Written by Sally Guo Updated Mar. 15, 2023

The history of Beijing siheyuan can trace history back to more than 800 years ago when Beijing established its capital status. As a kind of traditional Chinese historical object, Siheyuan represents the capital's architectural style.

Siheyuan Layout

Siheyuan is an asymmetrical and closed rectangular space with a courtyard in the center.

It is surrounded by four houses: the main room (generally facing south), the opposite room, the East chamber, and the west chamber.

According to Feng Shui, a courtyard is ideal for a family to live in because it protects them from exterior intrusion.

In ancient China, Siheyuan courtyards were made for residences, palaces, temples, monasteries, and government offices. There are very simple courtyards and very elaborate ones.

The layout of the Shiheyuan is according to the principle of optimizing daylight and providing protection against the north winds. These rules match the location of Chinese houses.

The Confucian code is based on a cosmic order and a hierarchical society that dates back to about 500 BC. It has always been a fundamental characteristic of the Chinese people.

The Chinese dwelling, the center of the family, and the living space were all built according to the Confucian plan.

The courtyard is an external space, it can avoid noise and dust on the street, and also can prevent intruders. It provides complete privacy, reflecting the Chinese people's sense of private life.

They always put family problems within the family and do business with reliable partners.

Siheyuan in northern China
Siheyuan in northern China

History of Shiheyuan

According to records, even in the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC), houses were built around the courtyard.

Most of China's ethnic minorities build houses with a courtyard in the center. The layout of the houses is quite different.

It's according to the climate, terrain, and ancestors' traditions in different regions of China, The layout of the houses can vary. This can be made of a variety of materials, one or two floors, with windows or different doors.

But one thing remains the same: the courtyard is in the center while the house around it.

In northern China, because of the large space, the courtyard is very spacious.

In southern China, the climate is mild with few open spaces, so quadrangles are generally restricted. The structure within two layers is not common, because the shadow is added, it ensures more freshness.

A corner of Siheyuan

On the Loess Plateau in Shaanxi Province and south of Shanxi, the Siheyuan could take the shape of a series of caves around an excavated courtyard on the hillside.

Tulou, or "Earthen Building", is a traditional folk house in the Fujian province of Southern China. It's usually arranged in a circular shape around the central shrine.

The famous Fujian Tulou was listed as a world cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2008. It is a small and specialized subgroup of Tulou, which is famous for its unique shape, large scale, and ingenious structure. There are more than 20000 earth buildings in Southern Fujian.

Another example is the bamboo house in Yunnan Province, which has a local tradition of more than 1000 years.

Beijing Siheyuan Courtyard

Beijing is famous for its Siheyuans, a residential type in which the surrounding buildings share a courtyard. Impressive examples include the Prince Gong Mansion and the Residence of Soong Ching-ling.

In 1300 B.C., Beijing was designed as an immured city. It is with a conception in the form of the checkerboard, respecting the Chinese tradition of sky and earth worship. The pole of the North was the center of the world and from there the Emperor faced the South at any time.

The Forbidden City was built in such a way that all the emperor's residences and rooms were in front of the south. All Siheyuan houses were thus built in the same way.

Siheyuan in Beijing
Siheyuan in northern Beijing

The Atmosphere of Beijing Siheyuan

The atmosphere where people rest, eat and take care of their loved ones must be harmonious, sensitive, comfortable, and tranquil. This is exactly the situation of a Siheyuan.

The access road of Siheyuan locates in the southeast corner.

Before entering the courtyard, people will see the screen on the wall. This wall used to be a guarantee of intimacy when the door opened in front of the gate. To enter the courtyard, you have to pass the wall on the left.

The Arrangement of Beijing Siheyuan

Siheyuan is the small world of a family. Most of the time, there are at least three trees. One of them is evergreen, one with flowers, and one that can bear fruit.

There are also beautiful stones and some water in the courtyard. There are flowers and often big bowls in which goldfish with spherical eyes swim lazily. Birds in a bamboo cage suspended in a shaded place completed the scene.

The housing arrangement is based on the hierarchy. The purpose is to maintain the order of the status of family members.

The principal house facing the South was inhabited by the head of the family because it had the best location. The hottest place in winter, as the sun was to its lowest. It also offered the coolest in summer, while rooms were shaded by the front roofs which overhung them.

It is believed that the East wing is higher than the West wing. According to Confucian family rules, the East wing was reserved for the eldest son.

Usually, the opposite side of the house was for the servants to live in. In some special cases, some women were ordered to live here. E.g., an unmarried daughter, a divorced daughter, or a widowed daughter-in-law who had never given birth to a son.

The kitchen is also there. This area is also used for doing business with the outside world, thus maintaining the intimacy of the other buildings.

The rich families did not content themselves with a simple Siheyuan. They added a second and a third one along the north-south axis, forming complexes of Siheyuan.

According to the extension of the family, a Siheyuan was added on each side of the main axis. The old people occupied the northernmost part of the quadrangle.

By entering through the main door, the visitor turned westward. In the first Siheyuan, a servant asked the guest to sit down. While another one announced his arrival. The family members then prepare to receive the visitors in the appropriate place and the appropriate manner.

Every Siheyuan was separated from the next one by a door with a pair of stone lions on either side of the door.

Sometimes, one had to reach the internal Siheyuan by walking two or three steps. It's organized to most sun exposure and Confucian ethics. The size and the greatness of the Siheyuan depended on wealth, status, and the number of family members.

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 many Siheyuans were finally completely immured. Inside walls, the garden of the family, the pastures, sometimes even a lake, and siheyuan inside another Siheyuan.

Big or small, Siheyuan guaranteed a safe and quiet environment for the whole family.

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