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.
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
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.
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