Like paper dragons and lion dogs, the courtyard house is another Chinese icon. They are diverse in architectural style, and differ from place to place (particularly north and south), but the house essentially is a walled compound with a single entrance and one, two, three or more open courtyards surrounded by single-story rooms. The name common in Beijing for courtyard house, siheyuan 四合院, also is used for quadrangle and denotes an enclosure with four sides. In Shanghai, houses in the 石庫門 shikumen style frequently were courtyard houses (although they are not regarded as Beijing siheyuan by experts*). Temples and yamens exhibited similar design on larger scales. Houses of the affluent that also boasted gardens within the compound can be seen still in places like Suzhou. Traditional courtyard houses in large cities began to disappear decades ago; however, there appears to be a renaissance of the style in [dead link] modern Chinese housing. [*Note: revisions to this post made in March of 2018 are in red. See comments below.]
The main characteristic of a Chinese courtyard house is that the structures enclose the yards – where I grew up in Southern California the yards generally enclosed the structures. More exactly, our houses had an open front yard and fenced-in back yard, two “courtyards,” so to speak. The front yard might have fencing or hedges along each side, but it was always open to the street and to the curiosity of the neighbors.
A Chinese courtyard house is another example of how Chinese walled themselves in, away from the sight of prying neighbors. Within that design, the courtyard houses varied greatly in size and layout. The smallest had only a small courtyard and hall. Larger houses stretched the courtyard and placed rooms alongside. Still larger examples added more courtyards, second stories, and gardens.
We never worried about fengshui when we went house hunting in Southern California, but in old China the layout of a building had to be just so, and approved by a fengshui expert, if the occupants were to enjoy good fortune. The complexity of these considerations is described in an online article about Beijing Courtyard Houses but, simply put, the gate must face southeast and principal rooms must face south; the surrounding land forms (hills, rivers, roads) must be “congenial;” and none of the arrangements could be allowed to interrupt the flow of vital energy 氣 qi so important to well-being. In Beijing, where courtyard houses faced on east-west streets or alleys 胡同 hutong, a house on the north side of the hutong facing south could follow the ideal and have an entrance at the southeast. However, houses on the south side of the hutong faced north and often had the entrance gate at the northwest, which must have complicated the fengshui still more.
General Layout of Courtyard Houses
By mid-Qing the general layout of a Beijing courtyard house resembled the image above, with three courtyards contained within an outside wall. Smaller houses might have only a single courtyard; larger versions might have as many as five courtyards. Upon entering the compound through the main gate 大门 damen, one encountered a spirit-screen 影壁 yingbi, which protected the entrance to the house, and past the screen was the first courtyard. In larger houses allocation of space followed a hierarchy proceeding from the front to the rear of the house; servants’ quarters were at the front, around the first courtyard. A second gate 二门 ermen led out of the first courtyard into a second, much larger, central courtyard with large rooms 厢房 xiangfang along corridors 走廊 zoulang on either side, east and west, where family members dwelt according to family status, the younger and unmarried living closer to the front of the house. In the main room at the rear of the compound were the apartments 正房 zhengfang of the grandparents and parents. On either side of the zhengfang there were “ear rooms” 耳房 erfang, so called because they stuck out to either side of the zhengfang like ears. Erfang uses included children’s or servants quarters, and storage or cooking rooms.
Many illustrations show roofs over all the outer walls, and the few examples having some portion of wall without a roof always had broken glass, crockery, or nails and such cemented to the top of that section of the wall to discourage intruders. This probably explains the prevalence of wuhsia 武侠 heroes leaping up to rooftops and scampering across rooftop tiles in Chinese films – too often they had to cross a roof to get inside the house if they didn’t come in through the gate.
Presently, in Book II of Yang Shen and Yankee Mandarin we are about to lodge the Foreign Rifles in their new headquarters in Sungkiang (Songjiang) after they have driven the Taiping rebels from the city in July of 1860. Sources say the actual HQ was near the Confucian Temple, or near a small Christian church, but nothing more, so the novel, like any other homeless American expat in China, is going house hunting. Earlier, in Chapter 18 of Book I, “Fletcher Meets Takee,” we described Yang Fang’s home, also a courtyard house, in Shanghai:
On each side of the yard, a row of squat buildings perched upon rough granite pedestals that raised the structures four feet above the stone pavement. Ornate staircases of ebon wood and white marble ascended to open verandahs of polished teak and mahogany hardwood that passed along the facade of each building under broad eaves of heavy timber. Into the facades were set windows of thin parchment or oyster shell laid upon a fragile bamboo lattice. Below the verandahs, intricate lattice panels concealed the open space under the buildings. The foreigners followed their shuffling guide across the courtyard, entered the reception hall 大堂, and were invited to sit in one of the two guest halls 客堂 at each side of the reception hall. …There is something fragile, he thought, and insubstantial about this kind of dwelling that is different from the solid old manse of brick and mortar, built to keep out the elements. Here sun warms courtyards open to the weather, wind whips through long, wide corridors, snow piles up on exposed verandahs, rain tears the delicate rice-paper coverings of bamboo lattice windows. All the sounds of nature from the crack of thunder to the gentle drip of rainwater must echo through the whole house. As changeably warm, wind-swept and wet as the place can be, it must feel like living in the fo’c’s’le of a clipper ship.
That description was based largely on Needham’s depiction of the Chinese house in his section “The Spirit of Chinese Architecture,” in Volume 4, Part III, of 1971 Science and Civilization in China 中国科学技术史. He points out that Chinese houses typically expanded horizontally, adding wings as families grew, rather than raising stories, and that larger houses were set upon platforms and pedestals to keep the living space and corridors out of the muck of farmyard and caravansary. Supports for larger structures were large columns and pillars – walls were curtain walls and did not help to hold up the tile-heavy roofs.
Detail of Chinese Courtyard Houses
Discussions of courtyard houses distinguish between those of the capital, with many features reserved for the Manchu royalty, and those of the provinces, which typically were simpler but might have had some quiet replication of more extravagant features that were not proscribed. Such an example, described below, might be the stone hitching post 栓马石 or 栓马桩 for securing horses.
Walls, gates and screens. Reference: [Dead link] Beijing Courtyard Houses – in the Shadow of the Imperial City 北京四合院: 皇城影子下的民居, an online PDF from the China Academic Journal Electronic Publishing House, 1994.
Wall. Set sometimes on a foot-high gray stone base, the ten to fifteen foot high wall surrounding a courtyard house commonly was made of brick covered with white plaster and topped with tile like a roof, or with broken glass, crockery, and nails to discourage intruders. Walls were gray for commoners and a dull red for officials. An interesting wall I saw once was mounted with green porcelain dragon scales, to resemble a scaly green dragon undulating along the top of the wall.
Front Gate 大門, 宅门. These varied widely according to the wealth of the household, but a typical front gate might have ten-foot high double wooden doors painted red and studded with black iron. It appears that the door frame rested upon the rear portion of a stone pier or pedestal 门墩 mendun carved in the shape of lions or drums and engraved with a variety of designs (see “Stone carving” below). The door had no hinges and instead pivoted in sockets in the lintel and the stone pier. Gates descended to the ground, or to a broad stone base, or to the top of three or more broad stone steps, and often were recessed according to the wealth of the household – the greater the wealth the deeper the door was recessed. A gate might be covered by an extension of the roof from the front wall, or by a multi-tiered tiled roof of its own. In wealthy homes, a gatekeeper’s room was next to the gate. Front gates were large and ornate in proportion to the wealth of the family and almost always protected by stone lions (see “Stone lions” below) of varying size. Larger more ornate gates were called man-zi men 蛮子门 and were used mostly by wealthy, important families. Common folks had smaller gates, “narrow” front gates zhai ta-men 窄大门. So, in the old days one needed only to see the front gate of a courtyard house to know pretty well the status of the owner.
Spirit Screen 照壁, 影壁. The spirit screen stood behind a gate entrance and, in order to enter a courtyard, required a turn right or left to go around. Book I of Yang Shen has its own take on this: “Spirit screen, Fletcher thought. Maybe they keep out Chinese ghosts and devils and other straight-line navigators, but they obviously do not keep out foreign ghosts and devils, yang-kuei-tzu like us. Damyankees chart a course any which way.”
Spirit gates often were constructed of green brick, called brick screen walls 砖雕影壁, and less frequently of stone or even wood; some could be moved aside temporarily to allow more space in an entranceway, and some were placed outside a gate. The screens usually were set upon a stone base carved to resemble mountains.
One kind of spirit screen was the “independent style spirit screen 独立式影壁” which typically was a small wall that stood alone just inside the front gate. Another kind of screen was the “mountain straddling style spirit screen 跨山影壁” more commonly found inside courtyards, before wings of the house. Spirit screens were either partially engraved, with designs in the center and at the four corners, or the entire wall was engraved.
Inner Gate 二门 ermen or 垂花门 chuihua Gate. Some houses had stairs ascending to a first hall, but many larger courtyard houses had an inner gate, separating the first and second courtyards, that lead into the private quarters of a family. The first courtyard, called the reverse-facing courtyard 倒座院, was a smaller utility area where deliveries arrived, supplies were stored, and where servants had their own quarters.
The chuihua gate, or “flower-hung gate,” or “festooned gate,” was a special gate in a traditional Chinese house that separated external and internal parts of the house. Both sides of the door were hung with suspended puncheons – a short upright framing timber – and with chapiters in the shape of petals that looked like hung flowers. (A “chapiter” is the “capital” of a column; a “capital” is the uppermost member of a column or pilaster crowning the shaft and taking the weight of the entablature – structures that rest on a column: roof, gables, lintens, and such. And an architect is someone who might understand all that – bit dense for a novelist, and none of it will appear in Yang Shen.)
A flower-hung gate was usually located on the axis line of the entire house to separate internal and external parts of the house. Exquisitely decorated, it became the most eye-catching spot in the house. Drum-shaped bearing stones (see “Stone drum” below) often were placed in front of the flowers-hung gate. A “rolling pillar stone” 滚墩石 gundunshi was also used at a flower-hung gate as a decorative structure to add support and display many of the same design motifs as stone lions.
Reverse-facing Rooms 倒座房 daozuofang. In wealthy homes, the reverse-facing rooms, called such because they were the only rooms that faced the back of the compound. They were servants’ rooms that, when they backed against a space between the rooms and the wall, might have windows. The servants’ rooms ran along the front wall facing into the first courtyard 倒座院, and there might be a toilet and pigsty through a passage on one side, and a kitchen through a passage on the other side of the small courtyard.
Courtyards, Front and Rear. Reference: Ping Xu, “Feng-Shui Models Structured Traditional Beijing Courtyard Houses,” Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 15:4 (Winter, 1998).
Courtyards 院落, 庭院. The inside of a courtyard house was quite different from the chaos outside – inside there was a wide open and welcoming space rich with colorful ornamentation. “Corridors surrounded and opened to the courtyard. The wooden doors, screens, and gates were painted in bright red, green, blue, or gold, and extravagantly decorated. Flowering trees, symbolizing happiness and unity, sent forth a delicate fragrance.” Goldfish, a symbol of wealth and luck, swam in large ponds.
Larger houses with several courtyards had a main courtyard with east and west “lateral courts 跨院.” The north side of the main courtyard of a three-courtyard house might add east and west rooms as well as east and west wings 东西厢. Each of the smaller rooms might have a separate small kitchen. The rooms all looked into the courtyard and so faced each other and offered little privacy. “Large windows and connecting doorways between adjacent rooms made it easy to see everything going on. This design was convenient for the grandfather, who wanted to know everything happening in his courtyard. In addition, it implied a warning to the family members: Watch your behavior! The lack of individual privacy made some family members feel extremely constrained and frustrated. A traditional proverb said that ‘there was a tragic drama in every courtyard. The deeper the courtyard, the sadder the stories’.”
Drainage. Rainwater and the excess water of daily living from the laundry, bath, and kitchen was conducted along sculpted stone culverts around the courtyard to an opening at the bottom of the east wall, through which the water was “sent to the dragon,” out into the street beyond the wall. Even the drain openings were engraved with elaborate designs (see “Drain opening stone carving” below).
Kitchen. Following the principle “kitchen east, toilet west” 东厨西厕 dongchuxice, kitchens usually were placed in a southeastern erfang. Ping Xu discusses the complex feng-shui of courtyard houses at length in his article Feng-Shui Models Structured Traditional Beijing Courtyard Houses. “According to feng-shui, the arrangement of the kitchen could influence the health of the entire family. In the Beijing courtyard dwelling, the kitchen could be in the northeast or southwest chamber, either of which was an ‘evil’ chamber in the feng-shui model of arranging Qi. However, the air intake of a kitchen wood stove must face one of the favorable orientations.” There could be small cooking areas adjacent to individual rooms, but in arrangements that were more traditional the cooking area was in a southeast erfang of the first courtyard. Meals cooked there were trundled into the inner courtyard family rooms by servants. As with bathing areas, the kitchen stored one or more huge vats of water that servants might fill by hand from wells outside the wall, or with water bought from water wagons, if the family did not have their own well.
Eating. “Eating took place in various areas of the courtyard dwelling. Normally, each small individual family ate in its own living room. In some traditional houses, people would eat on a short dining table placed on the huge bed, which was built along the courtyard side of each bedroom.” On holidays for New Year, the Moon Festival, or on family occasions, generations of the entire family could be expected to gather together to feast in the great hall 大堂 of the compound or in the zhengfang living quarters of the elders.
Toilets. No more appealing to Chinese than anyone else, toilets were regarded as “evil” places in the scheme of feng-shui and relegated according to the aforementioned principle 东厨西厕 to a southwestern erfang, where they communicated with the outside to allow easier access for cleaning without bothering the family. “In the past, often before the sun rose, the courtyard’s waste was collected and moved to the countryside to be used as fertilizer. The location of the dry toilet kept the master rooms away from possible smells and flies, but was a disadvantage for the servants’ rooms, which were near the dry toilet. The distance between master rooms and the toilet did not really inconvenience the masters, because in bedrooms or the ‘ear room’ they had chamber pots, which were emptied to the dry toilet by servants or wives.”
Living arrangements. The arrangement of quarters in a courtyard house followed the traditional hierarchy according to age and gender. Honored parents lived deep in the courtyard house, ruling over lesser family members who lived closer to the street. Grandfather and grandmother stayed in the south-facing rooms at the very rear of the innermost courtyard, the strongest position according to feng-shui, protected by other lower courtyards, wings, rooms, halls, gates and the wall from disorder in the streets. Father and mother occupied rooms on one side or another of the grandparents, married sons lived in the nearest rooms on each side of the courtyard, followed in preference by unmarried sons and concubines in rooms in the next lower courtyard, and servants, unmarried, divorced, or widowed daughters, and perhaps a widowed daughter-in-law in the lowest reverse-facing rooms 倒座房. “These rooms were considered to have the worst feng-shui quality in the entire courtyard. Serving as guards of this social system, feng-shui masters often warned people that everybody in a family must follow the feng-shui order of the hierarchical room arrangement; otherwise an impending disaster might overcome the entire family.”
Sculptural Motifs. Stone carving and engraving were prominent features of Chinese courtyard houses, and a common motif typical of many three-dimensional relief sculptures 浮雕 found in such houses was that of a rhinoceros gazing at the moon 犀牛望月. The story, we are told, is that the Jade Emperor of Heaven once gave an assignment to his Rhinoceros general: go down to earth and tell the people to eat a single meal per day and perform theHeavenly Rites three times so they will respect ceremony and etiquette and restrain themselves from eating too much.
However, when the Rhinoceros general arrived in the human world, he was dazzled by its myriad wonders and countless temptations. He became disturbed in his mind and accidentally changed the message into: eat three meals a day and perform the Heavenly Rites once. The Jade Emperor was so furious that he banished Rhinoceros from Heaven. Rhinoceros descended to earth, where he never stopped longing for his life in the Heavenly palace. Each evening he would look up at the moon and gaze for hours.
The sadness of Rhinoceros over his loss, for being parted forever from his home, would not be difficult for Chinese to feel, considering how many generations of Chinese have left family and home behind to go abroad to seek fortune in foreign lands, perhaps never to return until sent back in a coffin. The tale of the cowherd and the weaving maiden embraces the same themes of separation and loss.
Stone carving 石雕 shidiao. Reference: [Dead link] Beijing Courtyard Houses – in the Shadow of the Imperial City 北京四合院: 皇城影子下的民居, an online PDF from the China Academic Journal Electronic Publishing House, 1994.
Stone lions 石狮子 shishizi. The courtyard houses of high officials or rich merchants could not ever be without a pair of stone lions outside their front gate, to protect the gate, strengthen the power and influence of the owner, and serve as decoration. Being the king of the beasts, a lion’s first characteristic is ferocity, so the mythical beast became the gate guard, fashioned with a formidably fierce appearance. Such lions typically have curly manes that fall from the top of their heads to their shoulders, glowering round eyes, grinning teeth, a copper bell fastened to the neck, strong and supple flesh, and limbs of great strength. With head high and chests expanded, they squat on pedestals at either side of the gate.
On the east side of the gate (left facing out) is the male lion, with a carved ball under his paw, and on the west side of the gate (right facing out) is the lioness, with a lion cub under her paw. The carved ball of the male is an “embroidered ball” called a xiuqiu 绣球, which is sometimes carved with a geometric pattern known in the West as the “Flower of life” (see the Wikipedia article on Chinese Guardian lions). Some lions squat upon a stone rug atop the stone pedestal. Lions also appear atop drum stones in lying 趴狮, crouching 蹲狮, or standing 站狮 poses. The standing pose is most common on drum stones; the carving of the lying pose is usually much simplified, with deaf ears 耳朵下聋, and altered enough to resemble a habagou 哈巴狗, commonly called a “lion dog.”
Stone drums 抱鼓石 baogushi “drum-holding stones.” Drum-shaped stones were sculptured for architectural use and usually placed in pairs at the entrance of the house, or inside at the chihhua gate. Also called “drum-shaped stone block” or “bearing stone,” it comes in two shapes – round and square. The drum surface always is carved in light relief (bas-relief) with exquisite embossed patterns including the patterns of flowers, grass, animals, mascots and deity animals, with lion and “corner-turning” lotus 转角莲 as the most commonly used patterns. Designs can be the same on each side, or different, in which case the side facing a wall, or away from the gate, might be more simple. Other designs might include sleeping unicorns 麒麟卧松, a rhinoceros gazing at the moon 犀牛望月, a butterfly entering blue mountains 蝶入兰山, or pine, bamboo and plum 松竹梅. As with round drum stones, square drum stones might have a small lion on the top, in different poses: lying, crouching, or standing.
Step stone 上马石 shangmashi. This stone step was used as a stepping-stone for mounting a horse and was an artifact of the Manchu horse culture. Another status symbol, it was carved of white marble or green limestone and placed outside the front gate together with hitching stones. Step stones might have some simpler designs carved on the sides and on the flat surface to make them less slippery.
Hitching stones 栓马石, 栓马桩 shuanmashi, shuanmazhuang. A Chinese hitching post for one horse. These were placed in front of the wall of the gate keeper’s house (next to the front gate), or along the outer wall opposite the “rear-facing rooms” (on the other side of the front gate). They were fixed with an iron ring for attaching the reins of a horse, and one was also placed next to the step stone for mounting horses. Carved designs on hitching stones also were comparatively simple.
Stone display stands 陈设座 chenshezuo. There were stand-alone stone pedestals placed in front of rooms or in the center of courtyards to hold potted plants, floral displays, unusual rocks, fish bowls, and what-have-you. They had any number of sides and tiers, and were elaborately carved with flowers and plants, designs or characters, and sometimes people or birds and animals.
Stone seat 石绣墩 shixiudun. These were stone seats built in the shape of drums, elaborately carved in bas-relief designs, and set out around the perimeter of courtyards for folks to sit upon.
Drain opening stone carving 沟门, 沟漏 goumen, goulou. Even the drain openings had stonework, some inside the opening to keep out vermin while allowing water to pass, and other carvings above the opening to add some elegance to ordinary drain culverts.
Stone carving materials and types of stone carving 石雕的分类. Reference: [Dead link] Beijing Courtyard Houses – in the Shadow of the Imperial City 北京四合院: 皇城影子下的民居, an online PDF from the China Academic Journal Electronic Publishing House, 1994.
“Pale stone” 青白石 qingbaishi was the name for a variety of limestones that were firm and could be carved in delicate designs that did not easily erode. White marble had a marvelous white translucence that could hold delicate carving, but it was softer and did not preserve as well as limestone. There were (and doubtless still are) several types: water white, dry white, snowflake white, and pale white.
Types of stone carving 石雕的分类. Four principal styles that, in time, often came to be used together.
1. Flat sculpture 平雕 pingdiao (线刻、隐刻、减地平极). Used designs with grooves (female, or yin) and protruding lines (male, or yang) cut into a flat surface.
2. Relief sculpture 浮雕 fudiao (又称突雕). A style of sculptural relief in which the projection from the surrounding surface is slight and no part of the modeled form is undercut. 3D stone carving, shallow or deep style.
3. Spherical sculpture 圆雕 yuandiao (也称混雕、立雕). This style carved objects in full three dimension.
4. “Raised” sculpture 透雕 toudiao (亦称通雕). This extraordinary technique separates the foreground from the background such that air and light may pass between (like the dragons entwined around temple columns that are raised from the surface of the pillar).
The Chinese courtyard house remains, but in dwindling numbers, and people in China increasingly express concern about preserving the heritage represented by these old icons. Hardly a day goes by when, in weblogs like Shanghai Street Stories, an old building threatened by demolition to make way for new construction is not documented. That some of the new houses are recapturing the old style of the courtyard house remains only a small comfort, and the day when old courtyard houses are declared national treasures and refurbished like the former homes of Lu Xun 魯迅 or Pearl Buck 賽珍珠 still seems far away.
See these additional resources: (1) an animated walk through a courtyard house, and (2) a “Discussion of the Beijing Courtyard House” presented in four quarter-hour CCTV programs (in Mandarin), in my YouTube playlist on Chinese Architecture.
- Fang Xu, The Vicissitude of Courtyards in the Local Housing of Shanghai, China.
- Ping Xu, “Feng-Shui Models Structured Traditional Beijing Courtyard Houses,” Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 15:4 (Winter, 1998), p. 271.
- Chinese courtyard houses Siheyuan Culture, the culture of siheyuan. http://www.chinatourguide.com/beijing/Siheyuan_Culture.html
- Chinese Traditional Architecture Glossary 中国传统建筑生词. http://en.bjchp.org/?page_id=4957
- Spirit Screens 影壁, “Ear Rooms” and Mendun 门墩 (gate piers), in the Baidu Encyclopedia 百度百科.
- [Dead link] Beijing Courtyard Houses – in the Shadow of the Imperial City 北京四合院: 皇城影子下的民居,, an online PDF from the China Academic Journal Electronic Publishing House, 1994. It includes a selection of celebrity courtyard houses in a section called 探访京城名人故居 Visiting Old Beijing Homes of Famous Folks. The following URL is the only link still to be found.
- Chinese guardian lions – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
- Donia Zhang PhD, Classical courtyard houses of Beijing: architecture as cultural artifact, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/292735947_Classical_courtyard_houses_of_Beijing_architecture_as_cultural_artifact
- Gu Jun 顾军, Deep in the courtyard – discussing the culture of the Beijing courtyard house 庭院深深——北京四合院文化漫谈（一）超星學術視頻, Professor Gu has helpful graphics that show the Chinese names for the parts of the house and highlight portions of houses as she talks about them. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFs-mjdDaS4 (also Parts 2, 3 and 4).
- Villa Workshop 别墅工场, Courtyard Houses – letting the world see a real Chinese-style mansion 四合院，让世界看到真正的中国式豪宅,
- CCTV Green Space 绿色空间, Talking about Siheyuan (1), 话说四合院（一), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfPnFflR-vs&feature=youtu.be
- Jia Jun 贾珺, Elegant Houses in the Capital: Beijing Siheyuan 京师雅宅——北京四合院 (PDF)
- Siheyuan, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siheyuan
- Siheyuan 四合院, Wikipedia, 维基百科