The Legacy of the Courtyard House
By Mu Xi & Quan Heng
The “courtyard house,” or siheyuan, has been a classic architectural form in China for generations. Although there is architectural diversity among courtyard houses, they are in essence walled compounds with a single entrance and one, two, three, or more courtyards surrounded by single-story rooms. Besides having architectural charm, a courtyard house represents traditional family ritual systems and contains the imprints of dynasties that once ruled.
Mark of History and Tradition
Visitors to a courtyard house will feel a rush of history when they push open the huge old vermillion door. As one of China’s traditional residences, the courtyard house has a history of more than 2,000 years.
The oldest courtyard house discovered to date was built during the Western Zhou dynasty. It is located in Qishan County in the west of Shaanxi Province. Courtyard dwellings became very common during the Han dynasty. In the Sui and Tang dynasties, the layout was divided into left and right wings.
During the Song dynasty, smaller rooms were added to both sides of the main hall and the main bedroom while preserving the architectural features of the Tang dynasty. These Chinese houses evolved throughout the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, while continuing to feature a functional layout that encompassed the hierarchy, customs and etiquette of the Chinese culture.
The Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage states that there are currently over 500 historic courtyards preserved in the Cultural and Historical Conservation Areas. Long highly valued as significant cultural monuments, many of these courtyard houses are museums which are open to the public. A 2008 study by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme estimated that in Beijing there remain approximately 400,000 residential courtyards.
Traditional Hierarchyof Living Quarters
The layout of a courtyard house has a north-south orientation. The compound is made up of north, south, east, west, and rear wings. Each wing is connected by a veranda. Deeply influenced by Confucian values, the construction of courtyard houses aligned closely with the pursuit of harmony in human relations, at the same time making distinctions with respect to seniority, social status and gender.
Given that the north wing is the most prestigious location which receives the most sunlight, it was traditionally occupied by the eldest in the family, highlighting the importance of the parental role and respect for elders. In contrast, the south wing receives the least sunlight and was usually assigned to servants.
The east and west wings were given to the younger generations of the family. In larger compounds, a row of houses behind the main hall form the rear wing. Chinese customs stipulated the need for men and women to keep their distance from each other, so the unmarried daughters in the family usually lived in the rear wing, enclosed by the secondary door. This was often described as “living behind two doors.”
The grandest houses boasted of multiple courtyards. In comparison, a smaller, more modest courtyard house of the sort occupied by commoners consisted of three rooms each in the north and south wings, and two rooms each in the east and west wings.
Designed for Reflection and Connection
The Chinese are very particular about the design of the main entrance, the only passage connecting the interior compound to the outside world.
The entrances of ordinary people’s houses are modest in size. For the nobility and the wealthy, the entrances are grand and elaborate, intended as a show of status. The traditional preference for privacy is reflected in the screen wall separating the main entrance from the courtyard. This wall is usually made of bricks adorned with auspicious motifs. In addition to being visually appealing, it divides the space around the entrance.
Beyond the screen wall lies a beautifully decorated secondary door. It combines brick carvings, wood carvings, paintings and other decorations, making it one of the most gorgeous doors in a courtyard house. Through this door, along the edge of the inner courtyard, runs a winding corridor for strolling and resting.
Auspicious and Rich Artistry
Elegant carvings and paintings on the bricks and wooden structures of a courtyard house are typical. From the auspicious patterns on the windows to the carvings above the doorways, the details are intricate and bring out the beauty of the courtyard and its surroundings.
Brick carvings are often found on gates, screen walls and houses. The craftsmanship is exquisite. There is a variety of designs including floral, animal, ancient symbols, brocade, and other pleasing patterns which signify various blessings. For example, the peony represents wealth and good luck, the crane pattern symbolizes longevity and health, and the vase and China rose patterns signify everlasting peace.
Wood carvings are mainly found on house doors, secondary doors, railings, and windows. Among them, the elaborately decorated secondary door bears the designs worthiest of mention. The beam facing outward often features carvings of clouds, considered a fortunate symbol. The distinctive lotus columns that hang from the roof are engraved with flower buds. The most unique wood carvings are found on the purlins, and include turtle shells for longevity and other striking images such as lanterns and ice crystals.
Heaven and Earth in Harmony
Feng shui plays an important role in the construction of a Chinese courtyard house, influencing every aspect of layout and design. The compound is square and enclosed, embodying the sacred unity and harmony of Heaven and Earth.
In Bagua or Eight Trigrams, the southeast is represented by the Xun (巽) trigram and the element of wind, and is symbolic of smooth sailing. Thus, the main entrance is located at the southeast corner, not in the middle. Upon entering, there is a screen wall to block negative qi or energy from rushing into the courtyard and also to gather and contain the positive qi.
Generations of Cherished Bonds
Most courtyards feature ornamental plantssuch as pomegranate trees, which symbolize fertility, and begonia plants, signifying wealth. On a fine day, families play chess over a pot of fragrant tea, paint or chat in the courtyard, or sit quietly and enjoy the tranquility away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world.
Confucianism advocates self-cultivation, managing your family well, governing your state fairly, and bringing justice and virtues to the wider world. The family is the cornerstone of society. Living within the enclosed space of the Chinese courtyard house strengthens one’s concept of family. When generations of family members live together, kinship bonds are strong and cherished.
Within the compound of a Chinese courtyard house liesa world unto itself. Although society has changed greatly since thefirst courtyard houses were constructed, the essence of the family values which warmed the interiors of these lively compounds remains important in our world. Powerful bonds of kinship, respect for elders and tradition, a beautiful, private place of restoration
–– these values are still cornerstones of happiness and peace.