Chinese Vernacular Architecture: Northwestern Cave Dwelling

Cave dwelling, called Yaodong in Chinese, is a residence that is attached with the earth. It is an old living form of Loess Plateau in northwest China, and one of representatives of the ancient architectural culture. The history of the cave dwellings dates back to 5,500 years ago. Even to this day, it is still in use by locals. An estimated 40 million people are still living in the cave dwellings.

Cave Dwellings

The cave dwellings are mainly distributed in central and west provinces, like Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Gansu and Ningxia, etc., where the loess is of great depth. The loess has very little seepage and a very strong vertical nature, which provides a very good precondition for the development of cave dwellings.

The cave dwellings do not have the typical form or outline found in ordinary buildings. They are rough, unsophisticated but rich in local flavor. Fully in tune with nature conservation, they exhibit the natural yellow of the earth, the rough texture and the creation of living space in the interior of the cave. One of the advantages of the cave dwellings is that they are warm in winter and cool in summer.

The Interior of a Cave Dwelling

Mainly, there are three types of cave dwelling: cave dwelling dug in loess cliffs, sunken courtyard or pit dwelling, and detached cave dwelling.

Cave dwellings dug in cliffs are created out of horizontal caves. They are set at the foot of a hill or along a ditch, and undulated in height. Given the thickness of the cave walls, a hole can also be dug above the existing cave to create a “sky cave’, which allows sunlight into the cave. The cave can be connected to the surface with a slope, brick steps, or an indoor staircase. Outside the cave dwellings is usually a small courtyard enclosed within a mud wall.

Cave Dwellings Dug in Loess Cliffs

Pit dwelling is created by digging deep into the ground, forming a sunken courtyard in the ground. Then in the four walls, caves are dug to create rooms. The sunken courtyard is linked to the surface by way of a long staircase, which could be placed either within the courtyard or built through the earth. The staircase comes in all kinds of design, adding a delightful touch to the cluster of pit dwellings.

Cave Dwellings - a typical sunken courtyard complex in Shanxian County, Henan

As stand-alone structures, the detached cave dwellings are constructed with bricks and stones (or earth), with the façade covered and rammed by earth. The most common design of detached cave dwelling is the three-cavity cave dwelling, which also formed the basic unit of a courtyard compound. It can also be connected with another detached cave dwelling or a wooden house on its top.

Detached Cave Dwellings

Although the architectural style of cave dwellings are far from the conventional residential houses, it still retains the traditional layout of a Chinese household in terms of the combination of space. The northern portion of the cave dwelling still functions as the family dayroom and is exclusively used as the bedroom of the most senior members of the family. The side rooms in the eastern and western ends of the house are used as bedrooms, kitchen and storeroom. The southern side is where the entrance is located and also where you can find the toilet and the livestock pen. The main gate to the courtyard is constructed at the southeastern corner of the house. Hence, there are many resemblances in layout to a typical courtyard house.

Multilayered Cave Dwellings in Shijiagou, Shanxi

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