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Chinese Scenic Spot-Beijing's Siheyuan

Key Word: Chinese Culture, Travel, China

North China's courtyard houses are outstanding representatives of traditional residences of China's Han people. Beijing's Siheyuan (courtyard with houses on four sides), at the highest level and most typical specimen of its kind, boasts a long history. According historical discovery analyses, the Siheyuan residence appeared more than 2,000 years ago.It is called 'Siheyuan' in Chinese, 'Si' means 'Four', which here refers to the four sides: east, west, north and south. 'He' refers to the surrounding, meaning the four sides circle into a square. Due to its special layout, it is compared to a box with a garden in the center. There is only one gate leading to a hutong, so when the gate is closed the courtyard loses touch with the outside world. Therefore family members can fully enjoy tranquility and share the happiness of a peaceful family union.

The residence is situated in the north of the compound and faces south, mostly consisting 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. 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. The architectural ornaments of the courtyard houses are of distinctive features, with some brick carvings or wood carvings dotted on the prominent places such as the screen walls and the lateral walls of the door. The porch, flowers-hung gate (chuihua gate, the second gate which separates the outer court and the inner court), drum-shaped bearing stone, as well as doors and windows with wooden partition are also the key points for ornamentation. All these carving decorations and colored drawings are the embodiment of folk customs and traditional culture, which reflect common people's pursuit for happiness, goodliness, wealth and auspiciousness. For example, the design with the bat (read fu in Chinese, the same pronunciation with "Fu", meaning happiness) and the Chinese character "Shou"(longevity) together means to have both good fortune (fu) and longevity (Shou); the pattern of a vase with China roses (flowering every month) means being safe and sound for the whole year (every month of the year); and dictions embedded in the upper door, the couplet hung on the columns of a hall as well as the beautiful paintings and calligraphies hung in the room are all permeated with culture flavor. If you observe carefully, you can find other traditional ornaments such as decorative cylinders, door couplets and door Gods in the courtyard houses.

Grey is the dominant color for the bricks, walls, roofs and the grounds, only on the door and window coated some paint of red and green, all of which bring harmony and simple elegance to the courtyard house. The paths in the yard are all paved by the bricks with the four corners of the yard left for planting trees. Green trees and red flowers really make good scenery. Some big courtyard houses even have gardens, kiosks, platforms or pavilions. Flowers, wood, mountain and stone; you name it, they have it.

The Forbidden City, the largest siheyuan complex


In 1987, UNESCO enlisted the Forbidden City as “World Culture Heritage”. It is the biggest and best preserved royal palace. It is an exceptional ancient architecture masterpiece.

The Forbidden City is the largest siheyuan complex in the world, a premium practice of siheyuan style architecture, and also the best example of Chinese traditional housing.

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.

The unparalleled advantages of the Beijing Siheyuan ensured its existence for many years throughout history. This creation left behind by ancient working people is a precious historical treasure.

China is a country with vast territory, varied topography and diversified climate, together with its different kinds of nationalities and cultures, which creates a rich variety of settlements and buildings of traditional vernacular dwelling. The residential houses can generally be divided into three partners: courtyard, storied and caved (or clay dwelling built with clay materials) dwellings.

Courtyard dwelling is the most popular vernacular dwelling among all the pa erns and it is also the one with most advanced material and structure technology, the richest component, most complicated arrangements of traditional ethic code and diversified decorations.

In a sense, it is the most advanced dwelling style in the farming society and also the ideal mode to materialize the natural environment in the feudal society. The quadrangles in Beijing are the typical one of this pattern. The fundamental character of the courtyard dwelling is: being enclosed, symmetrical in middle axis and clear distinction between primary and secondary, outside and inside. Such kind of dwelling is mainly seen in North China, Central Plains, Shandong Peninsula, plains and coastal areas in South China. It also can be found in some basins and plains of the southwest of China and in the areas of Chengdu in Sichuan Province, Kunming and Dali in Yunnan Province and plain areas of Taiwan Island, etc. The courtyard dwelling is popularly adopted in many areas including the areas where the Hans se????le in, ethnic minority areas in close exchange with Han culture (such as the Bai and Nahsi nationalities) and some developed areas (such as Zhuang and Yi nationalities), or the ethnic minorities living with the Han nationality (such as Manchu and Hui nationalities). In marching into one of the international metropolises, laws have also been formulated in Be?ing to protect its 25 lanes and quadrangles in the ancient areas, ranging from Prince Gong’s Residential to common houses, which still have kept the most completed and almost whole forms of quadrangles of the courtyard dwelling. For example, as to the gate, there are Naizi Fang Gate, Jinzhu Gate, Brilliant Gate, Ruyi Gate, Manzi Gate and so on, which make up the real museum of the quadrangle. Businessmen in Shanxi Province were in the leading position in building private residential in the period of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Quadrangle Group of the Wang family in Lingshi County, known as the First House of Shanxi Province, is composed of over one hundred courtyards.

Despite of variation in scale, composition, decoration and other aspects, all the quadrangles, which are most popular in the northern plain areas, have the common fundamental characteristics, such as the famous Confucian Residence in Qufu (Shandong Province), Zheng Banqiao’s Former Residence in Weifang (Shandong Province) and the numerous old-style banking houses in the ancient city of Pingyao in Shanxi Province, etc.

The dwellings in the vast countryside are not as complete as the typical quadrangle; some dwellings only have three or two houses around a courtyard, such as the Manchu’s sun-facing rural dwelling in Liaoning and Jilin Provinces, Tu Wei Zi in Shaanxi and Shanxi Provinces, all of which are of simplified courtyard-dwelling categories remaining the basic structure of gate, wall, courtyard and central room and wing-room. There are many variation forms of such a courtyard dwelling as follows: the residential dwelling called Yi Ke Yin in Kunming, Yunnan Province, which generated from the cave uncalcined clay dwelling; Huizhou’s courtyard residential dwelling (In Chinese traditional architecture, the courtyard enclosed by the houses and walls was called tianjing in Chinese) in Anhui Province, which came from the ganlan (In ancient times, this kind of architectural mode with wood as main building materials was popular in southern China) wood dwelling combined with courtyard ; and the Yongding’s Hakka residential dwelling in Fujian Province, which was mainly built for self-defense under the specific historic and geographical circumstances; Da Cuo – a courtyard dwelling composed of red-brick wall, sloping roof and arc fireproof wall, made by immigrants from Guangdong and Fujian to Taibei area of Taiwan, and so on.

The earliest form of the courtyard dwelling emerged firstly in the period of Qin and Han dynasties, and the figure bricks in the Eastern Han Dynasty give us a complete form of the then courtyard dwelling. The widespread of such a dwelling culture was due to the technological supports of Qin’s bricks and Han’s tiles, the improvement of feudal farming family pattern and the popularization of etiquette norms. And in the long period of time of farming society, this vernacular dwelling pattern showed its extremely strong vitality.

Once ubiquitous in Beijing, siheyuans and hutongs are now rapidly disappearing, as entire city blocks of hutongs are leveled and replaced with high-rise modern buildings. Residents of the hutongs are entitled to apartments in the new buildings, of at least the same size as their former residences. Many complain, however, that the traditional sense of community and street life of the hutongs cannot be replaced. However, some particularly historic or picturesque hutongs are being preserved and restored by the government.

Siheyuan's present and future:
Many of the city's residents in still live in the traditional courtyards within the second ring road, which featuring the limits of old Beijing. Part of the central part of Beijing is composed of hutongs or narrow lanes caused by the courtyards. The well preserved residential quadrangles are mainly scattered over the East District, West District, Xuanwu and Chongwen districts of the city. Those in the East and West districts are in the best condition. A number of good-shape courtyards are listed as the special protection Siheyuan areas by the local government. Furthermore, the building of highrises in the city proper are under the strict control. However, Beijing faces much problem of housing shortage. Beijing is a city that is growing both spatially with its population growing at a fast rate. Many old courtyards are being torn down to address problems of overcrowding, replaced by modern apartment blocks. So quite a few of those who have lived in the courtyards for generations have now moved to high-rise apartments of blocks in new residential areas.

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