Issue: 2016: Vol. 15, No. 1

Chinese Courtyard Housing under Socialist Market Economy

Article Author(s)

Donia Zhang

Donia Zhang
Dr Donia Zhang is the Director at the Neoland School of Chinese Culture. She is a graduate of Oxford Brookes University (BArch, MA, PhD) in the UK and Brock University (MEd) in Canada. She has over 20 years of research experience in courtyard housing, and 12 years of research experience in interdisciplinary studies of architecture, education, humanities, and social sciences, in particular the interrelations of housing, health, happiness, and cultural sustainability. Her profile and contact ... 
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The Fall of Chinese Courtyard Houses

China’s rapid economic growth coupled with an unprecedented level of real estate development have resulted in an almost wholesale destruction of traditional siheyuan (四合院) courtyard houses since the 1990s. For example, until 1949, Beijing was a completely traditional courtyard city. In the early 1950s, Beijing’s inner city had 11 square kilometers of single-story siheyuan floor space, of which only five-to-six percent was dilapidated. In 1990, the inner city had a total single-story siheyuan of 21.42 square kilometers floor space, of which almost 50 percent was decaying. The increased floor space from 11 to 21.42 square kilometers was because of the proliferation of improvised extensions, an indication that not much courtyard space was left. A large-scale demolition started between 1990 and 1999, when a total of 4.2 square kilometers of Beijing’s siheyuan were demolished; by 2005, another 14 square kilometers disappeared, leaving only three (Tan, 1998; Yuan, 2005).

Table 1. Destruction and conservation of siheyuan in inner Beijing

Year Siheyuan (courtyard houses)
1949 A completely traditional courtyard city in the 62 sqkm inner-city land area
1990 805 courtyard houses in relatively good condition in the conservation areas
2003 658 courtyard houses in relatively good condition in the conservation areas
2004 539 courtyard houses in relatively good condition in the conservation areas

Sources: the author’s summary based on Abramson, 2001; Beijing City Planning Chart, 2007; Collins, 2005; Kong, 2004; Ornelas, 2006

Table 1 shows a drastic decline of siheyuan between 1949 and 2004. There is no current data on the number of siheyuan remaining in Beijing, as it is increasingly more difficult to count them because of their impoverished conditions. One can expect the number has further decreased since 2004.

In 2002, the Conservation Plan of Historic and Cultural City of Beijing created 25 protected conservation zones and provided detailed guidelines for siheyuan preservation. In 2004, the State Council approved a revised Beijing Master Plan 2004-2020, which designated another eight conservation zones, making a total of 33 protected areas in the inner city (and 10 in the outer city). The zones occupy a land area of 18 square kilometers, about 29 percent of the old city area. The revised plan calls for an end to large-scale demolition and reconstruction and implementing small-scale, gradual, organic renewal (Beijing City Planning Chart, 2007, pp. 261-266).

Today, the few well-preserved hutong (lanes) with refurbished siheyuan serve only high-level officials and those who can afford such homes (Trapp, 2003; Zheng, 2005) because these houses are sold at soaring prices. In 2015, the price range for a siheyuan is ¥70,000 − ¥250,000 CNY ($11,000 − $39,288 USD) per square meter, depending on the location, condition, and total area of the house. In the eastern district of Beijing, for example, a 230-square meter (160 square meter floor space) siheyuan has an asking price of ¥19 million CNY (almost $3 million USD) before renovation or ¥25 million CNY (almost $4 million USD) after renovation (Beijing Shun Yi Xing Real Estate Brokers Ltd., 2015-9-10).

History and Significance of Chinese Courtyard Houses

The Chinese have lived in courtyard-type houses for several thousand years. The earliest courtyard house unearthed by archaeologists so far was built during the Middle Neolithic period, represented by the Yangshao culture (5,000-3,000 BCE) (Liu, 2002). The ancient Chinese favored this housing form because enclosing walls helped maximize household privacy and protection from wind, noise, dust, and other threats; and the courtyard offered light, air, and views, as well as acting as a family activity space when weather permitted.

A distinctive variety of traditional courtyard houses exists because of China’s wide-ranging climates, 56 ethnic groups, and notable linguistic and regional diversity even among the Han majority. Traditional Chinese courtyard houses were grouped as northern, southern, and western types according to their geographic locations in relation to the Yangzi River (Knapp, 2000). The shape and size of the courtyards are determined by the amount of sunlight desired in the space. For example, in southern China, the courtyards are smaller, called tianjing (天井), or “lightwells,” to reduce the summer sunlight; in northern China, the courtyards are relatively large to allow abundant sunlight in the winter. A traditional Chinese courtyard house would normally host an extended family of three or four generations (Knapp, 2005; Ma, 1999).


Figure 1 A standard classical Beijing courtyard house (siheyuan) accommodating a single extended family. Computer model by Donia Zhang 2014

Chinese Housing in the Communist Era

Although China’s population has more than doubled between 1953 and 2010 (Census 1953; Census 2010), the family structure has decreased from extended to nuclear families, a trend echoed elsewhere in the world (Amato, 2008; UN, 2003; Van Elzen, 2010). Statistics show that until recently, the average household size in China had remained relatively constant at about 5.2 persons (Jervis, 2005); it reduced to 3.96 persons in the 1990 Census, 3.44 persons in the 2000 Census, and 3.1 persons in the 2010 Census. The drop is due to the 35-year state-imposed one-child policy (introduced in 1978, enacted in 1980, and officially phased out in 2015), and free choices under circumstances of rapid modernization. The vertical, parent-son relationship typically found in traditional Chinese families is being replaced by the horizontal, conjugal tie as the axis of family relations in contemporary China (Yan, 2005). Thus, Chinese family structure evolved from a complex corporate organization to a relatively simple conjugal unit, in which family life revolves around a couple’s pursuit of financial independence, privacy, and personal space (Cohen, 2005; Yan, 2005; Zhang, 2010). The change in Chinese family structure demands a change in the housing form, which has implications for new housing design (Cohen, 2005; Jervis, 2005).

Between 1949 and 1978, urban housing in China had been under a very strong centralized administration system. The urban housing policy, under the influence of socialist economic principles, was based on a centralized state housing provision and delivery system with socialist public ownership as a major characteristic (Dong, 1987). During the “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976), the process of rationalization and the policy of low housing prices were driven to the extreme. All the construction elements of residential buildings were reduced in their dimensions to the utmost. A number of “Urban Village” kind of residential settlements were built in various parts of China at the time. The new concept was the ultra-economic habitation standard, praised as the “new socialist lifestyle” in political propaganda. The new housing type was basically 4-5-story parallel blocks, called “Socialist Super Blocks,” constructed under the influence of the former Soviet Union in the late 1950s. The buildings were normally 12 meters deep, with all rooms standardized as 3-by-5-meter modules, with a 2-meter wide, centrally located corridor as the main circulation space for all the families. Several families shared the service facilities, such as a kitchen with a water tap and a single toilet, along the public corridor within the building (Dong, 1987; Gaubatz, 1995, 1999; Schinz, 1989). It was very communal-like.

Between 1974 and 1986, the Beijing Municipal Government built about seven square kilometers of new housing in the inner city which accounted for 70 percent of the city’s total housing redevelopment since 1949 (Wu, 1999), most of which consisted of residential tower blocks of more than 10 stories made up of individual apartments. By the end of 1996, new housing projects numbered more than 200, covering 22 square kilometers of inner Beijing (Tan, 1997, 1998). For comparison, in Suzhou between 1994 and 1996, nearly three square miles of new housing were added each year (Zhu, Huang, and Zhang, 2000).

Chinese Economic Reform and the Rise of Housing Market

China’s housing development has a direct link to its economic reform, which refers to the program called “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” or “Socialist Market Economy” in the People’s Republic of China, started in 1978 and led by Deng Xiaoping. China’s economic reform has caused many of its sectors to privatize, one of which is the land and housing market.

In 1988, urban land leasing and housing privatization were introduced, with demands that the production of housing had to be commercialized. Subsequently, real estate development was increasingly drawn into national building and urban renewal processes. Nevertheless, work units were involved in housing provision until 1998. The result was a hybrid approach to housing provision, in which the work units purchased commodity housing and sold them to their employees at discounted prices (Wang and Murie, 1999; Wu, 2005).

In 1992, Beijing issued a policy statement entitled Methods for Implementing the Central Government’s Provisional Regulations for Leasing and Transfer of State-Owned Urban Land-Use Rights (Wang and Murie, 1999). This policy significantly stimulated the development of a real estate industry in China and unleashed the value of urban land, especially land within the inner city. High land prices have led to larger-scale renewal projects and have made them increasingly market-driven. In 1994, the Beijing municipal government delegated the granting rights of dilapidated housing renewal projects to district governments, which became the leading actors in housing renewal, real estate development, and other urban construction projects (Wu, 1999).

Since 1998, work units have stopped welfare housing provision and allowed state workers nationwide to purchase their own apartments. This transaction primarily involved the subsidized sale of work-unit owned public housing to sitting tenants because reformers argued that housing shortages were caused by the housing welfare system, and the only effective way to solve the urban housing problem was to allow rents to increase and encourage urban dwellers to own their own housing units. This housing privatization was consistent with the broader market reforms that had already taken place in China since the 1980s. Commodity housing has become a major source of housing stock in China since the late 1990s. The Chinese government has planned to use commodity housing development as a catalyst to drive urban economic development (Wang and Murie, 1999; Wu, 2005; Zhou and Logan, 2002).

The Issue of Housing Affordability

The success of China’s economic policies and the manner of their implementation have resulted in immense changes in Chinese society. Although large-scale government planning programs with market characteristics have increased incomes and reduced poverty, income inequality has also increased (World Bank, 2013).

Commodity housing in Chinese real estate markets has created a significant financial constraint on affordability; housing prices are simply outside the range affordable to most urban workers without substantial state subsidies. In an entirely private housing market, only a small number of urban residents could afford housing at the construction costs. The annual house payment could exceed 70 percent of the average household income (Khan, 2012; World Bank, 1992). Thus, the actual pricing scheme for commodity housing is complex. It can be sold to work units or directly to urban workers at either the government-discounted standard price or the full standard price. Housing built or purchased by work units is usually sold to workers at further discounted prices; however, the purchaser owns only a proportion of the housing unit equivalent to the proportion of the full price they have paid, the remaining proportion of the property belongs to the work unit (Bray, 2005; Zhou and Logan, 2002).

The Renewal and Redevelopment of Chinese Courtyard Houses

Since 2005, the Beijing municipal government has implemented a 25-year plan (2005-2030) to invest ¥0.5 billion CNY ($783 million USD) annually to renew dilapidated siheyuan, and to improve the living conditions of those households in the inner city. However, one third of the old-city population has to be relocated (Yuan, 2005).

For the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, 340,000 households in inner Beijing were required to leave their traditional homes (King, 2004, p. 120), to relocate to the suburbs, which have substandard educational, health care, and other service facilities. While in the inner city, new housing units in the redeveloped areas are sold at such high prices that only wealthy homebuyers can afford to pay. Relocation-related disputes have become a serious social issue since 1995 (Wu, 1999).

The author’s 2007-2008 empirical research into one inner-Beijing traditional courtyard housing renewal project and five new courtyard housing redevelopment projects in Beijing and Suzhou likewise showed that gentrification has occurred in these Chinese cities. There was a breakdown of neighborhood structure due to the fact that only a small number of the original residents could afford to move back after redevelopment, and only the old residents socialized with one another; the new neighbors were unable to re-establish social networks as in the past (Zhang, 2013).

A more socially sustainable renewal and redevelopment method is urgently needed. For example, a participatory approach involving residents to create their own designs onsite and offer their own facility upgrade strategies in the renewal and redevelopment process may generate more satisfactory results as they are the final stakeholders for whom the housing product is ultimately intended.  Moreover, reducing residents’ socio-economic polarity can be an effective way to solve the social issues in housing renewal and redevelopment (Zhang, 2015b). This matter is critical for Beijing before the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, and for China to move forward in the 21st century.

As traditional Chinese courtyard houses with their established social relationships are fading away, maybe a new courtyard housing form could help restore them. The author here offers two evidenced-based designs based on her research findings (Zhang, 2013, 2015a).


Figure 2 shows Scheme A, a design for a new courtyard garden house compound based on a system of 60 m × 60 m standard block size, a communal courtyard of 26 m × 26 m shared by eight nuclear families, with each household enjoying a private garden at the back. Each housing unit measures 6 m × 10 m (total 180 square meters) with a semi-basement and two-and-a-half stories. Design and computer model by Donia Zhang based on her doctoral research findings (Zhang, 2013)


Figure 3 shows Scheme B, a design for a new courtyard garden house compound based on a system of 78 m × 78 m standard block size, the communal courtyard is 26 m × 26 m shared by eight nuclear families, with each household enjoying a private garden of 12 m × 6 m at the front and the back. Each housing unit measures 10 m × 12 m (total 240 square meters) with a semi-basement and two-and-a-half stories. Design and computer model by Donia Zhang based on her postdoctoral research findings (Zhang, 2015a)


The author would like to thank Dan Williams for his careful editorial reviews and constructive comments on the essay.


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