|When people happen to talk about the differences in culture between China and the Western world, those differences in architectural styles that are conspicuous will undoubtedly protrude into their attention. If during the Olympic Games you can spare some time to make a sightseeing tour around the city of Beijing architectural structure, then the characteristic features of civilian residential housing in the northern part of China will certainly intrigue you.
The overall characteristic of civilian residential housing in the northern part of China is that it takes the courtyard (or patio) as the nucleus and, on the principle of having the exterior substantially built and the interior made enormous in vacant space, deploys the houses used for various purposes in an orderly pattern symmetrically on the two sides of a longitudinal axis. Of this type of architectural construction, the quadrangles of Beijing are the highest in technical level and most typical in architectural design. They are the excellent representative of the civilian residential housing of the Han nationality of China.
The quadrangle has a quite long history in China. On the basis of analysis of extant data about cultural relics, architectural structures of the quadrangle type appeared in China even earlier than two thousand years ago.
In the course of historical development, Chinese people grew more and more fond of the quadrangle as a form of architecture. Not only did palaces, temples and government offices use quadrangles architectural structure, but the houses of common people also gradually came to adopt this form of architectural structure extensively.
Why is the term ¡°quadrangle¡± employed to name this type of building? Because this type of civilian dwelling has a principal house (the northern house, facing south), an opposite house (facing north), an eastern-wing house and a western-wing house. The four houses surround a courtyard, forming altogether a rectangle with an empty center.
Furthermore, the term ¡°quadrangle¡± does not simply means, as in America, a rectangular area surrounded on four sides by buildings. The Chinese term has additionally the connotation that the structure is enclosed from four sides. Thus this type of architectural construction has four houses which, generally speaking, have windows that open only towards the courtyard in the center. It may be considered a hermetic dwelling place, which has only one exit, that is, by the street door. While that door is shut up, the dwelling is a small cosmos by itself, with very strict privacy and confidentiality, highly suitable for one family to live in. The dwellers in the four houses can communicate with each other through the doors that all open only towards the courtyard. Protected from intrusion by strangers, the whole family live inside in harmony and happiness, filled with a sense of safety. This advantage is of course common to civilian housing of this type everywhere in China. Why do people naturally think of the quadrangles of Beijing whenever mention is made of this type of dwelling house in general?
The reason is not far to seek. Quadrangles of Beijing architectural structure, being highly regular and systematic in patterns of construction, are remarkable for their typicality. Of all the quadrangles in China those of Beijing are representative of the salient features. The four houses of a Beijing quadrangle facing east, west, south and north respectively are independent of each other. The eastern- and western-wing houses are not connected architecturally with the principal house and the opposite house. What is more, all these houses are one-storied. They have no upper floors. They are connected with each other at the corners by a verandah placed at the point where two houses join. Consequently, a bird¡¯s eye view from the sky of a quadrangle of Beijing will see it as if it were four boxes surrounding and enclosing a courtyard.
In short, a quadrangle of Beijing has a commodious courtyard with independent houses on the four sides connected by verandahs---all being conducive to the convenience of members of the household in their daily life.
For affectionate families living in it, a quadrangle of Beijing is endearing and tranquil, filled with an atmosphere of keen interest in life. The courtyard is regular in shape and wide, and the dimensions are appropriate. In it flowers are planted and pebbles placed in piles. The tree planted in it is usually Chinese flowering crab-apple, and the potted landscape is generally a display of pomegranate. Goldfish are bred in big urns as an auspice of good luck. The yard is thus an ideal space for enjoying an outdoor life in, comparable to a large living room in the open, drawing heaven and earth close to a person¡¯s heart and winning people¡¯s deepest love. Whenever a big event occurs, such as a wedding or a funeral, a temporary awning may be rigged up in it for entertaining guests. The verandahs, designed for the dwellers to spend their leisure time in, divide the courtyard into several spaces of unequal sizes, but they do not isolate or even separate the different architectural structure parts of the yard. Instead, they make for the interpenetration of the different architectural parts and thereby enrich people¡¯s imagination about the contents thereof and soften the contrast between light and shadow. The verandahs also enhance the depth of conformity of the courtyard with the requirements of the dwellers in their daily life. Here members of families can exchange ideas with each other, and the intimacy created between them plays a big role in increasing their interest in life. The regular square or oblong shape of the courtyard of a quadrangle of Beijing is designed for receiving more sunlight in winter.
In the former feudal society, a quadrangle often belonged to one wealthy family. Owing to the hierarchical sense of power that dominated people¡¯s minds in that era, the distribution of houses of the quadrangle architectural structure to family members was made in accordance with very rigid rules. In a typical quadrangle the northern house is relatively high and big. It is situated on the northern side facing south and, therefore, has sunlight all the year round. It is warm in winter and cool in summer. It is the principal house and is also called the main rooms, which are three in all. Only the central room opens outwards and is given the honorable name of hall room. The room on either side of the hall room opens only towards it---the central one. Thus the pattern formed is that of a suite which has only one room illuminated by sunlight and two other rooms perennially devoid of it.
The central room, or hall room, was for the whole family to live in, for entertaining relatives and for worshipping ancestors at the lunar new year and other festivals. The rooms on either side were used for bedrooms. Among the inner chambers, those in the principal house were prominent in position and should be reserved for the older generation---the old squire and his madame---or for father and mother to live in. The favorite young daughter might live in the side room, which was to be her boudoir.
The eastern- and western-wing houses were inhabited by the younger generation. The wing house has likewise only one room illuminated by sunlight and two devoid of it. The central room was used as the living room. The two rooms on either side were bedrooms. Under the polygynous system of that era the bedrooms were also subject to hierarchical control. The bedroom on the east side was considered to be superior in rank and should be assigned to the wife, while the one on the west side was deemed to be inferior and so should be given to the concubine for her to live in.
The western-wing house has three rooms. It receives sunlight in the morning and is not exposed to the sun in the afternoon. It is not battered by the northwestern wind in winter. Therefore, it was assigned to the eldest son or eldest grandson for him to dwell in.
For a family which was comparatively small, this place might serve as studies or guestchambers. The eastern-wing house also has three rooms. But it is exposed to the sun in the afternoon and is battered by the northwestern wind. They were, therefore, in the hierarchical society, given to the second son or to a daughter.
The southern house, called also the opposite house, has no sunlight all the year round and suffers from the harsh northwestern wind. It was called the servant¡¯s lodgings in the past. They were given to servants as their quarters. However, a spinster-daughter, a divorced daughter, or a widowed daughter-in-law who had never given birth to a son might also be ordered to live in this house and treated as a servant who did not draw pay.
In a quadrangle, doors and windows on one side face precisely their counterparts on the other side, so that the sound of laughing and crying can be transmitted without any hindrance and heard on both sides. Life in such an environment can be compared to a most intimate family taking dinner around a square table in a harmonious atmosphere. But, if there should be a hierarchical concept prevailing among people living in the quadrangle, they would be conscious of the rigid difference in rank and status, which would be a powerful divisive influence among them. There would not be an amiable companionship in the true sense of the word. The family members, especially those in the lower orders of the hierarchy, would feel that they were living under other members¡¯ constant surveillance.
That the quadrangles of Beijing could have existed for several hundred years in the history of China is due to the advantage they have which no other types of residential architecture could hope to equally possess. Today, however, with the acceleration of the pace of urban modernization and the springing up of high buildings in a rash, people, particularly those with a history of residence in Beijing that goes back several generations, will look at the quadrangles with a clinging love which they may cherish for ever.