Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Interview with Mr. and Mrs. Luo July 15, 2008


Mr. and Mrs. Luo sit at the dining-room table in their courtyard house, enjoying jasmine tea made with loose leaves. (Photo by Liu Bowen)

Some of the siheyuan [courtyard houses] along this Qing Dynasty hutong look fairly modern. Why is that?

Wife: Oh, that's because since these houses are so old, during and after the rainy season this year, many of them had to be rebuilt. Actually, many of these houses are owned by the state, unlike ours. Our house is privately owned. The state-owned houses were rebuilt by the Housing Management Bureau.

But yours is privately owned?

Husband: My grandfather bought this house before the Liberation, before 1949. It's complicated because my family bought it before the Cultural Revolution. It was taken over by the government during the Cultural Revolution. But then the ownership was given back to us in the 1980s.

Are the rebuilt homes made of the same materials?


The Luos' old-style courtyard has lost its original look because of recent renovations. (Photo by Liu Bowen)

Husband: It's a different kind a brick. The brick used today is a reddish color, but the old [Qing Dynasty] brick was more of a greenish-gray color that was made of mud brick. The color is the result of different kiln firing temperatures. There should be some by the front door. All of the old city walls were built with bricks like this, but very big. My wall was made of small-size bricks, but they were the same kind.

Wife: Our house and a lot of these old houses were not made of whole bricks. On the surface, they look like they were built of complete bricks, but inside the wall there are small and tiny pieces of broken bricks and mud. So the walls are very thick, at least 50 centimeters [about one-and-a-half feet] thick.

Does the thickness help keep the house warm in the winter?

Wife: Mainly, I think the builders used broken bricks because they wanted to reuse the materials. But also, I think they were used to resist the cold.

Is it cool inside a courtyard house in the summertime?

Wife: Inside an old house it's never too hot.

Husband: Because the wall is so thick.

Wife: Old houses are always cool in summer and warm in winter. But that's not the case in our house because the front part of our house is an extension--so the roof is very thin. Almost all the old houses had thick roofs and thick walls.


The original terracotta roof tiles still remain on the oldest (Qing Dynasty) section of the Luos' courtyard house. (Photo by Liu Bowen)


The modern roof here was a recent addition to the house, where extended family members live. (Photo by Liu Bowen)

Has your courtyard changed much over the years?

Husband: This yard used to be an old-style courtyard. After renovations, it lost the original look.

Did you grow up here?

Husband: I was born in this house. I grew up in this yard.

Did you grow up along a hutong as well?

Wife: Yes. I grew up in a one-story courtyard house along a hutong. Around 1982, my family moved to a modern apartment building.

Is this a "government-protected area" [where old buildings can't be torn down]?

Husband: That's right. In this area you cannot do that--just tear down or build again as you wish, you can't. In this area, you cannot build new buildings.

Wife: If you tear down a building, you must rebuild it in the original style. Like those built with red bricks. If you want to rebuild, it has to be approved [by the government] and it has to look like the original...can use the new material, but it has to remain the same shape, the same style [single-floor residences with open courtyards].

So for the moment, at least, you are not moving to a high-rise apartment, as so many other residents have been asked to do?

Husband: No, not unless the government decides to take it down, we are not going to move. There's no need.


The Luo family stands in their courtyard, in front of the entrance to their house. (Photo by Liu Bowen)


The narrow entrance to the Luos' hutong is just behind the cyclist. (Photo by Liu Bowen)

But even though you own your house, the government could still ask you to leave?

Wife: Yes, but everyone in the neighborhood would get some kind of compensation. The policy is different and the payout is various. They have to give compensation, otherwise where do people live?

What is your favorite part of living in a courtyard house?

Husband: I feel nostalgia about this place.

Wife: He's been living here for so long...

Husband: I have that traditional Chinese way of thinking, that is, one cannot leave his birthplace.

So it's more of a personal connection than a connection to the city's past?

Husband: Yes. It's because of personal memories here. My father also grew up here and my parents lived here.

And you raised your own family here, right?

Husband: Yes, we have one son.

If you ever moved someday, is there anything you would miss about living here?

Wife: The thing I would miss most is the pomegranate tree, which is already gone.

Why did you cut down the tree?

Husband: Because we needed to build a door there. The tree blocked people from coming in and going out.

Wife: The tree was there when we got married.

Husband: That tree was planted in 1977. You could eat the fruit. It had a lot of seeds.

Wife: It was very sweet. Every year when the pomegranate was in full blossom, all my friends and colleagues would get some as well.

How do you think people feel generally about living in this type of house?

Husband: There really are no other options.

Wife: There are no other choices. The living conditions here are not as good as that of the modern high-rise buildings.

Do you feel more connected with your past, living here, along an old hutong?

Wife: It's difficult to say. It feels different. I think it depends on different people. For me, I like this kind of small courtyard. Granted, if everything here were all mine, I'd feel very comfortable living here [the house is divided between extended family members, which is common]. But conditions here need to be improved. So if a bigger apartment in a big tall building came along, it may be more comfortable to live there.

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America