(China-13) Transforming Pingyao’s historic courtyard homes


SPECIAL NOTE: I am reminded of Beijing’s hutongs…how many residents were led away when they protested against the government destroying them to make room for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. They did destroy some, not all. Because it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Beijing, the capital of China. I am reminded of the famous Toulou Fujian Unesco…famous for tourists to see the ancient buildings which would cost too much to build one today…the marvel of the construction of this very unusual architecture in Fujian Province…hours away from Xiamen where I lived and taught school. And now this special CNN feature of Pingyao, China’s “Wall Street”…city of banking and commerce in ancient times. I am reminded of the United Kingdom, during my first visit to see my sister, who lives in England. England is a country full of monuments and statues…I was particularly drawn to the graveyards…with tombstones dating back to medieval times…touching them was like touching history, to me then. Or the tombs inside the floors or walls of many ancient churches in England…you are walking and touching history. The same is true with China,,,Chinese love to tell you “we have 5000 year history…” I heard this often when I was living in China. The Roman Empire came and disappeared and I wonder will China live forever? America is a baby compared to the histories of India and China…When China built the famous Three Gorges Dam, the biggest in the world, many ancient buildings and structures were buried deep under the water…I never forgot when a student took me to see the dam and pointed to one particular area…”look over there, deep under the water was my high school…” The building of dam meant the destruction of many historical buildings, tombs, ancient walls and gates, like destroying the whole civilization…now submerged under water! Here and there, everywhere in China, depending on the local governments…I visited one tourist place…it was a complete replica of an ancient town, now destroyed and gone, but with money, they were able to rebuild the whole town again…for the sake of tourism. I was in Fuzhou City, not far from my campus, and a professor showed me his birth house, now restored by the government for the sake of tourism. “See the name on the wall…that is my family and I grew up here..” he said, now a major tourist attraction in Fuzhou City. Tourism is very big in China now…when I first visited Beijing’s Forbidden City, the residence and playground of the  emperors…I said something to my hosts: why, I see so many country bumpkins visiting the Forbidden City…ordinary people from China’s countrysides…how did I know? From the clothes they wore, the way they behaved, the way they talked and walked…you can tell they were not city or urban sophisticated people, ahahahahaha! This is modern China and tourism is big business now. With the government encouraging people to travel and spend their money (for the sake of the economy), tourists are everywhere during every national holiday in China. So much so, there is a segment of people who choose not to travel during the major national holidays: every place is booked solid, and there is very little room to move or enjoy some quiet. This is China! Enjoy this CNN article about a very special place in China. Steve November 16 



  • The ancient Chinese city of Pingyao has 4,000 private courtyard homes, with some dating back hundreds of years.
  • Since 2012, the local government has been providing assistance to homeowners to preserve these properties.
  • Visitors can stay in lodgings converted from these homes.


Transforming Pingyao’s historic courtyard homes

By Andrea Lo, CNN

Mon November 6, 2017

The 2,700-year-old city was once the renowned banking capital of China, as important in the latter part of the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912) as Wall Street is in the United States today.

While its financial power has faded, Pingyao’s impressive architecture from that heady period, and before — including its 3.7 mile-long (6 kilometers) city wall — has remained remarkably intact.

In fact, Pingyao, which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, still has some 4,000 traditional Chinese courtyard homes, dating as far back as the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644).

“There are very few courtyard homes remaining in China,” says Kuanghan Li, director of the China Heritage Program at the non-profit Global Heritage Fund.

An innovative program is now helping to restore these properties to their former glory.

 What is a courtyard house?

Known as a “siheyuan,” literally meaning a “quadrangle garden,” each courtyard home comprises a courtyard surrounded by structures on all four sides.

A crumbling entry to a restored courtyard home.

“We can see how each courtyard home functioned from the way it is laid out,” Li explains. “They actually give you a very clear idea of the history of the families and how they used to live.”

In most cases, courtyard homes were divided into a main house, for the family; servants’ quarters; and a yard, where horses were kept. Smaller courtyards were sometimes used as classrooms for the clan’s children.

When Pingyao was China’s financial capital, it was home to many wealthy businessmen with large families, Li explains. “They might have owned seven or eight courtyards in a row.”

The size of each property served as a symbol for wealth and prosperity.

A lick of color and structural repairs made a huge difference to this courtyard home.

A decade ago, the Global Heritage Fund began working with the Pingyao municipality to preserve the ancient city. During this time, the fund’s staff noted the large number of courtyard houses.

“There are thousands of them still in the historic city, but they are mostly under private ownership and are not designated protected monuments — so that means the government didn’t have any funding to preserve them,” says Li, who joined the Global Heritage Fund in 2008.

Some of the homes were rentals, which meant they were “in bad shape,” while others were occupied by low-income families, who simply didn’t have the means to repair their dwellings.

The preservation project has been ongoing since 2012.

In 2012, the Global Heritage Fund helped the Planning Bureau set up a program to preserve the courtyard homes, which would see the local government provide a subsidy, and technical expertise, to homeowners.


The program has stringent rules regarding which courtyard homes are eligible for the program.

Firstly, homeowners have to provide proof of private ownership. Then the condition of their home is assessed.

If it’s already been entirely renovated, or demolished and rebuilt, the house will not be considered.

Kuanghan Li, Global Heritage Fund

“The oldest courtyard homes date back to the late Ming dynasty, but that doesn’t mean every detail in the home is a relic from that period,” Li says. “There would have been various additions and renovations made, because these houses were continuously occupied.

“If it has already been entirely renovated, or demolished and rebuilt, the house will not be considered.”

After that, the order of renovation is prioritized according to how urgently each house needs it.

That have been certified by the Planning Bureau, which also reviews their plans before any restoration begins. Finally, the work must be approved by a committee of local architects and historians before deemed complete.

 Some owners turn their homes into guest houses, catering to Pingyao’s popularity with visitors.

The government’s subsidy of between $60 and $210 per square meter extends only to structural repairs and the restoration of the exteriors. Any shortfall must be paid by the homeowners, who are also responsible for beautifying the interiors.

According to the Planning Bureau, the restoration work costs, on average, $300 per square meter.

 Who lives in courtyard homes?

Since the program began, 76 courtyard homes in Pingyao have been restored, and the government has contributed about $1.5 million in subsidies.

So who are the people looking to restore their homes — and why?

Wang Xiaofeng, a teacher in her fifties who works in Beijing, renovated her courtyard home in 2015. It has been in her family for more than 40 years and boasts Ming and Qing details.

Having moved away as a child, Wang returns during the holidays, and it was on one of these trips that she decided to apply to the program, after a friend commented on the value of the property’s ancient courtyard.

A lot of traditional culture was lost in the past.

Wang Xiaofeng, homeowner

The house underwent structural repairs to its rooftop, walls, doors, windows and the western part of the courtyard. The Planning Bureau provided $10,230 and Wang put up $7,520.

“A lot of our traditional culture was lost in the past,” she adds. “We should promote it and develop it.”

Historic lodging

Other homeowners turn their renovated courtyard homes into profit-making ventures.

“Those who actually stay and run their own business — like a bed and breakfast — are the ones who take the most care of their houses,” says Li.

If the homeowners inherited the house … usually they don’t need much convincing.

Kuanghan Li, Global Heritage Fund

Liu Xueru is one such homeowner. The 58-year-old Pingyao native owns his childhood 900-square-meter (9,688-square-feet) courtyard home with his two brothers. In 2009, he applied for restoration funding and created the 20-room Xiang Sheng Yuan Guest House.

Liu’s late grandmother bought the home in the 1920s for 2,000 dayang — a now-defunct currency that was used between the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912 and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

“It’s a building from the middle period of the Qing dynasty, (with) a larger courtyard and two smaller ones,” says Liu.

Work began in 2015, with the rooftop being repaired and the interiors revived with a fresh coat of paint. The guest house opened the following year.

Liu received $9,920 in government subsidies and invested the same amount himself.

“I think these old courtyards need protection,” Liu says. “The restoration is a continuous process.”

 Sign of the times

Restored traditional homes. Swanky converted guest houses. Does this signal a change in attitude towards historic preservation in China?

Li hopes so, and wants Pingyao’s tourism strategy to pivot from merely entertaining visitors to teaching them about the city’s unique past. She says: “We’ve been thinking about doing more cultural guide training … so the historic value of the city can be better told.”

“Today, more and more people understand the importance of preservation of cultural heritage,” says Zhu Guangya, a professor at Southeast University’s school of architecture.

But he notes there are difficulties in carrying it out.

“People have different opinions on how exactly to protect (historic buildings). Officially, China has accepted international principles and standards in heritage conservation — but (in practice) not everyone knows about them.”

And conservation can get sidelined in favor of things like property developers’ financial interests, he adds.

In any case, Zhu agrees that Pingyao is a rare case of a “typical historic town from old China” having survived.

“China has a long history, the dynasties changed constantly, but its culture was never wiped out,” he says.

“It’s normal for old and new to work together. It’s a type of cultural heritage … and Pingyao is a textbook case of a historical town (preserved) for the Chinese today.”

 CNN’s Nanlin Fang in Beijing contributed to this story.


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