From the very beginning, when we first started planning the Great Ride of China, I knew that one of the main reasons I wanted to be a part of this amazing adventure was for the architecture. I have a deep interest in vernacular architecture and traditional cultures and in a country with 5,000 years of unbroken history and 56 ethnic minorities, I knew this trip would provide some great insights into these interests. I wanted to explore all the different forms of traditional Chinese architecture that I’d heard and read so much about; the hanging temple of Shanxi, the earthen Hakka ‘fortresses’ and ‘dragon eating’ buildings of Fujian and of course the cave dwellings of the Loess Plateau.
As we came up to our first month on the road we found ourselves on some great twisty roads in Northern Ningxia and Eastern Gansu, winding around the prehistoric looking plateaus found in that area. The Loess Plateau – in Chinese ???? huangtu gaoyuan (literally meaning ‘yellow earth highland’) – can be found around the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River. The silty, erosion-prone sediment covers most of Shanxi and Shaanxi province as well as Ningxia and part of both Inner Mongolia and Gansu. The soft earth is easy to manipulate, making the stepped landscape an ideal place to carve out shelter from. Cave dwellings have been used for centuries in China and still today an estimated 30 million people live in cave homes.
There are three types of cave dwellings commonly found in these areas. The first is the typical and most straightforward type where a cave is dug directly into the cliffside. The second is more complex, a type of sunken courtyard where a square parcel of land is excavated with the caves dug into the four sides of the pit. The third type, which has become popular in areas where cliff-side excavations are no longer allowed, is a vaulted dwelling imitating a cave dwelling built wholly outside.
The area we were riding through was scattered with cave homes, both in the cliff sides as well as the sunken courtyard variety. Many appeared quite dilapidated and looked like they were being used for housing livestock or as storage rooms, whilst other lager and better maintained ones still served as homes. We also came across many new builds in the towns and smaller cities we passed through. As we were coming out of a valley into some farmland we decided to stop at one of the cave homes on the side of the road to see if we could take a closer look.
A woman in around her mid-thirties came out with a quizzical look but when we told her we were curious about her home she happily agreed to show us around. They were farmers, an extended family all living together in a collection of dwellings. We’d passed an elderly man and young girl squatting in the shade of a large tree just outside the house and encountered an elderly lady in the courtyard laying out red peppers to dry in the sun. In Chinese living customs it is traditional for the wife to move in with the husband’s family in order to help take care of the elderly, which was presumably the case here. I asked her how she liked living in a cave home to which she responded that it was comfortable and she liked it well enough.
Theirs is a three-sided sunken courtyard with a gate on the south side between the road and the buildings, creating an enclosed space within. There were seven rooms in total, five existing and two newer additions. The five original structures were double height rooms, three to the north side and one “side wing” on the east and west forming an elongated C-shape. The “side wings” were then extended with single story dwellings, built in the same style and with the same materials, but independent from the original structures. The roofs of the dwellings were covered in turf. The northern rooms seemed the largest and were clearly the main living spaces, facing south and therefore exposed to the most sunlight, whilst the side rooms made up a kitchen and what looked like storage rooms.
When thinking of cave dwellings one of the images that jump to mind is primitive, roughly hewn spaces, with just the most basic of amenities. I was surprised to find that the inside walls were actually very smooth and evenly finished. The room itself was also quite large, extending at least ten meters back, with a high vaulted ceiling, making it feel quite spacious. Whilst light could only enter from the cave entrance, with the extra height the space did not feel too dim either.
When I asked if there were any problems with living is a cave home she responded that nowadays there weren’t that many people left with the skills to repair them properly. As a result one of the rooms had developed leaks and was no longer fit for them to use as bedroom. One advantage of living within the ground is that the earth is a great insulator, keeping the spaces quite a consistent temperature throughout the year. This means it never gets too cold in winter and in summer the spaces stay quite cool. It being mid-day on a hot August afternoon, we felt a noticeable drop in temperature upon entering the room from the sunny courtyard
I can see why people still choose to live in these traditional cave homes, and why the building style has continued in new-builds. Once you step inside it’s like being in an earth cocoon, very peaceful. If you’ve only ever been surrounded with natural materials it must feel very strange and unappealing to live amongst brick and concrete (not to mention uncomfortable seeing as neither material has as high of an insulating value as earth). With your heating and cooling systems taken care of naturally the cost of living in a cave dwelling would be minimal. Whilst the amenities are very basic, this complex did have a source of electricity indoors, probably powered by a generator, as I saw several outlets and even a satellite dish. In fact, there was not much difference between this family’s number of amenities and those we’d witnessed in countless small restaurants and shops in the cities, where the owners would live above their livelihood, often all in one room with the bathroom / wc outside. There’s a lot more space per person with these cave dwellings, especially when you compare it to your average city courtyard where it’s the norm for several families to share one complex, often with one family only occupying one or two rooms. Whilst by Chinese standards they would not be counted as prosperous, I’d wager that this family lives in far better conditions than a large percentage of their city-dwelling counterparts.
Due to the danger of flooding related collapses, as well as changing socio-economic trends, there is a decline in the amount of cave dwellings being built. However, it is comforting to know that this vernacular building style isn’t being entirely abandoned. Instead the concept remains the same with a few adaptations to accommodate modern living and safety standards. The main material in the new buildings is still earth which is sustainable and economical. The building method uses low technology, meaning no special skills or tools are required. Finally, whilst few new dwellings are carved into the side of the cliff new construction still uses cliff sides rather than flat, arable land, which means it’s land use is economical, an important factor if your livelihood is dependant on the land. It is comforting because it’s a building style that works, at least for this area of the country, and in this case the traditional architecture style is evolving exactly how it should evolve.
Stay tuned as we head north to Gansu and towards the terminus of the Great Wall at Jiayuguan on the next leg of our journey around China and it’s historic architecture sites.