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The ancient Chinese residential houses
By Xiujuan Blank
Chinese architecture is unique and quite different from other cultures. In Chinese architecture “Feng shui” (meaning wind and water) plays an important role for the layout of a traditional Chinese building, regardless of whether it is a palace or a temple. There are many rules that dictate how to best build a residence, in order to achieve the highest harmony between humans and nature.
In China the residential houses are divided more or less in five different styles.
Siheyuan – Courtyard houses in Beijing
Yaodong – Cave houses in central and northwest China
Hui style houses in Anhui province
Diaojiaolou – stilt houses in southwest China
Tulou – Earth houses in Fujian province
Siheyuan is the main contruction of Hutong since hundreds of years in Beijing and it is so famous for its unique features. Beijing was build from the Yuan Dynasty on (so from 1279). The small streets in Beijing are called Hutong, they are small narrow streets. The Siheyuan were built between the Hutongs. “Si” in Chinese means the four-sides, North, south, east and west,on each side there are rooms. “he”, means unity, and “yuan” means courtyard. The Beijing Siheyuan are homes that consist of a four-sided wall with an enclosed courtyard in the center. This courtyard is surrounded by buildings that are generally only one floor.
The Siheyuan consists of a Gate, outer court, inner court and backcourt. The gate is the main entrance and exit, which is designed in the southeast corner of the entire courtyard, to let the warm southeast wind come in. Social status can be best reflected in the gate. Generally speaking, the gate is divided into six levels according to the social status of the host. The size and decoration of the gate depend on how high the status of the owner is.
Outer court – the outer courtyard is made up of the front gate, the screen wall, south room and the corridors. The screen wall is an important decoration for Beijing residents for it can be a barrier to keep the inner courtyard in a private state. The south room can be used as a study, a guest room, or a servant’s room.
Between the outer and inner court there is a main gate, generally it is decorated in a luxury style.
Inner court – highlights of Siheyuan. The inner court consists of the north room, the east side-room, the west side-room and a yard in the centre. The north room facing south is the main room, which is large and bright, used as the living room of the family and belonging to the most important person in the house like grandfather, father. The eastern rooms are for the sons, the western rooms for the daughters. So here the hierarchy plays a role in the architechture in China. In the central area there are always trees and flowers planted, and goldfish with beautiful patterns are kept.
Back court, the back room with the north wall is the place where all the female family members or seniors live.
Today, most of the Siheyuans have already disappeared. There were two waves when the old Siheyuan were distroyed, One happened after the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949 and during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Moreover, in 1976 a big earthquake near Beijing destoyed many Siheyuans.
The second wave happened after China was opened to the world for economic reform since the 1980s. The old structures have been giving way to modern high-rise buildings. So the old Beijing has disappeared. Now the modern Beijing is looking more and more like an industrial metropolis rather than a historic center.
Yaodong houses – Cave-houses in Northwestern China : The cave houses are a special structure, they take advantage of the local hard and solid loess.
The most cave houses are located on the Loess Plateau, in the north central provinces of China such as Shanxi, Shannxi, Gansu and Henan. For thousands of years, the people of Loess Plateau have built their houses in such structures. Yaodongs houses can be divided into different types, depending on the topography of the regions in which they were built. With the depth of the loess extending from 100 to 200 meters, and a little seepage, this provides a very good precondition for the development of Yaodong houses. At the same time, the natural conditon of dry weather, little rain, cold winter and limited timber also creates an opportunity of the development and continuity of Yaodong houses which are warm in winter, cool in summer, very economical.
Hui style architecture
Hui style architecture – Hui style houses were built from Hui merchants. The Hui merchants rose very quickly and became powerful in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and they paid special respect to education and developed their own traditional culture, and also the hui style architecture. Hui style houses started to develop in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and the style reached its climax in the middle period of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Those merchants returning from their business built luxurious houses, gardens, academies, and ancestral halls to honor their families. The houses constructed in Hui style developed very quickly with the prosperity of Hui commerce and the development of its social economy.
Hui style buildings have white walls with black tiles, horse-head walls, decorative windows and doors in stone, wood, and brick. Here three carving techniques, namely brick carving, wood carving, and stone carving gave the Hui style houses a beauty and elegant apprearance. These three kinds of carvings are an important part of the architectural art of Hui-style buildings. The subject matter is extensive, ranging from human figures to landscapes, flowers, animals, insects, fishes, and other auspicious patterns.
The buildings are mostly two-story with multiple layers of courtyards, which could ventilate, receive sufficient sunlight, and drain away water. The tall walls provide tranquility inside the building. The people could sit indoors enjoying the sunshine at daytime. On rainy days, water flows into the patio through the eaves of the inner slope of the roofs. As water is a symbol of wealth in Chinese culture, so this “water returing to the courtyard” is a reflection of the wish of Hui merchants to accumulate wealth.
Diaojiaolou (Stilt houses) – literally means hanging attic. These houses were built by the Miao, Zhuang, Dong, Shui who are minorities in southwestern China (Yunnan, Guangxi, Hunan, Guizhou, Hubei, Sichuan provinces). They are ususally built close to the mountains or above creeks or rivers, they rise above the ground with only supporting wood pillars and no foundation and are 100% made of wood without iron, but they are pretty stable and safe. They usually have two to three stories with a verandah. The ground floor is ususally used as a warehouse, for firewood or for domestic animals, as livestock sheds or storehouse for equipments, while the seond floor and above is for family living.
The houses above the ground have a few advantages : first it can keep people away from flooding, vermin and wild animals in the old days. Second, people can stay away from the humidity, and also there is better lighting upstairs, so people can enjoy the brightness.
Tulou houses (Earth buildings) – The traditional Tulou were built by a minority called the Hakka, who were orignially Han people who fled to the mountains oft the southeast to escape war in the northern Central China.
Tulou are unique, ususally round, fort-like buldings, built with a mixture of clay and sandy soil. Tulou were mostly built between the 12th to 20th centuries, the oldest one was constructed over 1,200 years ago.
The Tulou are built on the high mountains in Fujian province. The design of Tulou, with high walls is for defensive purposes and consists of one entrance and no windows at ground floor and first floor. The biggest round one can have up to five stories with three interior rings, but most round Tulous have three or four stories. The family rooms are arranged vertically and all face the large inner courtyard. The inner courtyard of the Tulou may be “empty” or full of other smaller communal buldings. Such as food stores, farms, schools, markets, etc. With family kitchens and livestock on the ground floor, the next floor becomes a storage room for food and furniture (with no windows), and above that are the bedrooms. The life in Tulou is communal, the people who live in Tulou have their own langurages, customs, food and traditions, every family has the same space.
Today some Tulou are one of Fujian province’s top tourist attractions, the families who still live there charge tourists to come in to see the Tulous. Many of them have been declared World Heritage by UNESCO
Finally I would like to mention some typical characters of Chinese traditional houses:
According to the fengshui principle, the traditional houses always have five directions : north, south, east, west and center, so at the center of a house there is a courtyard. South respresents light, warmth and brings good luck. On the contrary North is cold, dark and uncomfortable, so the doors of houses should face south.
The chinese house is very colorful, red color is very dominant, because red color is the energy of Yang, it brings luck.
In traditional houses there were no indoor toilets, the indoor toilets were considered very bad for the Fengshui.
Decorative elements and folk beliefs in houses. The chinese people desire harmony at home, so the people use a lot of symbols to symbolize happiness, wealth, an longevity, a pair of fish or ducks symbolize happiness, the water element symbolizies wealth, pine trees and tortoise symbolize the longevity etc.
Hierachy plays also an important role. In a house the best room is always for the elder member of the family.
L’Institut belge des hautes Etudes chinoises a été créé en 1929 à la suite d’une initiative d’origine chinoise : le gouvernement républicain de l’époque proposa d’affecter une partie d’une indemnité dite des « Boxers » – que la Chine devait à l’Etat belge – à des projets éducatifs sino-belges. D’une part, des bourses d’études furent offertes à de jeunes Chinois qui vinrent suivre des études supérieures en Belgique. D’autre part, l’indemnité chinoise a permis la fondation de l’Institut dont la mission fût de « promouvoir l’étude de la civilisation chinoise dans ses manifestations les plus diverses ». Le siège de l’Institut fût fixé à Bruxelles au Musée Art et Histoire. La constitution d’une bibliothèque fût considérée comme le noyau du nouvel établissement scientifique.
Au cours de ses nonante années d’existence, l’Institut a développé trois formes d’activités, la bibliothèque, les activités éducatives comme les cours et les conférences, ainsi que la publication des « Mélanges Chinois et Bouddhiques ».
Le 8 août 1929, l’Institut fut fondé par Bruno Belpaire, Jules Bommer, Fernand Buckens, Jean Capart, Carl Hentze , le général Raoul Pontus, Adolphe Spruyt, Adolphe Stoclet, Marthe Van Bomberghen et Louis Van Hee.
- 1929 – 1947 Raoul Pontus
- 1947 – 1964 George Theunis
- 1964 – 1972 Henri Lavachery
- 1972 – 1978 Paul Rouffart
- 1978 – 1984 René de Roo
- 1984 – 1996 Henry Maertens de Noordhout
- 1996 – 2000 Pierre Willockx
- 2001 – 2008 Claire Kirschen
- 2008 – 2014 Alain Dambremez
- 2014 Ilse Timperman
- 2015 – 2016 Claire Kirschen
- 2016 – Bernard Pierre
Article de M. Philippe Paquet paru dans La Libre Belgique, le 27 février 2019.