Pre-modern Chinese homes held much in common among both rich and poor Chinese people; they used similar techniques, such as foundations of pounded earth, timber framing and brick and tile facades. Though there are regional variations--China is a very big country, after all--and few houses from ancient China remain, scholars have isolated basic principles of traditional Chinese architecture. These centuries-old principles include emphasising the orientation of the house, the layout of rooms, and the importance of symmetry.
Chinese house design requires that the front of the house faces south. This tradition stretches far back in time, as archaeologists have found evidence of many rectangular houses with a door facing south from the Neolithic era in China.
The oldest Chinese houses that are still extant date from the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644 C.E.) also tend to face south, as do later houses. The north-south orientation of Chinese houses, outside of issues related to sunlight, probably had much to do with wind direction (colder winds generally blow in from the north).
The importance of orientation eventually developed into the Chinese architectural theory known as feng shui. Feng shui literally means "wind and water" and its concepts dictated the placement of rooms dedicated to certain activities, as well as the types of materials used in buildings. Designing a house according to feng shui concepts was thought to direct beneficial energy to the household.
Foundation and Roofs
Most Chinese houses had pounded earth foundations. Builders pounded dirt and soil into the shape of a foundation or into bricks. Earth was also used for the walls in areas where wood was rare.
Traditional Chinese houses had roofs made of clay tile. However poorer households in certain areas made roofs of thatch and bamboo.
In areas with enough wood to make its use affordable, builders used wood to frame house walls and provide roof support. The wood framing system was standardised during the Ming dynasty, and while ordinary people could often do much of the rest of their house construction, they often had to hire experts to construct the framing.
In the study of traditional Chinese house architecture, the consideration of wood framing is important. In Chinese architectural theory, the basic building block of a building is "the space between," or the bay; that is, the space defined by the vertical posts that support the roof.
All Chinese houses have an odd number of bays, as an even number is considered unlucky (three or five bays are quite common).
A common variation of the bay system is the courtyard house, with a set of buildings framing an interior courtyard--these were particularly popular among richer households. Courtyard houses are fully enclosed, without windows on the outside walls, and only one entrance to the outside world.
Such courtyard designs provided privacy for the family and some security from burglary. Mainly, however, the courtyard houses defined a sharp distinction from the inner family life and the outer world. The home became a sanctuary for its inhabitants, a space where women could walk freely and men could get some rest from the hustle and bustle of the world outside.
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