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September 28, 2014

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Northern China’s yaodong last centuries

FOR several thousand years, yaodong, or cave house, has been a typical residential dwelling for Chinese people living on the Loess Plateau in northern China.

The Loess Plateau, the largest of its kind in the world, covers an area of nearly 620,000 square kilometers and lies 1,000 to 2,000 meters above sea level. The 50- to 200-meter-thick fine-grained and unstratified earth on the plateau provides an ideal condition for excavation and cave building.

Thanks to the thick and solid earth there, it is said that a home carved into the Loess Plateau could be used for several hundred years.

According to historical records, cave houses first appeared in China more than 4,000 years ago. It was even mentioned in the Book of Songs, the oldest extant collection of Chinese poems and songs, written during the 10th to 7th centuries BC.

Such simple shelters were easy to build, yet because of the thick cave wall, they are well-insulated from the cold winter and hot summer or outside noises.

Usually, a cave room is about 3 to 4 meters wide and 6 to 8 meters deep, with a vaulted ceiling. Several neighboring rooms are connected by small tunnels.

Through ages of evolution, the living conditions kept improving. For instance, during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), people began to install elaborate kitchens, kangs (heated brick beds) and chimneys in the cave houses and during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), the cave houses were divided into living quarters, kitchens and livestock stalls.

More than 400 years later, people began to build thick and tall walls around a group of cave houses to protect them from burglary or outside turmoil.

Today, the cave houses we see on the Loess Plateau can be divided into three main types — cliff yaodong, sunken courtyard yaodong and the stand-alone yaodong.

The cliff yaodong is built into loess cliffs or along hill slopes. People first shaved the cliff into a vertical surface and then carved into the earth to build a 3- or 5-room cave house.

On the side of a deep valley, the cave houses could be carved out on two or more levels. When the earth was not thick enough near the hill tip, the builders first dug horizontally into the hill and then carved a room into the earth.

In flat areas, such as plains, people would dig a rectangular well about 5 to 8 meters deep with vertical wall surfaces inside. Then cave houses would be carved into those surfaces. The well was then used as a sunken courtyard.

Along one wall inside the well, a sloped walkway is built to provide access to the ground surface. Cave houses in a sunken courtyard are actually underground dwellings, which have better insulation than other type of cave houses.

People living on the Loess Plateau have also created another type of cave house, the so-called guyao, or “hooped cave house.”

It’s actually a type of stand-alone structure made of adobe, stones and mud, and featuring a vaulted roof. Some of such cave houses even have a brick façade and tiled roofs to make them more durable. Today, about 20 million Chinese people are still living in yaodongs in northern China.

炕 (kàng) Heated Brick Bed

Kang is a type of heated sleeping platform made of bricks or adobe. It’s quite common in northern China and especially in northeastern China, where temperature can dip to as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius in winter.

A kang is usually about 1.7 to 2.3 meters wide and runs all the way along the southern or northern wall of a room. It is connected at one end to a wood or coal stove, usually in the kitchen, the next room, and its other end is joined with a chimney.

The inside cavity of a kang serves as a flue. When cooking, the heat and smoke from the stove will be channeled through the kang to the chimney, thus heating the bed as well as the room.

According to archaeological discoveries, people in China began to build kang during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25), but others say people in northeastern China began to use heated bed floors nearly 7,000 years ago.


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