rightAccording 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.

A survey released in July 2013 by Peking University survey found the average size of property for a Chinese family was 100 square meters. [Source: New York Times, July 19, 2013]

Between the 1980s and today the average living space per person has increased from 80 square feet to almost 300 square feet. Even so Western visitors to Chinese homes are often surprised 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."

Five to six 6 billion square feet of commercial and residential floor space is added every year.The average lifespan of recent constructions in China is about 30 years, according to Chinese media reports.

Good Websites and Sources: Book: Houses of China by Bonne Shemie ; Yin Yu Tang ; House Architecure ; House Interiors; Cave Dwellings in Shanxi ; Old House in Wuxi China Vista : Links in this Website: ARCHITECTURE IN CHINA ; HOME LIFE AND POSSESSIONS LIFE IN CHINA ; EVERYDAY LIFE IN CHINA

Book: 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. Tulou are Hakka Clan Homes in Fujian Province. They have been declared a World Heritage Site Map. Hakka Clan Homes in Fujian ; Hakka Houses ; UNESCO World Heritage Site : (click at the bottom): UNESCO ; UNESCO World Heritage Site Web site (click the site you want) World Heritage Site ; Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

History of Housing in China

In February 2012 The Economist reported: China’s economy is so huge, and its significance to the world so great, that it is easy to forget the country’s property market is still in its adolescence. Two decades ago most city folk were consigned to dilapidated quarters provided by their state-owned employer. In the years since then house building has boomed and the cult of home ownership has taken a hold on the Chinese psyche. But the market has seen epic swings, and prices are now falling in many big cities. [Source: The Economist, Feb 4, 2012]

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.

In century-old communal homes the grandparents sleep in one area, aunts and uncles in another. Sometimes children sleep in a converted barn above the pig pens and the parents sleep over the open pit that serves as a communal toilet.

In the Mao era, families were moved into concrete apartment blocks or were jammed into courtyard dwelling--built for a single family--with several other families. The central courtyard was filled with crude brick compounds. In some cases courtyard houses was razed and replaced with "work compounds," where housing and factories were combined within walled enclaves. Most of the concrete apartment buildings built in the 1950s and 60s were four to six stories tall. Ones built today are much higher.

On his experiences entering houses in Shanghai’s oldest neighborhoods, Howard French wrote: “Typically, I enter their world by climbing up a rickety, twisting wooden staircase, ducking to avoid bumping my head in the near-total darkness.” [Source: Howard W. French, New York Times, August 28, 2009]

Traditional Courtyard Houses in China

leftA 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.

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.

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.

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. /=\

Restoring Traditional Chinese Homes

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.”

A siheyuan is or 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, he said on a recent afternoon, because unlike in a high-rise apartment, you step on it every day.

Chinese, tend to have uncomprehending attitude toward Western preservationist sensipbilities. bent. 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.

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.

Housing in the Mao Era


In the Mao and Deng eras the government provided housing. Rents were extremely low, often less than $5 a month. The negative side of this was there wasn't enough money for maintenance or modernization or the construction of new homes, which meant there were housing shortages and apartments themselves were drab and poorly built. People were placed on waiting lists to get apartments and often waited for years for apartments that were wrecks when one finally moved in.

In the pre-Mao-era, many courtyard homes in Beijing were occupied by single extended family units and had spacious open air courtyards. But after Communists came to power the houses were divided and occupied by several families and the courtyards were filled with shanties. In many cases a house occupied by one family became occupied by six or seven.

In the Mao-era many urban people lived in apartments with closet-size kitchens off a communal hall and outdoor public restroom. People could build and finance their own homes but few people had enough money to do that. In some places the state got involved, providing loans but also adding surcharges that in some cases doubled the cost.

Citizens were theoretically supposed to be allowed to live where they wanted but in reality they were required to be registered with the government and have a residency permits to live where they did. Those that didn't have permits could be evicted.

Many urban Chinese lived in dreary pre-fab apartment complexes built from concrete panels constructed in assembly lines and put together with cranes. A typical apartment was sold as a shell with no cabinets, appliances, closets, bathroom vanities or even molding or electrical fixtures. The owners were expected to supply these things for themselves. The interior walls of many homes were brick covered with plaster, which is very cold in the winter. Toilets were often outside the apartments. Many of the Soviet-style apartments in Beijing have been torn down.

Young married couples often had no choice but to move in with their parents. New parents were given priority on scarce apartments and loans were given according to how many children they had. In some places, the government gave $2000 in credit to start a home, and owners paid the loan back in decreasing amounts as children were born.

Rooms, Central Heating and Kangs in China

20080225-house kang u wash in shanxu u wash.jpg

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 teh 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

Most urban dwellers 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]

The housing market took off soon after the communist government gave the green light to private property development in 1998. Since then, the amount of new urban residential space unveiled each year has doubled.

These days Beijing, Shanghai and other cities are filling up with newly built apartment complexes and condominiums. Many newer homes have blue glass and pink tile walls. Some sell for millions of dollars.

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.

Housing in Beijing

“On average, apartments in Beijing rent for the equivalent of $500 per month, about as much as many ordinary workers in the city earn,” Andreas Lorenz, Der Spiegel. “And prices are rising. At the start of the year, tenants paid around $450 . A year earlier, it was $375. One reason for the high prices is that demand outstrips supply. There are relatively few apartments available for rent in Beijing. Over two-thirds are privately owned, of which a large share were in the past sold cheaply by authorities or factories to their employees.” [Source: Andreas Lorenz, Der Spiegel, December 24, 2010]

"Social housing, moveover, has only begun to develop. Last year 8,000 rental properties were built for those on minimal incomes, and this year there should be 10,000---a mere drop in the ocean for Beijing. Even those with enough money to buy their own homes are not necessarily fortunate. New housing developments keep springing up, and the amount of new property available is growing, but prices have also shot sky-high in the past few months. Buyers are currently paying $3,750 per square meter on average.”

“For rich Chinese, like the wealthy coal barons from the Shanxi province, Beijing apartments are investments worthy of speculation, like stock market shares or gold. These speculators don't think about renting the apartments out. They simply aim for properties with rising prices, so they can sell them on and turn a profit. Recently experts have talked about a real estate bubble which threatens to burst. As discontentment grows among those citizens who earn good money but still can't afford their own apartments, the Chinese government wants to curb speculation with new taxes and rules.”

“Beijing's officials pride themselves on the fact that the city has no slums like those in, say, Nairobi or Bangkok. The areas of brick hovels without so much as a toilet, which used to shape the cityscape in many districts, have begun to vanish. What the city fathers don't admit, though, is a still-unresolved problem---that many millions cannot afford a normal apartment in Beijing. The city's housing market in some ways symbolizes the new communist China---a society in which the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.”

Homes of the Poor in China

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House of the poor in the 1930s

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."

See Minorities.

Housing for Urban Poor in China

China offers modern affordable housing to poor urban hukou holders. According to the China Economic Review: “The program is the centerpiece of China's effort to integrate rural workers into urban economies, where it's hoped they will earn and spend more money, and eventually drive China's economic growth. The government has earmarked US$19.2 billion for affordable housing this year alone, an increase of 14.3 percent on similar programs last year. By 2020, it also plans to renovate urban slums that currently house about 100 million people...The government has remained quiet on the fates of those left out of the sweeping reforms because they lack the resources to get the required papers. Moving such a crowd into stable urban housing during the next six years is an ambitious plan. But that still leaves more than 150 million migrants to fend for themselves in the big cities and no solid timeframe for assisting them. [Source: China Economic Review, May 19, 2014 \^/]

“The affordable housing program is facing a debilitating bottleneck in supply. Starved of funding, local governments have few avenues to fund urbanization initiatives. With the central government passing the buck of urbanization reform to local governments, they in turn have passed some of the responsibility for building affordable housing to property developers who can ill afford to do so at present, says Youqin Huang, a professor at CUNY Albany. \^/

“Property developers are often required to designate 5 percent of new residential properties as affordable housing. However, these projects routinely fall short of covering the costs of development, leaving companies at a loss. At the same time, the same firms are in the midst of a liquidity crisis. Housing prices are slowing and property investment is declining--- even nose-diving in some regions. Developers often skimp on the low-income projects, rendering them “low-quality and vacant,” Huang said.” \^/

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 July 2015

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