The history of Siheyuan or courtyard house in Beijing can be traced back to more than 800 years ago when Beijing established its status as the capital city. As a kind of traditional Chinese historical object, Siheyuan represents the capital's architectural style.
A siheyuan 四合院, in Chinese quadrangle, is a symmetrical enclosed rectangular space which takes the courtyard as its centre surrounded by four houses: a main house (typically facing to south), an opposite house, an eastern-wing house and a western-wing house.
Fengshui found and highly suitable for a family to live in for the reason that protected from exterior intrusion, in the course of the Chinese olden times, the siheyuan was besides the basic construction used for residences, palaces, temples, monasteries, family companies and government offices. There were quite simple siheyuan and most elaborate ones.
The siheyuan construction was built with regard to the principles which optimize the sun exposure, while offering a protection against the North winds, the former rules which match up to the location of the Chinese houses.
The Confucian code, based on the cosmic order and the hierarchical society goes back to about 500 years BC, and it remained until our days an essential characteristic of the Chinese people. The Chinese houses, heart of family and living space, were established according to this Confucian scheme.
The siheyuan was an outside space protected from the noise and from the dust of the street, also protected from intruders. It provided a complete intimacy reflecting the sense of intimate lifestyle in the mind of Chinese people always keeping the family issues within the family, making business with reliable associates.
According to records, even during Shang Dynasty (1766 BC to 1122 BC) houses were built around a siheyuan. Yet most of the minority ethnic groups of China built their houses around a siheyuan; the arrangement of the house could differ in accordance with the climate and the topography of the various regions of China and the ancestral traditions. This one could be built with various materials, have one or two floors, windows or different doors.
However, a thing remained unchanged: the residence was built around a siheyuan. In north China, endowed with big spaces, siheyuan was spacious. In South China, in a softer climate, there were fewer vacant grounds, and siheyuan was generally more restricted. It was not rare to see structures within two floors which ensured more freshness due to added shadow.
On portions of the Loess Plateau in the province of Shaanxi and the South of Shanxi, the siheyuan could take the shape of a series of caves around a excavate courtyard or around troglodytic houses on the hillside.
A tulou or "earthen building", is a traditional communal residence in the Fujian province of Southern China, usually of a circular configuration surrounding a central shrine. The famous Fujian Tulou, designated as UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, is a small and specialized subgroup of tulou, and is known for its unique shape, large scale, and ingenious structure. There are more than 20,000 tulou in southern Fujian.
Another example, the bamboo houses of the Yunnan Province China have been a vernacular tradition for over 1000 years.
Beijing is famous for its siheyuans, a type of residence where a common courtyard is shared by the surrounding buildings. Among the more impressive examples are the Prince Gong Mansion and Residence of Soong Ching-ling.
In 1300 BC, Beijing was designed as an immured city, with a conception in the form of checkerboard, respecting the Chinese tradition of sky and earth worship. The pole of the North was the centre of the world and from there the Emperor faced the South any time.
The Forbidden City was built in a way that all the residences and the rooms of the Emperor were in front of the South and. all siheyuan houses were thus built in the same way.
An atmosphere of rest and harmony
The atmosphere, in which the persons rest, eat and take care of the love ones must be at the same time harmonious, sensitive, comfortable and restful; exactly the situation of a siheyuan.
The way in of the compound of houses is situated on the corner southeast. Before entering a siheyuan, one perceives the wall screen. This wall formerly guaranteed the intimacy when the big door of the main entrance was opened to welcome the visitors. To enter the siheyuan, the visitor had to by-pass the wall by the left.
The siheyuan was the small world of the family. Most of the time, there were at least three trees, among which an evergreen, and a tree with flowers, lucky wise producing edible fruits. The siheyuan also contained beautiful stones and some water. There were flowers, and very often big bowls in which goldfish with spherical eyes swam lazily. Birds in a bamboo cage suspended in a shaded place completed the scene.
The arrangement of residence is totally based on the rules of hierarchical system and aims to keep the order of family members' status.
The principal house facing the South was inhabited by the head of family because it had the best location: the hottest place in winter, as the sun was to its lowest; it also offered most freshness in summer, while rooms were shaded by the front-roofs which overhung them.
Eastern-wing house, which is believed to be superior to western-wing house, was reserved for eldest son according to the Confucian family order. Usually, the opposite house, also named reversibly-set room, is given to servants as their quarters, while under some special circumstances like a spinster-daughter, a divorced daughter or a widowed daughter-in-law who had never given birth to a son, all of them have to be ordered to live in opposite house
It is also there that the kitchen could be found; this place was used as well to lead business with the outside, so preserving the intimacy of the other buildings.
The rich families did not content themselves with a simple siheyuan and so added a second and a third one along the north-south axis, forming complexes of siheyuan. According to the extension of the family, siheyuan were added on each side of the main axis. The elderly people occupied the most northerly placed siheyuan.
By entering through the main door, the visitor turned westward, in the first siheyuan where a servant asked to the guest to sit down, while another one announced its arrival. The members of the family got then ready to receive the visitor in the suitable place and according to the appropriate manners.
Every siheyuan was separated from the following one by a door, flanked by a pair of stone lions on both sides. Sometimes, one had to reach the internal siheyuan by walking two or three steps organized to a maximum sun exposure and the Confucian ethics. The size and the greatness of the siheyuan depended on the wealth, status and the number of members of the family.
If the family possessed animals, a special space was added. In North China, this space was usually situated in the east part of the main siheyuan. The very big residences which included numerous siheyuan were finally completely immured. Inside walls, the garden of the family, the pastures, sometimes even a lake, and siheyuan inside other siheyuan.
Big or small, siheyuan guaranteed a safe and quiet environment for the whole family.