A traditional Chinese House

By Sebastien Roussillat

Let’s go through the keyhole! 

You step into a 房地产公司 (fáng dì chǎn gōng sī), a real estate company, or meet with a 中介 (zhōng jiè), a housing agent, because you plan to 买房子 (mǎi fáng zi), purchase a house. Before arriving, you looked up some 房屋信息 (fáng wū xìn xī), housing information, hoping to find the ideal 自己的家 (zì jǐ de jiā), house of your own. However, the massive amounts of information and unaffordable 房价 (fáng jià), house prices, almost drive you crazy. All you ask for is simply somewhere to call a home, either in a traditional 胡同 (hú tòng), alley, in Beijing or a 小巷 (xiǎo xiàng), by-lane, in the southern part of the country. Even a 楼房 (lóu fáng), storied building, would be acceptable.

You’ve always dreamed of living in a traditional Chinese house, that is to say, a 四合院 (sì hé yuàn), quadrangle. After a day’s work, you open the 院子的门 (yuàn zi de mén), gate to the courtyard, and shout, “我回家了” (wǒ huí jiā le), “I’m home!” You’re imagining doing the gardening in your own 院子 (yuàn zi), courtyard, or blowing bubbles  on the 露台 (lù tái), terrace. Your 猫 (māo), cat, plays on the 屋顶 (wū dǐng), roof. You sometimes dream of living in an 公寓 (gōng yù), apartment, in an 高档社区 (gāo dàng shè qū) upscale neighborhood, with 保安 (bǎo ān), security guards, and 物业 (wù yè), property management, in a big city. But the rates for 租房 (zū fáng), renting, and purchasing, put you off.  

A realtor invites you to 看房 (kàn fáng), inspect a house. You arrive in a place with a traditional 双开木门 (shuāng kāi mù mén), double wooden gate. It is a 如意门 (rú yì mén), Ruyi Gate, an ancient-style Chinese gate, frequently seen in front of the quadrangles in Beijing. Whoops! You stumble over the 门槛 (mén kǎn), threshold, because 门槛太高 (mén kǎn tài gāo), the threshold is too high. Thresholds can be found in most ancient buildings in China. A boundary between the home and outside, a threshold is seen as a partition to shut out unfavorable things while keeping one’s fortune safely inside. At the same time, it represents the dignity of the house owner. So never step on a threshold! “A high threshold” sometimes refers to a high requirement. In the past, the higher an official ranked, the higher the threshold of his house would be.

Now, you open the gate and 进院 (jìn yuàn), enter the courtyard. 一堵墙 (yì dǔ qiáng), a wall, stands right in front of you. It is called 影壁 (yǐng bì), screen wall, and is said to exorcise evil spirits. As a matter of fact, it serves to protect the owner’s privacy because in this way, there is no direct view into the residence. A screen wall functions the same as a 屏风 (píng fēng), screen, in a room.  

Standing in the courtyard, you find that you are surrounded by 房间 (fáng jiān), rooms. Chinese quadrangles are all built in the same layout that faces south. Therefore, the rooms on the north side are the 正房 (zhèng fáng), principal rooms. Those on the east and west sides are 东西厢房 (dōng xī xiāng fáng), east and west wing-rooms. The rooms facing the principal rooms are called 倒座房 (dào zuò fáng), literally, “rooms facing the rear.” In a traditional Chinese family, the 上房 (shàng fáng), the principal rooms, are often reserved for senior family members. The space in the center is used as a living room. The oldest son and the second son live in the wing rooms to the east and west sides, respectively. 后院 (hòu yuàn), the backyard, is occupied by daughters. Servants usually stay in the the rooms facing the rear. Are you lost yet? Nevertheless, the traditional layout is to your delight since you will have 自己的小院 (zì jǐ de xiǎo yuàn), your own small courtyard, and a space for a small 花园 (huā yuán), garden. It seems that the house has a favorable 朝向 (cháo xiàng), orientation, and 风水 (fēng shuǐ), a Chinese philosophical system of harmonizing people with the surrounding environment.

房梁 (fáng liáng), beams, 柱子 (zhù zi), pillars, and wood-carving 隔断 (gé duàn), partitions, can be found in the rooms. You are thinking about the arrangement of your 卧室 (wò shì), bedroom, 客厅 (kè tīng), living room, 书房 (shū fáng), study, 餐厅 (cān tīng), dining room, 洗衣间 (xǐ yī jiān), laundry room, and 客房 (kè fáng), guest room.

The quadrangle is to your satisfaction. You even envisage spending your later years here. Old-style constructions are fairly 冬暖夏凉 (dōng nuǎn xià liáng), warm in winter and cool in summer. Here you can enjoy 天伦之乐 (tiān lún zhī lè), the happiness of family reunion, 同一个屋檐下 (tóng yí ge wū yán xià), under the same roof. You will paste 对联 (duì lián), a pair of couplets, on the gate which reads 家和万事兴 (jiā hé wàn shì xīng), a peaceful family will prosper. What’s more, you dream of 四世同堂 (sì shì tóng táng), having four generations under one roof.       

All right, you like the place so much and decide to move here. After you 乔迁 (qiáo qiān), move, into your new home, you can invite over your friends by saying, “Welcome to my 寒舍 (hán shè), humble abode.” It is not a 宫殿 (gōng diàn), palace, neither does it boast the 七进院落 (qī jìn yuàn luò), seven-courtyard compound, of a 王府 (wáng fǔ), imperial mansion. But it is an ideal residence – 庭院深深 (tíng yuàn shēn shēn), a serene quadrangle.