HOMES IN CHINA
According to the Guinness Book of Records, China has the world's most houses: 276,947,962 in 1990. In the north, where wood is scarce, dwellings and walls have traditionally been made of stone, tamped mud or sun-dried bricks reinforced with straw. In the south homes have traditionally been made with wood, brick or woven bamboo.
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: In the mid-1990s, approximately 400,000 new dwellings were completed per each and 90.6 percent of all homes had piped water. In 2002, the average living space was at 23.5 square meters (252.95 square feet).In rural areas, homes tend to be smaller. Some newer rural homes are at about 50 square meters (538.2 square feet) in size with households of about three to six people. Though many rural homes are constructed with wood and earthen walls and tile or thatched roofs, some newer homes, such as those built by Habitat for Humanity, include red brick, stone, and compressed earth blocks. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
Often the amount of space inside a Chinese home is quite small. A survey released in July 2013 by Peking University survey found the average size of property for a Chinese family was 100 square meters (1076 square feet). Between the 1980s and the 2000s the average living space per person has increased from 7.4 square meters (80 square feet) to almost 28 square meters (300 square feet). Western visitors to Chinese homes are often shocked by how little personal space people have. An American visitor to a family in Shanghai told the China Daily, "Here in China people are always right next to each other, but in the United States , everyone tries to keep away as much as possible." [Source: New York Times, July 19, 2013]
What the Chinese can do with their limited space can be amazing. Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: The author remembers being incredibly humbled by her first invitation to dinner in a Chinese home. The family of three adults had been assigned the attic of an old house. The door to the attic took up one-third of the floor space. Beds around the outside of the room took up the remainder of the space. It was only after the attic door was closed that the small table could be moved into the middle of the room to serve the meal on. In contrast to the space, the meal that was served was fit for a palace. The effort, relative cost and intent behind the meal has made it one of the best consumed by the author anywhere in the world.[Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
Websites and Sources: Yin Yu Tang pem.org ; House Architecture washington.edu ; House Interiors washington.edu; Tulou are Hakka Clan Homes in Fujian Province. They have been declared a World Heritage Site.Hakka Houses flickr.com/photos ; 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.
Traditional Courtyard Houses in China
A traditional Chinese house is a compound with walls and dwellings organized around a courtyard. Walls and courtyards are built for privacy and protection from fierce winds. Inside the courtyard, whose size depends on the wealth of the family, are open spaces, trees, plants and ponds. In the inner courtyards of rural homes, chickens are often kept in coops and pigs are allowed to roam inside small enclosures. Covered verandas connect the rooms and dwelling.
A traditional large, upper-class house has a single story, tile roof, a courtyard, fluted roof tiles, and stone carvings. Some have ornate lattice windows, deep red painted pillars, carved dragons and courtyard fish ponds. Old homes had paper windows and coal stoves and smelly latrines in the backyard. There were no indoor toilets, Coal was burned for heat.
Many urban homes are one-story courtyard homes too. A typical courtyard house in a hutong in Beijing has an entrance on the south wall. Outside the front door are two flat stones, sometimes carved like lions, for mounting horses and showing off a family’s wealth and status. Inside the front door there is freestanding wall to block the entrance of evil spirits, which only travel in straight lines Behind it is the outer courtyard, with servant’s quarters to the right and left. The family traditionally lived in the inner courtyard towards the back of the north wall. Painted pillars are polished to a high sheen by builders who had first apply several layers of pigs’ blood.
Orientation of Chinese Houses
Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: ““Although few examples of Chinese homes have survived from antiquity, using archeological evidence, scholars have determined that many of the basic principles of Chinese house design, such as the emphasis on orientation, layout, and symmetry go far back in Chinese history. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]
“Detail from the Ming dynasty Carpenter's Manual showing the best places to site a house. The text for the house to the right says: "If there is a rock resembling a wine jar, the house changes into a 'site of fullness.' The family will be rich and as soon as a wish is pronounced, gold and silver will come pouring out."
One of the most striking aspects of Chinese domestic architecture is the practice of making houses face south. Archeologists have found that many Neolithic-period houses were rectangular with a south-facing door. Zhou period settlements were also organized on a north-south axis. These early dwellings no longer exist, but houses in China, the earliest of which date from the Ming dynasty, also show a tendency to face south. Houses built today are also built facing south, if space allows.
Feng Shui and Homes
The orientation of a house often follows the rules of feng-shui which literally means "wind and water" and often translated as geomancy. Feng-shui concepts also dictated the kinds of material used in buildings. Combined with the location of the building, the proper building materials were thought to re-direct beneficial energy for the inhabitants. The most common building materials for houses in China are earth and wood, both of which have positive associations.
The five directions of Chinese cosmology and feng shui are north, south, east, west and center. South represents light and brings good luck. North represents darkness and brings bad luck. Accordingly, doors of houses should not face north of northwest: they should face south. The entire house should be oriented towards the south with mountains to the north to block the bad luck from entering and keep good luck from escaping. The best location is at the foot of a mountain, facing a river. Waters helps attract qi. Buildings with a square plan help hold it firmly.
The location of the family alter, the orientation of the house and the arrangement of the furniture should be in harmony. Bedrooms should face the sun and stairway shouldn’t be visible from the front entrance. Qi is believed to enter through the front door and exit through the toilet.
Walls can be constructed at certain angles to attract positive energy. Doors can be adorned with coins bearing the names of famous emperors to attract good luck. Fountains in corners are sometimes used to deflect bad energy from the sharp angles of nearby buildings. Mirrors are also used to deflect bad energy. Cell phones are believed to disrupt feng shui. Thriving plants are signs that qi is plentiful.
Decorative Elements and Folk Beliefs in Chinese Homes.
Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “The decoration of houses can be traced to a combination of practical concerns, folk beliefs, and pure ornamentation. Walls and eaves are often decorated, but particular attention is paid to doorways and windows because these are places where good or evil spirits were thought to enter. Elegant decorative schemes would also provide ventilation or shading. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]
“Many openings would be covered with latticework in an endless variety of patterns that "shape the wind" or alter the way air flows into a home. One way to summon good fortune is to invoke the character fu, seen on the wall to the right. Fu can be translated as "happiness, " "good fortune, " "blessings, " or "luck." “Not only is the character fu auspicious, but representations of homonyms of fu are also good luck.
“Because Chinese people honor age and desire long life, the character representing longevity shou is also often seen on Chinese houses. A stylized form of shou can often be seen in the middle of a door Another character thought to express longevity is wan which means "ten thousand." This character is often represented stylistically as a backwards swastika, such as on the lattice work. Other symbols of longevity are the peach, the tortoise, the deer, the crane, and evergreen trees. Fish symbolize abundance because the two words are homonyms. Fish are often seen on Chinese houses.
“In addition to happiness, wealth, and longevity, the Chinese also desire harmony at home. This is represented by a pair of fish swimming or pairs of geese, cranes, or ducks. “Things with many seeds, such as lotus pods and watermelons, reflect a desire for many children. A tiger with the eight trigrams is often hung above doors. In some parts of China, particularly Fujian province, the word for tiger is pronounced "fu." The eight trigrams are thought to ward off evil influences. In combination with the tiger's fierce face, this image makes a powerful amulet.
“Mirrors are also thought to deflect evil influences. A combination of mirror and scissors is often hung above an entryway facing an oncoming lane. There are also banners that can be translated as: “Every time I hear of good deeds, my heart is happy.
Regional Variation of Chinese Houses
China’s diverse climate and lifestyles are often a determinates when it comes to housing. In the cold north, many people sleep on a heated platforms called a kangs. Many Mongolians still spend at least some of the year in tents called yurts, which were their main form of housing when they were nomads. In the hot and wet south, houses built on stilts with bamboo and straw components are still common. Traditional houses, with courtyards enclosed by high walls and sloped roofs with curving upward edges, are found throughout China, but are particularly common in the north. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Ebrey wrote:“Climate has a huge impact on the construction of Chinese homes, both because it shapes the materials available and because it determines the kind of shelter people need. Houses in the north respond to the colder, drier climate, while in the south, heat and humidity are major factors influencing design. Some regional variation, however, is a matter of style, unrelated to geography. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]
“Courtyards of houses in the north are often much larger than those in the south. The type of courtyard and the way the eaves are sometimes flush offer clues to where the house is from. Five-bay houses of Zhejiang Province have windows and openings at different locations than those found in houses elsewhere. Yixian village in Anhui Province is famous for "horse's head walls" in which the end or gable walls rise above the rooflines of the houses. Houses built along canals are common in the south of China. Hakka dwellings in Fujian province include massive single-lineage dominated villages built when different lineages were often engaged in armed feuding with each other. The Dai people of Yunnan have beautiful, distinctive houses. In Shanxi and other places you can still find houses dug into the ground and cave dwellings.
Homes in the Mao-Era
Little new housing was built between 1950 and 1980, and although more urban housing was erected between 1980 and 1985 than in the previous thirty years, housing remained in short supply. Entire families often lived in one room and shared cooking and toilet facilities with other families. Marriages were sometimes delayed until housing became available from the municipal office or the work unit. Young people were expected to live with their parents at least until marriage. This was consonant with traditional family patterns but was also reinforced by the shortage of housing. [Source: Library of Congress]
“The pattern of long-term residential stability and great pressure on the stock of available housing meant that city neighborhoods were less stratified by occupation or income than those of many other countries. Not only were incomes more egalitarian to begin with, but more money could not buy a bigger or better equipped apartment. Managers and technical specialists lived under much the same conditions as manual workers, often in the same buildings. While many urban families enjoyed higher real incomes in the 1980s, they usually could not translate those incomes into better housing, as peasants could. The combination of full adult employment with a minimal service sector put heavy burdens on urban households.
“In the 1980s it was possible to purchase such consumer durables as television sets and bicycles on the market, but housing remained scarce and subject to allocation by work units or municipal housing bureaus. Although housing was poor and crowded, Chinese neighborhoods had improved greatly over the slum conditions that existed before 1950. Most people were gainfully employed at secure if low-paying jobs; the municipal government provided a minimal level of services and utilities (water and sanitation); the streets were fairly clean and orderly; and the crime rate was low. [Source: Library of Congress]
By the 1980s both the public and the government recognized the burdens on urban households and the associated drain on the energies of workers, managers, and professionals. After 1985 more money was budgeted for housing and such municipal services as piped-in cooking gas. But state encouragement of the private or collective service sector had greater effect.
Rooms, Central Heating and Kangs in China
Chinese homes typically have one large space rather than separate rooms. Parents often share rooms with their children and some people spend hours in the bathroom because it is the only place where they can get some privacy. Homes generally don’t have yards. People often don't even know what they are and few people have ever seen one.
Older houses often times don't have a kitchen and bathroom. People wash in basin and relieve themselves in chamber pots. The cooking is done on iron stoves in the living room, in separate shack outside the main house, or a “wall kitchen,” small cubicle with a window, stove-top burners and a powerful fan to soak up odors. Even Western-style suburban homes often have an outside shack or “wall kitchen.” One Chinese developer told the Los Angeles Times, “Chinese people are used to stir-frying, and the smell of oil and smoke is heavy. It can get into the furniture.”
Many Chinese houses are quite cold in the winters. It is not unusual for people to wear thermal underwear and heavy coats inside their houses throughout the winter. Many people in northern China sleep on or around a kang, a traditional brick bed or concrete platform, built over a stove, oven or fireplace which is heated with coal, wood or animal dung and provides warmth in the winter. Kangs are usually covered with cotton mattresses and colorfully embroidered quilts. Houses south of the Yangtze generally don’t have kangs or central heating. Although not as severe as the north the winters there can be cold and damp.
In Beijing many apartments built in the Mao era have central heating but it isn’t turned on until November 15 even though temperatures often drop into the 30s F before that time. People stay warm before the heat is turned on by wearing layers of clothes inside their homes and snuggling with each other in bed at night. A German resident in one of these apartments told the Los Angeles Times, “Every day I rush into the shower, have a hot cup of coffee and get out of my apartment as fast as I can.” He said he often stays late at work because there is heating there. In northern China the heat is often turned on earlier. In Beijing the heat last until March 15. But even when it on it often produces a minimal amount of warmth and shuts off at midnight.
Urban Homes in China
There are two main types of housing in Chinese cities: traditional, extended-family houses and large apartment buildings. In the Mao era most families were assigned to an apartment by their place of employment. In crowded areas, two families must sometimes share an apartment. Many urban dwellers still live in rundown state-owned apartments doled out by the Chinese Communist Party through work units. Beijing apartments tend to have a balcony, relatively large bedrooms and a relatively small living room. Many apartments don’t have elevators. Even those that do the elevators are often turned off and residents have have to use the stairs.
Many urban families live in apartments, where each person has an average of 12 square feet of space (the size of a small Western closet), and four generations live together. The living space for an average person in Shanghai is 70 square feet. A typical two-room apartment with a large hallway, a kitchen and bathroom is occupied by five adults and two children. Residents in “lilong” houses in Shanghai still carry their chamber pots down the street to collection points. In some apartments it is not unusual to hear rats scampering around behind the walls.
William Ellis of National Geographic magazine visited a Shanghai apartment, where a man, his wife, and his son and daughter-in-law all lived in one room with a bed, six chairs, several stools, two dressers, a TV, and clothes hung from hangers around the room. The apartment was reached through a communal kitchen and a hallway covered with grease from cooking fires. [Source: William Ellis, National Geographic, March 1994]
Most apartments are delivered bare, meaning buyers have to outfit them with basics such as bathroom fixtures. About 70 percent of the new residential projects in China are sold with nothing on the floors or walls. Buyers are required to buy wallpaper, tiles, fittings, paint and flooring to make their concrete boxes livable.
Apartments in China
On a relatively new apartment complex used by expats in a Chinese city, Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in ”CultureShock! China”: “the plumbing and electricity are modern so you can flush tissue down the toilet and can run more than four appliances at a time, water pressure is reasonable, and they have regulations that restrict your neighbours from hanging their laundry on poles out the window. The rubbish bins are cleared twice daily by building maintenance, the gardens are manicured and they have health clubs and community rooms. They also have excellent security facilities, and professional companies manage these. Typically you have to put down a deposit of US$1,000 or more in order to hold an apartment. ”CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
“Older locally developed apartment compounds are built in the Soviet style. They are entirely cement blocks which have limited insulation. If they are eight stories or less, they do not have an elevator; if they have more than eight stories, most have an elevator and may have a dedicated elevator attendant who sits in the elevator pushing the buttons.
“Typically these buildings are inhabited by people who have been assigned there by the government, or have purchased their first home there. Quite often their lives spill over into the common area — bikes are parked in the hallway, children and grandparents are the VIPs, maintenance pops in and out of your apartment as they wish and old ladies will carefully watch how you are managing your life, often stopping you to make comment on your electricity usage and when you should close your curtains. Living in these compounds is full immersion into life as most Chinese live it.
Rent in the older local compounds outside of city centre can be as little as US$400 a month, while newly developed modern compounds in the city centre can cost US$1,500 monthly and up. These prices are relative to which city you are living in, for example, Beijing is clearly more expensive than Wuhan. There are a few critical things to look for when inspecting a non-serviced apartment. The obvious are to check water pressure and whether there is adequate electricity flow to run multiple appliances. The less obvious is the amount of noise around the apartment: Is there a wet market that sets up outside at 4:00 am every day? Is the place close to noisy rush hour traffic? Is it next to a school that blares its exercise music at 7:00 am every day? Next is to check the ventilation in the kitchen. Most vents are shared between apartments. If done poorly, your apartment will end up being at the exhaust end, and you can smell your neighbour frying fish (or other strong smelling food) every evening.
Homes of the Rural Poor in China
House of the poor in the 1930s
In rural areas, families often live in three-or four-room houses. Some have only gotten electricity and running water in the last couple of decades. Poor rural families often live in bamboo frame houses or mud-and-straw bricks homes with packed earth floors. Thatch-roof mud-wall houses found in some parts of Sichuan, Hunan and Yunnan provinces look like African huts. Houses with more than two story are rare. Progress and wealth means a family can move out of their mud and stone hut into a concrete house.
A typical rural family of nine in Yunnan Province with a per annual capita income of $364 lives in 600-square-foot house with a living room, 3 bedrooms, kitchen and 5 storage rooms. Peasant houses often have dirt floors, and little furniture other than a table, chairs and makeshift beds. A blackened shed serves as a kitchen. Many have color or black and white televisions.
Describing a mud brick home on the edge of the Gobi desert in poor Gansu province, Sheryl Wudunn wrote in the New York Times Magazine: "The shack had two rooms, each dominated by a kang...The dirt floor was swept clean and the furniture consisted of three rickety wooden chairs set around a crude wooden table, the mud walls were papered with newspapers, with pictures from old calendars providing a bit of color."
Some lucky people have gotten houses built for them by the government. In 2017, according to the New York Times, a villager named Zhang Jinlu in Gansu Province “woke in terror when the rain-weakened mud brick walls of his home gave way. Half the roof timbers came crashing down with slabs of dirt, narrowly missing him and his mother. Officials in Youfang village built a spacious new concrete house for them, complete with new furniture. His original house was rebuilt for him as a storage shed. “This house used to be dilapidated, and it leaked when it rained, ” Mr. Zhang said. [Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, December 31, 2020]
Image Sources: University of Washington except cave homes, Beifan.com , 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