The Shanxi courtyard houses were built during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties in the Jinzhong region of Shanxi Province, China. These grand mansions belonged to big, local families that had become rich via their success as merchants and bankers.
These castle-like structures were constructed based on the architectural style of northern China. Similar to the traditional Chinese Quadrangle, a Shanxi Grand Compound’s courtyard is usually rectangular, with all of its rooms facing towards the courtyard. The whole mansion looks like a compound that has been formed from many small quadrangles. The external walls are high and strong for defensive purposes.
In fact, the layout of every courtyard house is symbolic and has its own deeper meaning, which is based on the resident family’s hopes and desires. For example, the layout of the Qiao’s compound is designed to look like the Chinese word for happiness: 囍. Every detail of any Shanxi compound has its own symbolic implication and this kind of architectural style will tell you a lot about traditional Chinese culture.
If you are interested in the history of the Shanxi merchants who built these compounds, please read the article entitled Jin Merchants.
List of the most famous Shanxi Courtyard:
The Qiao’s compound, which was also named “Zai Zhong Tang”, is located in Qixian, Shanxi Province. Construction of this compound began in 1756 and, in the following 160 years after its completion, it was extended three times. The final estate covers 8,724 square metres and has 6 large courtyards and 20 small courtyards. The whole compound has 313 rooms that altogether cover around 4,000 square metres. The layout of the grand courtyard is designed to look like the Chinese word for happiness: 囍. The 10 metre high external walls make the compound look almost castle-like. This compound is the most famous one among all of the Shanxi grand compounds. It is typical in its design, it is huge and it has been well preserved, making it a popular set for many Chinese films and TV series.
The Qiao Family
The Qiao family seized the opportunity to become merchants during the early Qing Dynasty. The most successful businessman in the family was Qiao Zhiyong. During the period when Qiao Zhiyong was the head of the family, the Qiao lineage had more than 200 shops all over the country attached to it, including Piaohao (an early type of bank), pawn shops and grain stores. Qiao Zhiyong began to expand the Qiao’s mansion in his 40’s. Thanks to Qiao Zhiyong, the Qiao family compound finally became the grand, castle-like compound that it is today.
In 1900, the Eight-Nation Alliance went to liberate their Embassy in Beijing, which had been under siege since the Boxer Rebellion. After they solved the Embassy’s problem, the armed forces invaded and occupied Beijing City. In response, the governor-general in Shanxi Province gave an order to kill all of the foreigners in the Shanxi region. Seven Italian sisters managed to escape and went to the Qiao’s compound for protection. Qiao Zhiyong accepted their plea. Afterwards the Italian embassy gave him an Italian flag to show their appreciation for him having protected their people. Later on, thanks to Japans alliance with Italy, the presence of this flag meant that the Qiao’s family compound was not destroyed by the Japanese army during the War of Resistance Against Japan (the Second Sino-Japanese War).
Located in Lingshi, Shanxi, the Wang’s Compound is the biggest family compound in Shanxi Province. The compound has six castle-like courtyards, six lanes and one street incorporated into it. The whole area covers 25,000 square metres. The five main castle-like courtyards were designed and built to symbolically represent the five lucky animals – the dragon, the phoenix, the tortoise, the qilin (Chinese unicorn) and the tiger. Nowadays only two of the huge castle-like courtyards and one of the Ancestral Halls are open to tourists. The area that is now open for tourism covers approximately 4,500 square metres and includes 123 courtyards and 1,118 rooms.
Red Gate Castle (Hong Men Pu)
This castle-like compound was built between 1739 and 1793, during the Qing Dynasty. The whole site covers 25,000 square metres, and contains 29 courtyards in 4 rows. The layout is designed to look like the Chinese word for King: 王 (wang). It is no coincidence that this character happens to also be the Wang’s family name.
Gao Jia Ya
This compound was also built during the Qing Dynasty, between 1796 and 1811. It covers nearly 20,000 square metres and perfectly exhibits the traditional art of woodcutting, stone-carving and brick-sculpture in Shanxi.
The Wang Family
The story of the Wang family is typical of a Jin merchants’ family. They began as farmers and eventually became small time businessmen. They then expanded their business gradually, in the hopes of ultimately obtaining official positions for at least some of their family members. The family reached the peak of their success during the middle of the Qing Dynasty. Approximately 101 members of the Wang family were high-ranking officials during this period. From the late Qing Dynasty onwards, the Wang family’s influence started to decline. It was not only due to politics, but also because future generations of the Wang family, unlike their forebears, had virtually no ambition.
Find more stories about Shanxi Grand Compounds and Jin Merchants on Cultural Tour in Shanxi.