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Cave Dwellings (Yaodong)

dwelling cave

Dwelling caves are very common in the Loess Plateau in north-west China, and are actually homes to millions of people. By creatively making full use of the plateaus, the intelligent people of the present Shaanxi, Gansu and Ningxia provinces have built dwelling caves since ancient times, and these dwelling caves are among the key features of north-west China.

The basic desire of farmers in north-west China was to dig a dwelling cave, so that they could get married and raise a family, and the women were supposed to manage household affairs and bring up their children in the cave.

History of the Dwelling Caves

The dwelling caves are a famous name card of the north Shaanxi area (geographically referring to the area south of the Great Wall, west of Yellow River, east of the Ziwuling Peaks and north of the Qiaoshan Mountains), with a long history of over 4,000 years.

Two ancient stone cities, built in the late Neolithic Age, were discovered successively by archaeologists in Wubao County of Shaanxi Province in 2004, where over 70 dwelling-cave-style remains have been found.

According to archaeological findings, the dwelling caves of the north Shaanxi area were semi-subterranean caves in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC-221 BC), which evolved into subterranean caves in the Qin (221 BC-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-23 AD) dynasties. Stones were used to build the facades of dwelling caves in the middle period of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Stone-structured dwelling caves were built, modeled on the earthen dwelling caves, in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The dwelling caves have become more and more comfortable to live in now owing to new modern facilities which have been added to them.

Classification of the Dwelling Caves

Dwelling caves are divided into three types: cliffside caves, sunken caves and detached caves. A cliffside cave is excavated out of the side of a cliff and more often than not faces south; a sunken cave is actually a large sunken courtyard that’s as large as 100 square meters; a detached cave is an earth sheltered building.

Characteristics of the Dwelling Caves

The dwelling caves are cool in summer and warm in winter. A traditional dwelling cave is square-shaped with an arch on the facade, which not only symbolizes the idea of a circular heaven and square earth, but its large arch-shaped window allows sunshine to pour in, making it very cozy to live in.

Geographical Distribution of the Dwelling Caves

dwelling cave

Dwelling caves are widely distributed in China, ranging from Xinjiang Province (Turpan and Kashkar) to Gansu Province (Lanzhou, Dunhuang, Pingliang, Qingyang and Gannan) to Ningxia Province (Yinchuan and Guyuan) to Shaanxi Province (Qian County and Yan’an) to Shanxi Province (Linfen, Fushan, Pinglu and Taiyuan) to Henan Province (Zhengzhou and Luoyang) to Fujian Province (Longyan and Yongding) and to Guangdong Province (Mei County), with Shaanxi dwelling caves being the most famous in China.

Shaanxi dwelling caves are built along the vast Loess Plateau, which is characterized by its beauty and energy-saving attributes. According to the preliminary statistics, the number of dwelling caves in China has reached over 110 million from 1949 to now, many of which collapse each year owing to exposure to floods and mudslides.

Dwelling Cave Culture

Qingyang is the cradle of the Chinese farming culture; it is located in the east of Gansu Province with a moderate climate, and it’s also where the dwelling caves originated. After thousands of years, the dwelling caves still stand silently in the vast land of China, witnessing the development of China’s farming culture.

The primitive men used to live in the natural caves that were dark and humid, which were very bad for their health, and they were often attacked by wild beasts. The people of the Zhou Dynasty dug caves out of the mountains to live in, which provided shelter for them and protected them from wild beasts, and the ancient people began to settle down. As great progress was made in agriculture, the dwelling caves served as homes for the ancient people who later created a prosperous farming culture in the history of China.