North China’s courtyard houses are outstanding representatives of traditional residences of China’s Han people. Beijing’s Siheyuan (courtyard with houses on four sides), at the highest level and most typical specimen of its kind, boasts a long history. According historical discovery analyses, the Siheyuan residence appeared more than 2,000 years ago.
The residence is situated in the north of the compound and faces south, mostly consisting of inner and outer yards. The outer yard is horizontal and long with a main door that opens to the southeast corner, maintaining the privacy of the residence. Through the main door to the west in the outer yard are guest rooms, servants’ room, a kitchen and toilet. North of the outer yard, through an exquisitely shaped, floral-pendant gate, is the spacious square main yard. The principal room in the north is the largest, erected with tablets of “heaven, earth, the monarch, kinsfolk and teacher,” and intended for family ceremonies and receiving distinguished guests. The left and right sides of the principal room are linked to aisles that were inhabited by family elders. In front of the aisle is a small, quiet corner yard often used as a study. Both sides of the main yard have a wing room that served as a living room for younger generations. Both the principal room and wing rooms face the yards, which have front porches. Verandahs link the floral-pendant gate and the three houses, where one can walk or sit to enjoy the flowers and trees in the courtyard. Sometimes, behind the principal room, there is a long row of “Hou Zhao Fang (back-illuminated rooms) that served as either a living room or utility room.
Beijing’s Siheyuan is cordial and quiet, with a strong flavor of life. The courtyard is square, vast and of a suitable size. It contains flowers and is set up with rocks, providing an ideal space for outdoor life. Such elements make the courtyard seem like an open-air, large living room, drawing heaven and earth closer to people’s hearts; this is why the courtyard was most favored by them. The verandah divides the courtyard into several big and small spaces that are not very distant from each other. These spaces penetrate one another, setting off the void and the solids, and the contrast of shadows. The divisions also make the courtyard more suited to the standards of daily life. Family members exchanged their views here, which created a cordial temperament and an interesting atmosphere.
In fact, the centripetal and cohesive atmosphere of Beijing’s Siheyuan, with its strict rules and forms, is a typical expression of the character of most Chinese residences. The courtyard’s pattern of being closed to the outside and open to the inside can be regarded as a wise integration of two kinds of contradictory psychologies: On one hand the self-sufficient feudal families needed to maintain a certain separation from the outside world; on the other, the psychology, deeply rooted in the mode of agricultural production, makes the Chinese particularly keen on getting closer to nature. They often want to see the heaven, earth, flowers, grass and trees in their own homes.
Certain appropriately sized square courtyards of Beijing’s Siheyuan help absorb sunshine in the wintertime. In areas south of Beijing, where the setting sun in the summer is quite strong, the courtyards have become narrow and long on the north-south side to reduce the amount of sunshine.
The unparalleled advantages of the Beijing Siheyuan ensured its existence for many years throughout history. This creation left behind by ancient working people is a precious historical treasure.