In China, there is a saying that goes, “If you want to see imperial palaces, you should visit the Forbidden City in Beijing; if you want to see residential houses, you should visit the Qiao Family Compound in Qi County, Shanxi Province.”
The Qiao Family Compound is located in a village named Qiaojiabu, which is 12 kilometers northeast from the township of Qi County and 54 kilometers south of Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province. Known as Qiao Jia Da Yuan in Chinese, the Qiao Family Compound is also named “Zaizhongtang”. It is the former residence of Qiao Zhiyong, a famous businessman in the country during the Qing Dynasty. In fact, it is one of the best preserved folk houses of the Qing Dynasty, representing the typical style of folk residential houses in the north of China. With its great historical value, the Qiao Family Compound is praised as a bright pearl of residential architecture in North China.
The compound was initially constructed in 1755 by Qiao Guifa, the first generation of Qiao’s family. Qiao Zhiyong, the grandson of Qiao Guifa, established the extensive business across the country and even internationally. It was him who laid the foundation of the Qiao’s brilliant future and the groundwork for the prototype of the Qiao Family Compound. Looking from outside, the compound is like a fortified castle, difficult to access. It is just because the public security was a big problem in the late period of the Qing Dynasty. In order to keep the family houses safe, the Qiaos bought the alley and the houses nearby and made their residential buildings separately from the others. The little alley was blocked and more yards were built, thus the Qiao Family Compound was finally completed. The compound was repaired and rebuilt many times during the reigns of emperors Tongzhi and Guangxu in the Qing Dynasty and the beginning years of the Republic of China (1911-1949). Though it has a long history of over 200 years, its architectural style remained the same, featuring dwellings of North China.
Now, this castle-like building complex is composed of 6 traditional Chinese courtyards which include 20 smaller courtyards, 313 rooms, and a number of gardens, covering an area of 8,725 square meters. The layout of this magnificent complex is in the shape of the Chinese character “xi(囍)”, which means “double happiness”, a symbol of good luck.
Opposite to the gateway, you will see a brick screen wall engraved with 100 Chinese characters. Although these characters are in different writing styles, they are, in fact, the same character “shou(寿)”, which means longevity. It reflects the good wishes of the host. Entering into the gate of the courtyard, you will see an 80-meter-long paved passageway which divides the 6 courtyards into northern and southern sections, with 3 on each section. At the end of the passageway, just opposite the main entrance, is the family’s ancestral hall where the family members used to hold memorial ceremonies for their ancestors.
With three sides facing the street, the courtyard itself is enclosed by 10-meter-high brick walls, which have 1-meter-high parapet walls on the top. The towering walls kept the whole building group solemn and safe, distinguishing themselves from the nearby buildings. The exquisite design and meticulous craftsmanship make these walls unrivalled. At each of the four corners is a watchtower, and there are as many as 141 chimneys on the roof tops in a variety of designs. Another important characteristic of the compound is that the roof of every house is connected, which makes it easier for guards to patrol.
The Qiao Family Compound is not only famous for its fascinating architecture but also for the exquisite craftsmanship displayed in the brick carvings, woodwork, murals, and inscribed tablets. The doors, windows, eaves, pillars, and railings of these structures are all beautifully crafted. And there are brick carvings everywhere with rich patterns, such as figures, flowers and plants, birds and animals, chess boards, and paintings and calligraphy. These carvings are so exquisite and their workmanship is so fine that they can fully show the special styles of residential buildings in the Qing Dynasty.
Since 1986, the Qiao Family Compound has been turned into a Folk Custom Museum. The exhibitions include the history of the Qiao family, the treasures possessed by the Qiaos, the folk custom of business, the local customs, the folk crafts and the traditional Chinese agriculture, and so on. It demonstrates systematically the folk customs and folk culture of the people living in the Jinzhong area in the period of the late Qing Dynasty and 1910s; all the ceremonies of local people about marriage, funeral, birth, sickness and death can be found in this museum. In addition, there are about 1,000 pieces of historical relics kept in the museum, among which the “Nine-Dragon Lantern” and the “Ten-Thousand-Person Ball”, etc. are rare treasures.
The Qiao Family Compound is one of the 10 best scenic spots in Shanxi Province. Through the visit to the Qiao Family Compound, you can feel the glory of the past that the commercial businessmen created.
Because of its distinctive features, the Qiao Family Compound has been a favorite filming location for movies and TV dramas. There are about 50 films and TV plays shot in this courtyard, such as the film Raise the Red Lantern, and the TV plays Qiao’s Grand Courtyard, etc. Among them, the most famous one is “Raise the Red Lantern”, the film directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Gong Li.