Siheyuan, literally meaning quadrangle in Chinese, refers to a common traditional Chinese compound. Such compounds have a history of over 2,000 years; they date back in embryonic form to the Western Zhou Period (1045–770 BC). This kind of quadrangular compound has historically been the template for most Chinese architecture.
Nowadays, most existing siheyuan in Beijing are relics of the last two dynasties: the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911). On the one hand, they are the template and cultural symbol of Chinese traditional architecture; on the other hand, the living conditions in many siheyuan are difficult, with overcrowding and lack of private toilets.
General Layout of Siheyuan
Although there's a difference between northern and southern courtyards, their essential characteristics are almost the same. In a courtyard compound there will be an open yard, or more than one, surrounded by single-story rooms.
Siheyuan construction is always symmetrical. The main house is on the central north-south axis, and the less-important structures are positioned on the west and east sides.
Normally, a siheyuan will contain three courtyards, while smaller versions might have only one courtyard and larger versions might have as many as five courtyards. Below is the general layout of siheyuan.
- 大门：Front gate, a siheyuan only has one front gate, with scale depending on the status and wealth of its owner. Normally, a richer owner's siheyuan would have a larger front gate with more exquisite ornaments on the wooden door, and almost always protected by two stone lions. In wealthy homes, there would even be a gatekeeper's room next to the gate.
- 影壁：A spirit screen, also called a spirit wall, is a shield construction that can be either positioned on the outside or the inside of the gate in traditional Chinese architecture. Its function is to protect the front gate.
- 倒座房：A reverse-facing room, beside the front gate. Since the reverse-facing rooms faced north, with poor lighting, they usually served as servants' rooms.
- 二门/垂花门：Ermen/Chuihuamen, literally meaning second gate or flower-hung gate in Chinese. This is an inner gate separating the first from the second courtyard. Across from the Ermen are the private quarters of a family. The decorations on the Chuihuamen usually indicate the status of the family head.
- 厢房：Xiangfang are also called side houses. The Chinese traditionally thought that the eastern xiangfang were better than the western xiangfang in respect of fengshui (invisible forces). The eastern xiangfang are usually used as married sons' accommodation. Western xiangfang are usually unmarried daughters' rooms or kitchens.
- 正房：The main house of the siheyuan is normally positioned along the north-south and west-east axes. The house faces south and is regarded as the best house in a siheyuan complex, since it has shelter from the wind and also has good lighting. It usually served as elders' accommodation.
- 耳房：Erfang, literally meaning ears' rooms. They are so called because the two rooms on either side of the main house are like ears. Erfang were used as children's or servants' quarters, and storage or cooking rooms.
- 后罩房：Houzhaofang only exist in those siheyuan with more than three courtyards. Since the houzhaofang are located at the back of the siheyuan and have private space, they are usually used as unmarried daughters' or female servants' rooms.
Famous Siheyuan in China
Though siheyuan have undergone various developments with time, they all have much in common. Below are two typical and famous siheyuan compounds in China.
1. Wang Family Grand Courtyard – the Epitome of the Qing-Dynasty Style Dwelling
The Wang Family Courtyard, located in Jingsheng town, 140 km from Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province, is one of the most outstanding representative dwellings in China.
This ancient private courtyard was built by wealthy Shanxi merchants, the Wang family, over the course of 300-plus years since the mid-17 th century.
Covering a total area of 250 thousand square meters, this cluster of courtyards and castles has altogether 123 courtyards and 1,118 houses.
Three parts of the complex have been opened to the public so far: Gaojiaya Castle, Red Gate Fort and Wang Clan Ancestral Temple.
2. Qiao Family Grand Courtyard – a Traditional Qing Dynasty Mansion
The Qiao Family Grand Courtyard also belonged to a Shanxi merchant during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
Surrounded by fully enclosed green brick walls over 10 meters high, this well-restored siheyuan compound comprises 6 major courtyards, 20 smaller courtyards and 313 rooms. It's a historical folk dwelling, in traditional northern Chinese style.
Visiting Siheyuan with China Highlights
A half-day hutong walking tour is the best way to explore the Chinese siheyuan in a hutong environment, and is customizable for visiting courtyard residences of your choice.