How to Build A Chinese Country House in The Old Fashioned Way

My great-uncle, a Chinese man of great old fashion in his eighty’s, has recently decided he would like to kick off building a house to the amusement of his father, my great grand-father. Of course the old ancestor passed away ages ago, in fact, I have not had the pleasure of meeting him, however, time the great thief doesn’t steal a Chinese man’s commitment to his father’s death bed wills, particularly when the man himself grows older.

The great grand-pa

I was told from a young age that the great grand-pa was a somewhat formidable personality whose fists were the sizes of iron pots and whose appetite for wine and fine cuisine exceeded an ordinary man’s. According to dinner table talks, the great grand-pa was born to a farmer’s family in the Qing Dynasty, and had lived through Qing as a child, to Republic of China as a member of the landlord’s class, and finally died relatively poor after Communist China’s Cultural Revolution which he survived by painfully parting with his wealth. I recently came to realise that the old relative’s life story is as good as a modern Chinese history book. He evidently had two wives, whose tombs my father still goes to sweep every year, and both wives were said to be indulgent to his taking up bad hobbies, among many others: gambling, drinking and occasionally smoking opium.

Living in the great age of exploring, the European man went to the battlefield and to the seas for glory or fortune, my old man in rural China also went far. He accumulated wealth by trading salt across Southern China which for more than a thousand years in ancient China was a criminal act punishable by the most severe imperial law. This might sound remote to you, why on earth would someone stop someone else from mobilising salt? Just as mesmerising as bootlegging is to me, why in the olden days would making some wine and selling it to the thirsty be made of such a fuss? Jesus made wine from water when the fellows had no booze for party. Well, history is what it was.

My great grand-pa lived long and safe. Legend has it that on a nice sunny day he would dig up his  wine jars from the dirt and empty them of gold and silver coins to let them dry from fungi erosion, and by the evening he would fill the fortune in again and bury the jars in shady locations which were so elaborately selected that from time to time even he himself failed to recover all of them. These days as I am resided near the family house, I would often dig about the orchards and plots in the hope that some pottery objects or a few pieces of aurum et argentum, as the Romans would call them, might pop up and tinkle. Regretfully I have to say so far the effort has rendered no fruitful consequences. Great grand-pa’s story ends rather sadly as his wine jar stuff didn’t quite fit in the idea of communism. Shrewd as he was, all jars that had not faded his memory had been voluntarily dug up and invested in the local authority in exchange for communist “coupons”, as I was told of, that I suppose was a kind of bond. His family was secured, but the coupons didn’t cash out, so they were burned, by my great uncle, according to whom, the old man secretly weeped.

Today, the dilapidated family house was all that had been left of his legacy.

ancient chinese house
The only photo of it taken before its demolition

The house

The house was of “C” shape, consisting of one central hall, two setting rooms, two kitchens, eight bedrooms and about one hectare of orchards attached to it. My great uncle pulled it down and was ready to rebuild it, precisely along the ancient footprint, which isn’t so ambitious, and with ancient codes, which is rather ambitious. To begin with, we refuse to acknowledge that the Portland cement was invented; to go even farther, we ignore the fact that China has risen to be world’s leading steel producer, pretending we still imported steel from Europe for our sorry little gunboats and pistols as in the Qing Dynasty, in other words, we are to build the structure without implementing steel. It is going to be a construction of bricks and wood(砖木结构).

The great uncle, having appointed himself chief engineer and project manager and seeing me having no obvious better things to do than idling about the countryside and walking dogs, invited me to consult for the design.

dogs
My two dogs in China: from top: Tieniu (Iron Bull) and Tiedaner (Iron Egg) in their teenage months

I read books and looked up pictures, then came up with some new ideas for the house to be slightly modern and comfort oriented.

 

It was rejected, too modern, too much glass.

And I read Liang Sicheng’s books and looked up more pictures, then we had these:

 

Great uncle says, here we go.

traditional chinese house

It was perfectly fine for us to draw nice pictures and require ancient techniques, there then came the question of its execution by who and how.

Mortar has been the key player in our history of civil engineering, thanks to it, arches, lintels and domes are easily realised. It was once invented in the Roman days, hence the Pantheon, and lost in the dark ages for hundreds of years, and then reinvented perhaps with an altered recipe by some modern fellow who struggled to have a nice house built like I do. Provided we forgo the cement, a substitute must be in place to adhere bricks to each other. Traditionally, the Chinese mixed lime, the calcium material not the sour fruit, rock grit and water to create a dollop-like substance to lay bricks, and more traditionally, a recipe containing grit, straw, water and boiled glutinous rice came to the surface as an option too. Old fashioned but not insane, we went for the former.

brick and wood house
Bricks were laid

The Crew

And by who? On one pleasant morning, as mist faded off the tree tops and birds started tweeting, great uncle and his men marched into the site. I was taken aghast at the crew, some were too old, others looked like roses bitten by frost, and one or two of them had to cough a good half an hour to have their breath established. There were about 30 men in total, among them many builders and 2 carpenters. To put in a side note, the Western history of architecture is more of a tale of the stone, therefore the art has been passed down from master to disciple through the lines of sculptors, or less significantly of masons; whereas the Chinese history of architecture is all but about wood, so that the ancient fashi (building codes) has been within the teachings between master carpenters and students.

Thanks to globalisation, in our modern day age fellows around the world are more or less inclined to build their homes in similar ways, save some reclusive tribal folks in the Amazons, as a result, the Chinese carpenter as a species is growing dangerously extinct. They have been swept underneath the carpet decades ago, forgotten and unwanted. But then, great uncle went through the villages to scavenge them up, and for the last time in their lives let them shine and toy at their skills, like Don Quixote charging towards the windmill with his ancient sward. Well, Don Quixote they might be, there were only two of them found, a third one, in his seventy’s, was located but had just announced his retirement.

Speaking of carpenters, I should feel dismayed to see the term applied to the modern profession whose trade merely involves shooting nails into wood boards to make so called cabinets or “furniture”. A carpenter in the classical definition is a man, or surely sometimes a woman, who assembles large or small pieces of wood by joints of the mortise and the tenon.

榫卯
this is how a mortise and tenon joint looks like

Then we realised for a house this size, we would need quite some amount of wood: beams, columns, eaves, door frames, the lots of them. Fortunately, the great uncle had amassed a collection and the result is promising.

chinese wood building

There are piles of them as shown in above picture, among them, some were trees the great uncle had an eye on ten years ago and were in recent years chopped down from the mountains; others were recollected from demolition of the old house, after a hundred years in service; and the rest were freshly chopped from the neighbourhood for emergency demand.

(Chopping trees on the spot)

Once all logs were in position, the two gentlemen set off to their ancient business. Watching them working against the sunset, I often feared that by the feeble movements of their axes and saws, it might take the rest of my life to see the project completed, or the rest of their lives.

 

carpenter work china

Like all outstanding projects, construction barely goes along with its drawings, however, things are looking more and more familiar to the great uncle.

11
Especially the windows

 

And this is how it came to be by the halt for the Lunar New Year.

traditional chinese house17

To be resumed.

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