JIANGNAN or regions south of the Yangtze River’s lower reaches, is an area with green hills and limpid waters. It has long been the epitome of natural beauty and fertility. Waterways are the main means of transportation here as the land is divided by canals into a checkerboard. Under these natural conditions, locals designed and built their houses in a unique way, the design of which gave rise to the Suzhou traditional folk house architectural style. The houses are usually not wide and have a deep interior. The layout and scale of each house varies, depending on the wealth of its owner. When seen from a distance, the cluster of houses presents an irregular beauty densely decorating the small areas of land in the region.
Suzhou traditional folk houses are an integral part of Chinese waterside architecture and exhibit traditional Chinese architectural culture with their flexible layout integrating people and nature.
From the perspective of scale, Suzhou folk houses are mainly divided into large, medium, and small, among which the small ones are prevelent. These small houses make up architectural settlements in the form of neighborhoods. Due to the small distance between a street and a river, the folk houses typically have streets and lanes in front and rivers at the back. When the land area between the street and the river is wider, the houses are larger.
Suzhou folk houses are mostly enclosed into small courtyards in the form of patios, with one courtyard as the basic unit. Although the scale of ordinary folk houses is small and the buildings are low, great importance is attached to their practicality with flexible and diverse layouts, including rectangles, quadrangles, and curved. Among them, the rectangular houses are the most common, generally consisting of a patio, a front section with a gate, a rear main room, and wing rooms. However, large folk houses are mostly composed of several or dozens of courtyards, which are usually arranged in a neat manner according to the central, east, and west axis.
People attach great importance to privacy during the construction. Screen doors are often set on the central axis, blocking the view of passersby when the entrance gate is opened.
In addition, lighting and ventilation are also an important consideration. Most of the daylight enters through the courtyard or the patio. Some houses even leave a narrow space between the rooms and the rear wall for more light to come in. In each hall and each room, a long window, which can be easily disassembled, is installed. When it is open, fresh air can come in and when it is closed, the daylight still shines in. In order to provide shade and keep the rain out, big eaves, overhanging gable roofs, and extended roofs on gable walls are used in large numbers. Due to the climate, there is a large amount of precipitation here, and a circle of deep gutters around the patio drains away the rainwater in the courtyard.
Ancient streets and slate lanes are well preserved in the ancient town of Shaxi in Suzhou City of Jiangsu Province.
Architectural aesthetics are an important consideration in folk houses with wood as the main building material. The wood is easy to carve into auspicious patterns to express the good wishes of the owner. All kinds of wooden artifacts can be found in the interior of houses, including trellises, wall panels, furniture, hanging screens, plaques, and couplets.
The exterior of the walls is painted white; while most of the wood structure retains its natural color and some of the columns are painted black; doors and windows are painted light brown or claret red. These colors, together with the gray roofs, create a simple yet vibrant appearance. Many observers have said that the unevenly located folk dwellings in their exquisite layouts and elegant colors, connected with various walls, present an idyllic picture.
The courtyard is the most frequently used space for daily living, and is an extension of the hallway and study. The owner and craftsman often employ poetry, calligraphy painting, arts and crafts, sculpture, or other means to connect the courtyard with the hall, and through arrangements of stones, trees, flowers or water create a poetic scene inside the house.
Because of Suzhou’s thriving commerce, it was once a rich city. Many local residents are engaged in businesses and handcraft production at home, so the folk houses have the dual functions of both a residence and a shop or workshop. Generally, they take the form of “front shop and back house” or “lower shop and upper house.” The front rooms are used as the shop, and the riverfront rooms as the kitchen, the bathroom or a warehouse, while the middle rooms are the living space and bedrooms.
The ancient Shantang Street of Suzhou City, built along the ancient Shantang Canal, dates back to the Tang Dynasty.
As an important branch of traditional Chinese folk houses, Suzhou folk houses also strictly follow the traditional Chinese family concept in designs and the spatial layout. They pay attention to the patriarchal system and the Confucian concept of order, rank, and proper distance.
The houses are not only for residential purposes, but also provide a living environment full of cultural and artistic atmosphere. The image and connotation expressed by the design, structure, decoration and layout of the houses reflect their profound historical and cultural connotations.
GUO ZHIDONG is a research fellow on traditional Chinese culture with the No. 93 Courtyard Museum.