Sunday, September 7, 2008


A siheyuan is a historical type of residence that was commonly found throughout China, most famously in Beijing. The name literally means a courtyard surrounded by four buildings. In English, siheyuan are sometimes referred to as Chinese . Throughout Chinese history, the siheyuan composition was the basic pattern used for residences, palaces, temples, monasteries, family, businesses and government offices. In ancient times, a spacious siheyuan would be occupied by a single, usually large and extended family, signifying wealth and prosperity. Today, however, most remaining siheyuan are used as mass housing complexes, and suffer from a lack of modern amenities.


Fully developed siheyuan date back as early as the Western Zhou period , exhibiting the most outstanding and fundamental characteristics of Chinese architecture. They exist all across China and are the template for most Chinese architectural styles.

Modern Beijing's population boom has made housing one of city's biggest challenges. Siheyuan today are typically used as housing complexes, hosting multiple families, with courtyards being developed to provide extra living space. The living conditions in many siheyuan are considered squalid, with very few having private toilets. In the 1990s, systematic demolition of old urban buildings took place in Beijing under rapid economic development. Siheyuan are being torn down to address the problem of overcrowding, and have been replaced by modern apartment blocks.

According to the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage, there are over 3,000 "well-preserved" courtyards remaining in Beijing, and over 539 are in Cultural and Historical Conservation Areas. There are also estimated 7,000 to 9,000 residential courtyards left for sale in Beijing, and they are generally priced at 7,000 to 10,000 yuan per square meter. Other studies put the estimates at about over 30,000 siheyuan courtyards in Old Beijing. Preserved historical siheyuan includes Lu Xun Memorial, Guo Moruo Memorial, Mao Dun Memorial, Mei Lanfang Memorial, and Lao She Memorial.

Layout of Beijing siheyuan

The four buildings of a siheyuan are normally positioned along the north-south and east-west axes. The building positioned to the north and facing the south is considered the main house . The buildings adjoining the main house and facing east and west are called side houses . The northern, eastern and western buildings are connected by beautifully decorated pathways . These passages serve as shelters from the sunshine during the day, and provide a cool place to appreciate the view of the courtyard at night. The building that faces north is known as the opposite house . Behind the northern building, there would often be a separate backside building , the only place where two-story buildings are allowed to be constructed for the traditional siheyuan.

The entrance gate, usually painted vermilion and with copper door knockers on it, is usually at the southeastern corner. Normally, there is a screen wall inside the gate, for privacy; superstition holds that it also protects the house from evil spirits. A pair of stone lions are often placed outside the gate. All of the rooms around the courtyard have large windows facing onto the yard and small windows high up on the back wall facing out onto the street. Some do not have back windows. Some large compounds have two or more courtyards to house extended families; this was a mark of prosperity and wealth in ancient times.

The courtyard dwellings were built according to the traditional concepts of the that were believed to compose the universe, and the of divination. The gate was made at the southeast corner which was the "wind" corner, and the main house was built on the north side which was believed to belong to "water" -- an element to prevent fire.

The layout of a simple courtyard represents traditional Chinese morality and Confucian ethics. In Beijing, four buildings in a single courtyard receive different amounts of sunlight. The northern main building receives the most, thus serving as the living room and bedroom of the owner or head of the family. The eastern and western side buildings receive less, and serve as the rooms for children or less important members of the family. The southern building receives the least sunlight, and usually functions as a reception room and the servants' dwelling, or where the family would gather to relax, eat or study. The backside building is for unmarried daughters and female servants because unmarried girls were not allowed direct exposure to the public, so they occupied the most secluded building in the siheyuan.

A more detailed and further stratified Confucian order was followed in ancient China. The main house in the north was assigned to the eldest member of the family, i.e. the head of the family, usually grandparents. If the main house had enough rooms, a central room would serve as a shrine for ancestral worship. When the head of the household had concubines, the wife would reside in the room to the eastern end of the main house , while the concubines would reside in the room to the western end of the main house . The eldest son of the family and his wife would reside in the western side house , while the younger son and his wife would reside in the eastern side house . If a grandson was fully grown, he would reside in the opposite house in the south. Unmarried daughters would always reside in the backside building behind the main house .

When a funeral is held in a siheyuan, the location of the casket depends on the status of the deceased, but all caskets are oriented so that the head of the deceased points south while the feet point north. If the deceased is the head of the househould or his wife, then the casket would be on the center line in the main house . If the deceased was the concubine of the head of the household, her casket would remain in the main house , but could not be in the center. If the deceased is a younger male, then his casket is placed on the center line of the courtyard. If the deceased is a younger female, her casket is placed in the courtyard but cannot be on the center line.

Though from antiquity, a siheyuan is a practically sound, engineered structure. Northwestern walls are usually higher than the other walls to protect the inside buildings from the harsh winds blowing across northern China in the winter. Eaves curve downward, so that rainwater will flow along the curve rather than dropping straight down. The rooftop is ridged to provide shade in the summer while retaining warmth in the winter.

A siheyuan offers space, comfort, quiet and privacy. Siheyuan walls provide security as well as protection against dust and storms. With plants, rocks, and flowers, the yard is also a garden, and acts like an open-air living room. The verandah divides the courtyard into several big and small spaces that are not very distant from each other. Family members talked with each other here, creating a cordial atmosphere.

Siheyuan in other areas

In Gansu, Qinghai and other northwest regions, where dust storms are very strong, courtyard walls tend to be higher. The shapes of siheyuan are also altered: in northwestern China, the north-south span of a siheyuan is generally much longer than the east-west span, while in other provinces such as Sichuan, the opposite is true. In southern China, the houses are built with multiple stories. In the northeast, land is abundant but the weather is cold, so courtyards are built broad and large to increase the exposure to sunlight, and there are more open areas inside the walls.

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