and the materials are used more carefully. The roofs are usually steep, many of which are flush gable roofs. The constructing of the middle hall is stressed and it can be used to go through from the front yard to the back yard. The north hall adopts the style of attic with two or three stories. The layouts of the private houses in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) tend to be complex. The gate is designed more freely according to the local conditions. The materials standard is clearly higher than before. The north hall has two spacious attics, with the porch post up to the eaves. The downstairs and upstairs are all decorated with beautiful lattice. The woodcarvings in this period become fewer. The wing-rooms of the private houses in Dingcun have three sections divided into two rooms. Against the gable heated kang is built. All the wing-rooms are buildings like attic-the upstairs are used as a storeroom and the upstairs are used for living. There is a square mouth between the gable and the front wall corner and a hanging ladder is used by to go up or down the stairs. The hall is larger and the roof beam links up the main ridge, the short pillar and the fork to make it a triangle stable structure. The bottom of the short pillar is connected with the middle part of the main ridge. It is different from the structure of both in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when there are Heta in between and in Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) when there is camel back to sustain.

One kind of the hall is high up to the roof and gives people a feeling of tall and splendour; the other kind is like an attic with the front threshold a dividing line and a layer of board divides the hall into two parts, the upper part is a storeroom. The entire roof is covered with tube-shaped tiles and the mouth of the eaves is designed for water dropping. And there is "Feizi" to sustain. The main ridge is designed on the roof and on both sides of the roof is hanging ridges. The halls in the private residential houses of Dingcun, which were built both in Ming & Qing dynasties, are never used for people to live. The main purpose is to provide places for worship or be used as a storeroom. When there are weddings and funerals, they are places to receive guests. It is absolute different from other places where people have the customs of living in the north house. It is one of the unique local features.

Art and Decorative Features of the Siheyuan (Courtyard Houses) in Dingcun Village

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: As far as the art of the building is concerned, the characteristics of the private residential houses in Dingcun are evident with flower-decorated eaves, the Queti, the brackets and the ridge beam in the hall, which are striven for perfection painstakingly. The coloured drawings on the buildings of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) use gray, white, blue and yellow as the basic colours to draw patterns like twining lotus, chrysanthemum, flowers, birds and the veined back of tortoise. [Source: State Administration of Cultural Heritage, People’s Republic of China]

“The carvings of the brackets are such simple pictures as "sea horse and floating clouds (haimaliuyun)", "the water buffalo (which dreads the heat of summer) panting at the sight of the moon (mistaking it for the sun)", "the magpie playing with the plum". The way of carving which is bold, unconstrained, primitive and crude is vivid, simple and skilful. During the early and mid-periods of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), all the decorations on the buildings are expressed by wood carvings which reached the detached level and the products are exquisitely carved and show forth among the ridge beams. The craftsmen create these new products such as "happiness, official salary and granting titles and territories to the nobles", "lute-playing, chess, calligraphy, and the painting", "fishermen, woodmen, farmers and scholars", "Three yang begins prosperity-the new year ushers in a renewal and a change of fortune", "the snipe and the clam grapple" and so on to reflect the ideas of the ancient Chinese Confucianism and lucky implications.

“Particularly, the No. 1 yard built in the 54th year of Qianlong has the "Ningwu Strategic Pass", "Yuefei's mother tattoos", "Zhou ren presents his sister-in-law" carved on the board of the middle yard to reflect the contents of loyalty and filial piety. "Riding a bamboo stick as a toy horse", "flying kite", " Tiger dancing", "big head child", "Si maguang breaks the vat to save the drowning little child" are carved on the board of the corridor to show the contents of the folk entertainment. These woodcarvings are the representatives among the woodcarvings in the private residential houses in Dingcun and no other woodcarvings on the private buildings can match them.

“The stone art in Dingcun's private houses is also important. All the plinths, hammering blocks at the door and the feet stamping stones are deliberately decorated to reach the agreement of the practical use and the beauty of the art with rich contents and unique styles. The stone art in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) is small and short, the carving is elaborate; while in Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it becomes bold and unstrained and big with the contents of "money and peach", "pine, bamboo, plum and orchid", " horse, deer", " monkey owns the money (monkey has the same pronunciation with many times)", "Spring arrives at the yard", "the cat springs on the picture of the butterfly", "the picture of nine deer", "five bats hold good fortune and long life (the pronunciation of bat is the same with happiness)".”

Image Sources: University of Washington except cave homes, , and Beijing suburb, Ian Patterson; Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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