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Beijing Siheyuan, The Heavenly Style House

Siheyuan, Beijing’s characteristic architectural design, is gradually becoming a historic relic.

When we hear others talking about Siheyuan, we think of the heart and soul of Beijing. So what is Siheyuan? "Si," in Chinese, means the four-sides: North, South, East, and West. "he," directly translated into English means unity. And "yuan" means courtyard. The Beijing Siheyuans are homes that consist of a four-sided wall with an enclosed courtyard in the center. This courtyard is surrounded by buildings that are generally one story high.

This ancient style of Chinese architecture, which dates back 800 years, has been around for centuries. Beijing Siheyuans are so popular because of their originality and honorable reputation. This unique construction style has been used in building not only various temples and royal palaces but also many ordinary residential homes. Its designs are typically rectangles with the four sides facing the cardinal points. The classical roofs, decorated corridors, and old pomegranate trees exist in an atmosphere of grace, tranquility, and elegance that truly captures the hearts of visitors. From the outside, onlookers are able to see only one side of one building; however, once you walk through the courtyard gates, you enter a completely different world. Because the courtyard is very spacious, trees, flowers, and stone sculptures are placed to add to the serenity of the Siheyuan. Some dwelling compounds are built in the absence of steel and concrete and rely solely on the strength of bricks and wood. An architect in Beijing once said, "The design, layout and material reflect the ancient philosophy of harmony between human and heaven."

Traditionally, the head of the family would reside in the main house which is positioned to the North. Mini bridges and/or halls connect the four buildings. The rooms of the buildings adjoining the main house are referred to as the "side houses" and were the living quarters of the younger generations or less important members of the family. The gate to the courtyard is at the southeastern corner. A screen wall prohibits outsiders from seeing directly into the courtyard and also serves to protect the house from evil spirits. Outside the gate of some large Siheyuans, it is common to find a pair of stone lions. In the past, the lions were symbols of prosperity. In fact, a prince’s palace, in ancient times, was actually a combination of Siheyuan courtyards, with one lying behind another. There were only a few differences between a prince’s palace and an emperor’s palace. The buildings of the emperor’s palace were greater in number, height, and size. Additionally, dragon head patterns were not allowed on a prince’s palace.

Today, most of the Siheyuans have disappeared due to two major waves of demolition. One happened after the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949 and peaked during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). At the time, traditional culture was labeled as "feudal superstition." Mao Zedong, the former communist leader, enforced the "total elimination of influences from traditional values and old ideas." Many complexes composed of Siheyuans, together with other traditional Chinese cultural treasures including paintings, writings, plays, and books, were indiscriminately destroyed.{mospagebreak}

The second wave happened after China was open to the world for economic reform since the 1980s. The old structures have been giving way to modern high-rise buildings. Particularly in recent years, as the real estate market becomes a hot commodity, builders backed by corrupt officials seek profit with little consideration of cultural preservation. Subsequently, many new buildings have been constructed in Beijing at the sacrifice of old historic relics. Despite the outcries of many historians and environmental activists, little has been done to reverse the trend. According to Beijing’s Municipal Government statistics, an original 17 million square meters (20.3 million square yards) of Siheyuan buildings from the early 1950s, has shrunk to a striking 3 million square meters (3.6 million square yards) as of today.

The modern Beijing is looking more and more like an industrial metropolis than a historic center that symbolizes the tradition and wisdom of 5,000 years of civilization. Strict policies and regulations will have to be implemented to preserve the remaining cultural relics of Beijing and enable the Siheyuans to be a heritage of beauty for future generations.