The Traditional Chinese House The organization of Chinese houses is significantly similar across China, In part because of their codification in manuals like the 12th century Yingzao Fashi (Building Standards) Ming Dynasty Lu Ban Jing (Carpenter’s Canon).  We can thus describe an ideal Chinese house, one which reflects Chinese culture, particularly ideas about family; Confucian morality, expressed in the relationships between people and spaces within the house; and geomantic understandings of how to channel cosmic energies, coded in the principles of feng shui.

The ideal Chinese house consists of halls arranged orthogonally around one or a series of courtyards and enclosed by a wall into a compound. It is oriented on the cardinal directions, with the entrance gate to the walled enclosure, and the principal E-W rooms that parallel it, facing to the south. These E-W rooms contain public and ritual spaces and are the highest status within the ensemble. The N-S rooms mirror each other. These rooms are lower status and used for sleeping quarters and storage, with those on the east higher status than those on the west. There is a gradient of privacy as well, especially in compounds with multiple courtyards, and space is also marked by gender, with women associated with, and in elite families confined to, the inner courtyard area.  

The aspect of enclosure is important. The wall around the house marks the distinction between the family inside and the world outside, and the gate is elaborated, expressing status and communicating about the family to those outside. There is just one main gate, although in large compounds there were small side service gates as well. The single gate expresses the unity of the family within; the Lu Ban Jing states that in a house with two gates “there will be no love between father and son.” In accordance with the geomantic principles of Feng Shui, the gate does not lead in directly, but leads to a shield wall, which keeps out demons and ghosts, which travel in straight lines. This buffered entrance also serves a social purpose; the writer Li Wu argued in his 1671 book Xianqing Ouji that the shield wall or other winding entrance “arises from the desire to keep men at a distance as well as demons and to make a limit between what is public and what is private.”

Within the compound, the hierarchical relationships between individuals are expressed through architecture.  These relationships are elaborated within the Confucian “Five Relationships” (wu lun), those between ruler and subject, father and child, husband and wife, elder and younger brother, and friends. Harmony is created through the recognition of the hierarchical distinction between those in those relationships (except those between friends) , which includes both deference to the person with more power and kindness and consideration to the person with less power. Elements within the house help make those relationships material. Where an individual is placed within the compound, the height of the hall associated with them, and how it is decorated all mark relative status. A south-facing hall is highest status, and would be usually occupied by the senior couple. The N-S hall to the east is next in status, then those to the west, and would be occupied in order of seniority. The roof height and the height of the platform for each hall reflects its relative status, with higher status spaces taller. The platform height difference reminds family members of their relative status every time they climb the stairs, which must always be done with the higher status person climbing first. The Lu Ban Jing writes of the importance of roof heights which reflect status “The rear hall, main hall, corridors and triple gate may increase only gradually in height, since only then to sons and grandsons know their rank; and does not the younger aspire to the older’s place. The builder must take careful notice of this.”

The courtyard house almost always contained within it some aspect of natural space, whether an evocation of it through potted plants and a small garden rock or a landscape scroll or elaborate enclosed gardens like the famous gardens of Suzhou. These garden spaces were in the more private back part of a compound, often connected to a scholar’s study, rather than in the more public front areas.The elite scholar’s study was a space belonging to the most senior male, and was a room or a separate construction in the more private area of the house, ideally looking out onto a garden. The importance of the contemplation of nature as part of the scholar’s experience was such that officials would carry portable potted plants to have that experience wherever they were posted.

While the building materials used vary by region and wealth, as do the number of stories, the same organizational principles were common across China. In addition, in most areas the compound was built on a tamped earth platform using a largely wooden structure. Even for those living in just one room, the organization of activities within the room and the placement of ancestral tablets followed the same principles. 

The standardized Chinese house structure builds on traditions from the northern plains of China, where the capitals were built. It also reflects elite practices; Shang (15th to 11th C BCE) palaces, for example, were oriented to the cardinal directions and built on tamped earth platforms, like standardized Chinese houses of later periods, but commoners in the same area lived in pit-houses with no regular relationship to cardinal directions. The movement of elite Northerners into the rest of China disseminated this standardized set of principles.

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