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Courtyards - Confucian or What?
lean on the southern window and let my pride expand

I consider how easy it is to be content with a small space

Everyday I stroll in my garden for pleasure...

And walk round my lonely pine tree, stroking it.

---Tao Yuanming, 4th century AD

When you hear the term 'courtyard', do you imagine yourself inside one?

A courtyard is a space enclosed by walls, a yard surrounded by buildings, an enclosed quadrangle area. In China a courtyard is called a siheyuan, meaning a yard surrounded by four buildings. Throughout Chinese history, the siheyuan composition was the basic pattern used for residences, palaces, temples, monasteries, family businesses and government offices. There were simple courtyards and there were courtyard villas.

Here I am in a courtyard. The sun is streaming down on me. I can tell the time of day by looking at which side of my courtyard is casting shadows on the cobblestone under my feet. I can wake in the morning and come out the door of the master house knowing that the sun will warm my face. I can store my food in the east part of the west house knowing that location will always be the coolest. I can move my sleeping mat to the east or to the west knowing where will be most comfortable. I know where to put my flower pots and where the birds will nest. How do I know all this? My courtyard was built according to the principles maximizing sun exposure while providing protection from cold north winds, according to the ancient Chinese rules for house placement.

The Confucian code, based on cosmic order and the hierarchy of superior and inferior relationships, dates from about 500 BC and has remained a basic ingredient of the Chinese family and society to this day. The Chinese home, meaning the family and the living space, was established according to the Confucian code.

The courtyard was an outside space protected from the noise and dust of the street, protected also from intruders and unwelcome visitors. Courtyards provided total privacy. The inward-looking Chinese kept family matters within the family courtyard, did business with trusted friends, and lived a private lifestyle. Sooty grey, undecorated exteriors told little about the inner beauty and life within the courtyard.

The family elders are housed in quarters at the rear of the courtyard, in a south facing house. The eldest sons with their wives are in houses on the sides of the courtyard, with servants and children located in the north facing building nearest the main gate to the courtyard.

Records show that even during the Shang Dynasty (approximately 1700-1100 BC) homes were built around courtyards. Among the dozens of China's minorities, most design their homes around a courtyard. Depending on the climate and the topography of different areas of China, and according to tribal traditions, the actual design of the home may look very different. It may be constructed of different materials, be one storey or two storeys, have different window and door arrangement. But one thing that is almost constant is that it is built around a courtyard. In northern China where the land was plentiful, the courtyards were comparatively large. In the southern warmer climates, the available land was less and so the courtyards were normally very small. Often you would see two storey courtyard housing; the two storey style was cooler, because the shadows cast were longer. In areas of loess and clay such as Shaanxi and southern Shanxi, the courtyard housing might be a series of caves around a dugout yard, or caves in the side of the hill with buildings on the other three sides of the courtyard. In Fujian you find round earthen towers, in Yunnan bamboo houses on stilts and so on. All are built around a courtyard.

Dating from 1300AD, Beijing was designed as a walled city set out like a checkerboard, according to the Chinese worship of heaven and earth. Polar north was the center of the world and from there the emperor faced south at all times. The Forbidden City was laid out so that all of the emperor's halls and dwellings faced south. And so local courtyard houses were built in a similar manner.

Now follow me through a courtyard and see this charming way of designing a living space. Harmonious, sensitive, comfortable and calming, the atmosphere in which one rests, eats and loves should be all of these things. And such is the atmosphere in a courtyard.

The entrance to the housing complex was in the southeast corner. Before entering the courtyard, one encountered a 'screen wall.' This screen wall ensured privacy inside when the large main door to the courtyard was opened to admit visitors. To enter the courtyard, one had to turn left at the screen wall. The courtyard was the private world of the family. Most often there were at least two trees in the courtyard, one an evergreen and another that certainly flowered and with luck produced edible fruit. The courtyard would contain beautiful rock or stone and water. There were flowers, and most often a large stone pot with frilly, googly-eyed goldfish swimming lazily inside. Singing birds in a bamboo cage hanging in a shady perfumed tree completed the scene.

Generally the building to the north that faced south was called the master building because it had the best position, warmest in the winter when the sun was low in the sky, and coolest in the summer when the sun was high and the rooms shaded by the overhanging eaves. This choice location was therefore used by the head of the household, or by family elders. Houses to the east and west of the courtyard, called side buildings, were used by sons and daughters according to the Confucian family order. The southern building, which faced north, was for the servants and children. The kitchen and washroom were located here. It also served sometimes as a place where outside business was conducted, preserving the other buildings as truly private places.

Wealthy families were not satisfied with a simple courtyard and would add a second and a third courtyard along the north-south axis, forming courtyard complexes. As the family grew, courtyards would also be added on both sides of the main axis. Again, according to Confucian order the elders would be in the northernmost courtyard. As you entered the main gate in the southeast, turned west into the first courtyard, the servant would ask you to sit while another would announce your arrival. The family member would make ready to receive you in the appropriate place and manner. Each courtyard would be separated from the next with a central gate complete with a pair of stone lions on either side of the doorway. In some courtyard complexes the inner courtyards would be higher by 2, 3 or 4 steps, in consideration of maximum sun exposure on the one hand, and Confucian ethics on the other. Overall courtyard size and decoration depended on the wealth, status and size of the family.

If the family owned animals, then they would add a stable area. In northern China this was most often on the eastern side of the main courtyard and so formed another courtyard within the complex. Very large homes or villas that included many courtyards would finally be entirely enclosed by a boundary wall. Inside the boundary wall might be the family garden, pastures, perhaps a lake, and courtyards within courtyards within courtyards.

Whether large or small, courtyard housing provided a safe and quiet living environment for the family.

Now come back to my gentle courtyard. Have a seat under a flowering date tree. Let me serve you jasmine tea in a porcelain cup. Listen to the breeze as it whispers through the pine...

And so I have made my home here,

building rooms, scooping out ponds.

Tall willows shine in their surfaces,

fragrant spiny orange planted for my hedge;

playful fish leap and lash the water,

lotus blossoms reach out and unfurl.

Bamboo thickets, dense and shady....P'an Yueh

In my courtyard I can "retreat from the web of the world's dust back to nature". I can only see the distant mountaintops, the clouds, the sun, the moon above the tiled roof of my courtyard buildings. My courtyard is my own small space. It is here to my own small space that I bring my dear heart friends to sit and smile at life.

(China Today January 14, 2003)

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