Siheyuan Chinese Courtyards
Si he yuan courtyards are the basic unit of the hutong
Si he yuan (Sìhéyuàn – 四合院) courtyards are the basic unit of the hutong and one of the most emblematic forms of traditional Chinese architecture. When wandering a hutong, look out for the huge red doors with enormous knockers and drum stones or Chinese lions on either side.
Beijing Courtyard Hotels
The basic Siheyuan Courtyard
A siheyuan consists of an enclosed inward looking rectangular compound with just one entrance at the South East, and windows facing in towards the courtyard rather than out towards the street.
The buildings are single storey and topped with grey roof-tiles, and so tightly packed that no structure ever shows itself fully – instead the beauty of a siheyuan is in the whole, the way it all fits together. All could be seen as a perfect reflection of traditional Chinese ways of thinking.
Lao wai living next door
Foreigners have been attracted to siheyuan residences ever since Deng Xiaoping re-opened the gates of China. Most choose to extensively refurbish their authentic Chinese residence before they move in though, since many siheyuan were built without their own toilet.
Instead, the owners used a communal hutong toilet, which is not usually a very pleasant experience. Nowadays everyone’s in on the act with everyone from President George Bush Senior to Rupert Murdoch buying up Beijing city-centre land and building themselves palatial courtyard homes.
If you don’t have Bush or Murdoch’s financial might, a courtyard hotel can be a good way to experience the charm of a Beijing siheyuan.
Structure of the traditional courtyard home
The traditional siheyuan has two courtyards – a long narrow outer courtyard to the South, around which are guest rooms, studies, servants’ quarters, kitchens, possibly a toilet, and the exit to the street. An ornate gate leads to the larger, square inner courtyard , the centre of family life, a quiet, sociable place with trees and plants.
Rooms around the courtyard are allocated to family members according to status, with the most prestigious rooms being the large, bright, South facing rooms to the North of the courtyard.
The largest room, directly to the North of the courtyard, may be used for distinguished guests and family ceremonies, perhaps reflecting the Chinese emphasis on the importance of the family at the whole, negating even the comfort of the head of the household.
Larger siheyuan may have several different courtyards and even a private garden at the rear. Originally one siheyuan was designed to house several generations of the same family, however over time the constraints of space and money have led some families to opt to share one siheyuan between one or more families.
Each family then added its own extensions and outhouses within the compound, resulting in many of today’s siheyuan not really resembling siheyuan at all any more.
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What to see and do around Beijing
Wonder at the Great Wall, be awed by the magnificent Forbidden City, drink in the scenery from a boat on the Summer Palace’s Kunming Lake.