Updated: May 28, 2020
The ancient Chinese developed their courtyard dwellings to represent miniature universes. They believed that the earth took the shape of a square while the sky made the shape of a dome covering the ground. The land below was believed to reflect the heaven above: mountains were reflections of stars, rivers a reflection of the Milky Way. Unlike some other ancient peoples, who used a solid dome over their houses to represent the celestial sphere, the ancient Chinese left open sky over their courtyards to represent heaven. The square courtyard dwelling symbolized the earth, and the central opening of the courtyard provided the family with an individual piece of sky representing heaven and giving them a place to observe the changing paths of the sun, moon, and stars.
In the Beijing courtyard dwelling, the major north-south axis was the most critical element in the design of this complex. Traditionally, the depth (length) of the axle was a symbol of social position and wealth. The higher the social class, the longer the axis and the higher the number of yards. For example, the entire Beijing imperial palace, the Forbidden City, is a considerable courtyard dwelling, including many subdivisions and displaying the longest axis in the country.
Feng-shui held great psychological importance for traditional Chinese as a means of avoiding evil fortune and of attaining happiness, money, promotion, long life, a large family, and many children. Traditional Chinese were willing to follow feng-shui rules and were afraid to contravene them. In ancient times, good fortune began with responding to and accommodating nature. Imitating the landforms of an ideal feng-shui site with built structures, the spatial form of the Beijing courtyard dwelling embodied the perfect feng-shui landscape. In its emphasis on orientations and positions, the plan arrangement of the Beijing courtyard dwelling also manifested the feng-shui attempt to arrange vital energy.
Furthermore, feng-shui principles were applied in a manner that reflected and reinforced the strict class system of the traditional Chinese society and family. The resulting house, a cell of ancient Beijing, symbolically attempted to capture prosperity through social control within the family rather than through allowing for individual freedom and privacy. It symbolized the traditional Chinese family, which in turn was a microcosm of China’s feudal society. The Beijing courtyard dwelling with its feng-shui symbolism, therefore, was a physical embodiment of an ideal home, reflecting the Chinese belief that heaven, earth, and people should unite as a whole.
In Beijing courtyard houses, almost everything had a feng-shui meaning: yards, rooms, walls, doors, steps, drainage, orientations, positions, plants, and measurement. In short, the design of the courtyard dwelling symbolized the family’s expectations for its future. The shared symbolic system made the space meaningful for its dwellers, and in turn, influenced them. This study shows that traditional beliefs and simplified rules hold great significance and power in the design of vernacular houses because they reflect the cultural character, fit the house into its social and historical background, and provide symbolism shared by its dwellers.