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Siheyuan: the Chinese Housing Dream

Owning a house is now symbolized as an essential part of so-called “American Dream”. You might want to ask what the Chinese version of housing dream looks like? The answer is siheyuan (四合院,Si-he-yuan)

Siheyuan, the Chinese housing dream

Siheyuan is a common style of Han Chinese housing, dated to Zhou Dynasty (1,100 – 256B.C.). It generally composes of enclosed square yard surrounded with houses on four or three sides.

Before we go into talking about the details about siheyuan, let’s enjoy a set of beautiful pictures of a typical siheyuan. This siheyuan is located close to Great Wall near Beijing. It belongs to IWNC. The pictures are provided by IWNC here. (According to ToU, it’s OK to put them here.)


Function and social meaning

A siheyuan model with structure details

A siheyuan model with structure details

Siheyuan, as a living place, is integrated with traditional Chinese culture. The square enclosure separates the family space clearly from outside public space.

1. Main gate.
2. Screen wall. Usually has blessing words on it.
3. Reversed rooms. For servants.
4. Outside yard.
5. Secondary gate.
6. Main yard.
7. Main rooms. For the house owner.
8. East rooms. For elder son. Usually these rooms are taller than west rooms.
9. West rooms. For younger son.
10. Side rooms. For maids.
11. Back rooms. For daughter. It’s very hard for the girls to get out without the permission of parents. “Never go out of the main gate; never step out of the secondary gate.”

As you can see, siheyuan creates a well-organized structure according to the people’s social and family status. It provides great privacy from outside, and enjoyable environment with the garden in the middle yard.

The Forbidden City, the largest siheyuan complex

Forbidden City
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.

Current condition in modern society.

In modern society, along with the change of social and family structure, traditional siheyuan no longer fits the need of Chinese people. Limited space, lack of accessories, discreted family structure all make siheyuan less and less suitable for modern life.

Before the re-construction

Before the re-construction

After the re-contruction

After the re-construction

In Beijing, there was a very good example project of siheyuan modernization in Nan-Chi-zi Area. Although the re-structuring and re-designing were very successful, the project is not promoted broadly for some reason. The old traditional siheyuans in Beijing continue to disappear every day in the “modern” concrete city.

[Chinese Keywords]
民居 四合院

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  1. May 11th, 2009 at 00:36 | #1

    I like 四合院。 It’s a nice way to build a house if you ask me

  2. May 12th, 2009 at 03:53 | #2

    Thanks – very interesting post. It seems like privacy was very important in the past? Would you say privacy is less important nowadays or the same? It would be very interesting to see how is modern Chinese housing!

  3. May 12th, 2009 at 09:12 | #3

    @Liz Nowadays, unfortunately, most Chinese live in “modern” concrete cells in the cities, :( It’s impossible to have such luxury one floor house in the center of modern city.

    If you go to the countryside, you can still find traditional style housing as I introduced in several posts. But tradition is fading everywhere.

  4. May 20th, 2009 at 08:51 | #4

    I like the diagram.

    Not many people are building siheyuan these days — it would be prohibitively expensive in terms of land — but the Hong Kong Heritage Museum was recently built in siheyuan style, although on a massively bigger scale.

  5. Mech_Man
    August 8th, 2009 at 04:09 | #5

    This architecture is stunningly beautiful. I never knew that Chinese architecture was accented with the color brown like Japan and, Korea. I’d only seen red and orange accent colors which are nice for community buildings but maybe not for a home.

    Everyone’s selling their social, cultural, and spiritual souls to be “modern.” It’s blind and foolhardy.

  6. August 8th, 2009 at 07:38 | #6

    @Mech_Man
    Hi, Mech, Keep this in mind, Japanese and Koreans learned almost everything from China for thousands of years till 19th century. So don’t be surprised if you see something similar between these countries.

  7. home buyer
    September 25th, 2012 at 09:39 | #7

    Years ago I tried to build a single family home like this in a small town in northern California, but the business and government would not let me.

    Nearly all the vacant lots in town were too small to accommodate an 1800 squarefoot house and adjacent garage that encloses a 400 squarefoot private court yard. The few subdivisions that had large enough lots required that I meet a minimum living area squarefootage requirement. That made building such a house too expensive for a single family. The developers and lenders insisted that to custom build on a lot that large, I’d have to build a 4000 squarefoot million dollar house to make efficient use of a lot that size. The court yard and garage would not count as living space. To get approval of a loan, they insisted I’d have to build many rooms of useless living space. That would be way too big for a small family and a waste of money and energy to heat and cool such a large house.

    Like most people, I ended up having to buy a subdivision house because I couldn’t find anything I liked in any price range. Even the million dollar homes lacked outdoor yard privacy and had CC&Rs that limited types of fencing and housing styles. Building a new house with private outdoor yard space is impossible. If I could build a huge house, I’d still have to give up privacy because it would require a staff of people to maintain it.

  1. August 9th, 2011 at 03:48 | #1