Teaching About

Chinese Houses


My Home, Your Home

At Home in China


Ronald G. Knapp


EMAIL: knappr@newpaltz.edu

WEBSITE: http://www.newpaltz.edu/~knappr



A family is a group of usually related individuals living under one roof, a fundamental unit of social organization.

Where they live is usually called a home.

While a house (or dwelling) is the structure in which a family constitutes its home, not everyone has a home in a house.

Houses and Homes are general concepts, yet each term has very specific meanings.

Even apartment dwellers, who call the apartment their home, usually have visited a house,

whether that of a relative, friend, or a residence of an historic figure—a simple house or a great estate—that preserves a legacy of times past.


  • This approach builds on the experiences of living in houses and homes anywhere.
  • Houses and homes will be seen as dynamic places in which lives are constituted.
  • Houses are primary sources in that they represent a complex form of material culture,

which can be read, analyzed, and understood.


ArchiCulture is the organizing thread linking house, home, and family:


  • Links the artifactual and the experiential
  • Links conscious and subconscious decision-making
  • Views dwellings as sites of reproduction, work, socialization, and leisure
  • Sees the dynamic quality of housing
  • Highlights change within tradition


Within a DWELLING a FAMILY creates its HOME


Before carrying out this exercise, students should read/review some of

the highlighted printed and/or internet resources found below relating to houses in general

and Chinese houses in particular, including, most importantly,

the Asia for Educators website

East Asia in Geographic Perspective

(Element D Human Systems Standard 10: Characteristics & Complexity of Earth's Cultural Mosaics)


and the

Yin Yu Tang website




Understanding the Present and the Past:

  • What is tangible and visible: objects of material culture, complex artifacts
  • What is intangible & invisible: social organization, taste, comfort, ornamentation, symbols, ritual
  • The whole and the parts
  • How space is organized


Valuing the Past by Valuing Old Houses:

  • Recreating the past in olde villages and towns
  • Vernacular architecture and Living History
  • Old houses tell us stories about the lives of people living in them


General House and Home Questions:

  • Does everyone live in a house? What other spaces do people occupy (live in)?
  • How do houses and homes differ?
  • In what ways do houses reflect family relationships and the organization of family life?
  • How do houses, homes, and families change over time?


  • How do houses differ from place to place in the USA?
  • Why do houses differ? What factors contribute to the differences and the similarities?
  • How do location and climate—basic elements of geography—contribute to housing forms?


  • What are the most striking differences seen in the variety of Chinese houses?
  • What are the common elements found in Chinese houses?
  • What role do courtyards (yuanzi) and skywells (tianjing) play in Chinese houses?
  • In what ways have Chinese houses changed over time?
  • In what ways did the breakdown of China’s imperial system, the revolution of 1911,

and subsequent events to the present lead to changes in the nature of Chinese houses?


  • What can we infer about people's lives from the spaces they created to live in?
  • What does how people construct, decorate, and furnish their homes tell us about their resources, aesthetic preferences, and social habits?


Specific Aspects of Chinese Houses/Dwellings



  • The North & The South
  • Han Houses & Minority Houses
  • Simple Dwellings & Grand Manors



  • Somewhat Ahistorical Character
  • Composing Space





Open and Closed Spaces

Directional Orientation

·        Building Structure

Modularity—Wooden Framing Systems

·        Organic Quality of Houses

Grows/Expands/Evolves as Family Form Changes





  • In Quest of Harmony

Fengshui: mystical ecology

Dwellings as social templates: ordering a family

House-building ritual

Building sorcery and defensive measures


  • In Pursuit of Good Fortune

Summoning Good Fortune

Fu (Good Fortune) and Its Many Forms

Narrative Tales: Filial piety


Reproducible Handouts Concerning Chinese Houses (click here):


Kitchen God image

Fu character

Ancestral veneration (worship)

Floor plans

Wooden Framing Systems

Fengshui instrument






Floor Plan

Kitchen God


vernacular Architecture


fu character

perspective drawing


women’s quarters

filial piety


section Drawing






  • Ask each student to sketch a picture of the outside of his/her home, looking at it from the front.
  • Then ask to draw a rough floor plan of her/his house and trace the outlines of each of the rooms:

bedrooms, living room, family room, kitchen, bathroom(s), and any other room.


  • Name two elements that are similar to those found in Chinese houses like Yin Yu Tang.
  • Name two elements that are different from those found in Chinese houses like Yin Yu Tang.


  • How does Yin Yu Tang differ from other Chinese houses seen in books and on the internet?


  • Offer some possible explanations for any observed differences?


Resources for Teaching & Learning

Chinese Architecture & Houses


Selected Websites (click the name to go to the site)

** Especially Useful Sites


** Architecture 101 from  about.com


** About structures


** American Architectural Foundation—Architecture & the Classroom


** arch-KID-ecture - Architecture for Children

Architecture for Kids


** Asia for Educators

East Asia in Geographic Perspective


Element D Human Systems Standard 10:

Characteristics & Complexity of Earth's Cultural Mosaics


Beauty and the Brick: Illustrated Books and Nineteenth Century Domestic Design


** Beyond China: Asia's Old Dwellings & Ancient Architecture


Building America: House and Home: 400 Years of Domestic Architecture


Building Beijing


Buildings in Children's Books

Center for Understanding the Built Environment (CUBE)—architivities


** China’s Homes: Teachers’ Guide: Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization


** Chinese Architecture, Twin Cities Public Television, Inc Made in China


Chinese Folk Art

Chinese Folk Fine Arts Information Service


Chinese Paper Gods


** Chinese Rural Architecture—Text: Ronald G. Knapp; Photographs: Olivier Laude


** Chinese Scholar’s Study


** Chinese Vernacular Architecture & General Chinese Architecture


Come and Enjoy Architecture


** Dwellings around the Globe (Middle School Lesson Plan)


** Explore Korea: A Visit to Grandfather's House” Seattle Art Museum

An interactive exploration of traditional Korean houses, arts, and family activities for grades K-8

** Lesson Plans, including handouts and printed materials:


** Ethnoarchitecture

Promises to be the online source on traditional & vernacular architecture around the world


Farmers Museum, Cooperstown, NY


Historic House Trust of New York City


Home Is Where the Architecture Is


International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments (IASTE)


Lower East Side Tenement Museum, New York City

The Tenement as History and Housing-WNET Public Television



National Building Museum


** Nianhua Gallery: Chinese Folk Prints by James Flath


** Old Sturbridge Village

Heave 'er Up: Building a House is Hard Work, Some Play

Old House Journal on-line


Plimoth Plantation: The 1627 Pilgrim Village


The 1900 House

Web-based study of a Victorian Home

Lesson Plans: Our Town, 1900 & Living Without Technology


This Old House pbs series website


Using Chinese Folktales in the Classroom (PDF Format) by Howard Giskin

Education about Asia Volume 7, Number 2, Fall 2002


Vernacular Architecture Forum

Vernacular Architecture & Landscape Architecture: Resource Guide


World of Old Houses: A Guide To Caring For And Restoring Your Old House


** Yin Yu Tang, Peabody Essex Museum



Selected Books:


Especially Recommended are Highlighted

Reading levels For Children’s Books from Amazon.com


Berliner, Nancy. Yin Yu Tang: The Lives of a Chinese House. Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2003.

Berliner, Nancy and Sarah Handler. Friends of the House: Furniture from China’s Towns and Villages. Salem: Peabody Essex Museum, 1996.


Bray, Francesca. Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.


Bruun, Ole. Fengshui in China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003.


Crouch, Dora P. and June G. Johnson. Traditions in Architecture: Africa, America, Asia, and Oceania. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.


Dewey, Jennifer Owings. Animal Architecture. New York: Orchard Books, 1999. Reading level: Ages 4-8


Dorros, Arthur. This Is My House. New York: Scholastic, 1992. Spanish language edition: Esta Es Mi Casa. New York: Scholastic, 1995. Reading level: Ages 9-12

Duquette, Keith. The House Book (Picture Books). New York: Putnam, 1999. Reading level: Ages 4-8


Eisen, David. Fun with Architecture: From the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Viking Press, 1992. Reading level: Young Adult


Glenn, Patricia Brown. Under Every Roof - A Kids' Style And Field Guide To The Architecture Of American Houses. New York: Preservation Press, 1993. Reading level: Young Adult


Foster, Gerald. American Houses: A Field Guide to the Architecture of the Home. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.


Kemery, Becky. Yurts: Living in the Round. Salt Lake City: Gibbs, Smith, 2006.


Knapp, Ronald G., ed. Asia’s Old Dwellings: Tradition, Resilience, and Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.


Knapp, Ronald G. ed. Chinese Landscapes: The Village as Place.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii  Press, 1992.


Knapp, Ronald G. China’s Living Houses: Folk Beliefs, Symbols, and Household Ornamentation. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.


Knapp, Ronald G. China’s Old Dwellings. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000.


Knapp, Ronald G. China’s Vernacular Architecture: House Form and Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989.


Knapp, Ronald G. The Chinese House: Craft, Symbol and the Folk Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.


Knapp, Ronald G. Chinese Houses: The Architectural Heritage of a Nation (with photographs by A. Chester Ong). Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2005.


Knapp, Ronald G. and Kai-yin Lo, eds. House Home Family: Living and Being Chinese. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005.

USEFUL REFERENCE FOR TEACHERS & STUDENTS: Drawing on the work of leading scholars in the fields of anthropology, architecture, art, art history, geography, and history, House Home Family explores and analyzes the functional, social, and symbolic attributes of Chinese dwellings. Discount copies available at amazon.com via Knapp website http://www.newpaltz.edu/~knappr Sample chapter and illustrations viewable on University of Hawaii’s website: http://www.uhpress.hawaii.edu





Knapp, Ronald G. Overseas Chinese Houses: Transnational Architecture in Southeast Asia and China (with photographs by A. Chester Ong). Boston: Tuttle Publishing, Forthcoming 2008.


Kwok, Man-Ho. The Feng Shui Kit: The Chinese Way to Health, Wealth, and Happiness at Home and at Work. Boston: Tuttle: 1995.


Lorenz, Albert. House: Showing How People Have Lived Throughout History with Examples Drawn from the Lives of Legendry Men and Women. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. 1998. Reading level: Ages 9-12


Millard, Anne and Steve Noon (Illustrator). A Street Through Time. New York: DK Publishing, 1998. Reading level: Ages 9-12


Morris, Ann and Ken Heyman (Illustrator). Houses and Homes. New York: Lothrop Lee & Shepard, 1992. Reading level: Baby-Preschool

Morse, Edward Sylvester. Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings. New York: Harpers, 1895. Reprinted Charles E Tuttle Co., 1973.


Oliver, Paul. Dwellings: The House around the World. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987.


Oliver, Paul. Dwellings: The Vernacular House Worldwide. New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2003.


Oliver, Paul, ed. Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.


Oliver, Paul. Shelter and Society. New York: Frederick Praeger, Inc., 1969.


Oliver, Paul. Shelter in Africa. New York: Frederick Praeger, Inc., 1971.


Palmer, Martin. T’ung Shu: The Ancient Chinese Almanac. Boston: Shambhala, 1986.


Rapoport, Amos. House Form and Culture. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969.


Rudofsky, Bernard. Architecture without Architects: a Short Introduction to Non-pedigreed Architecture. New York: Doubleday.1964.


Schoenauer, Norbert. 6,000 Years of Housing. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000.


Shemie, Bonnie. Houses of China. Plattsburgh NY: Tundra Books, 1996. (Plus many, many books for children on Native American and Canadian dwellings). Reading level: Ages 9-12


Slafer, Anna and Kevin Cahill. Why Design? Activities and Projects from the National Building Museum. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1995. Reading level: Young Adult


Smith, Albert Gary. The American House Styles of Architecture Coloring Book. New York: Dover Publications, 1983.


Smith, Albert Gary. Historic Houses of New England Coloring Book. New York: Dover Publications, 1993.


Taylor, Anne. Architecture and Children. Horizon Communications, 1988. Poster Collection.


The Sourcebook: Learning by Design. Washington, D.C.: American Institute of Architects, 1981.


Weaver, Janice and Bonnie Shemie (Illustrator). Building America. Plattsburgh NY: Tundra Books, 2002. Reading level: Ages 9-12


White, Sylvia. Welcome Home! A World of Difference. Chicago: Children’s Press, 1995. Reading level: Ages 9-12


Wickes, Angela and Eric Thomas (Illustrator). A Farm Through Time. New York: DK Publishing, 2001. Reading level: Ages 9-12

Winters, Nathan B. Architecture Is Elementary: Visual Thinking Through Architectural Concepts. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books and Utah Heritage Foundation, 1986. Revised edition by Utah Heritage Foundation, 1997.


Wood, Tim. Houses and Homes: See Through History series. New York: Viking Children’s Books, 1997. Reading level: Ages 9-12