The Loess Plateau

The Loess Plateau, sometimes referred to as the Huangtu Plateau, is made up of terrain that is unlike anywhere else in the world. The arid, dusty countryside, covered in sparse vegetation, looks almost surreal and certainly uninhabitable. Yet locals of Shanxi and Shaanxi province have made the Loess Plateau their home for hundreds of years. It is one of the focal destinations of the Silk Road and thus its presence and history is delicately intertwined with that of China’s development. Another fact is that it serves as a wonderful destination for tourists to experience a completely alien landscape that has morphed and adapted over thousands of years.

It is called the Loess Plateau because it is an elevated plain of flat land that is covered in loess. Loess is a type of soil made up of silt and sediment that has been deposited on the plateau over time by wind storms. This type of soil is very easily eroded by water and wind, making the landscape of the plateau very unstable and changeable. The Loess Plateau itself surrounds the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River and covers an area of approximately 640,000 km². To put this into perspective, it is roughly the size of the whole of Afghanistan. This massive plateau covers parts of Shanxi Province, Shaanxi Province, Gansu Province, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Inner Mongolia. The climate in the plateau is semi-arid, meaning the winters are cold and dry, while the summers are very warm and in many places can be very hot. The rainfall tends to be heavily concentrated in summer, bordering on monsoon-like, and the plateau receives a substantial amount of sunshine all year round.

loess plateau02The earliest records of this area are from people travelling along the Northern Silk Road. After the return of the explorer Zhang Qian during the first millennium BCE, the Han Dynasty began trading with the Western Regions by travelling through the southern part of the Loess Plateau, which formed part of the Northern Silk Road. They would exchange goods such as gold, rubies, jade, coral and ivory with bronze weapons, furs, ceramics and cinnamon bark.

In ancient times, the fact that the soil in the Loess Plateau was extremely fertile and easy to farm, coupled with the appearance of the Silk Road, meant that the Loess Plateau became heavily populated by farmers. These farmers took shelter in constructions known as Yaodong or Loess Cave Houses. These are houses that are carved directly into the cliff-face and are naturally air-conditioned in the summer and heated in the winter, meaning they are cheap and easy to live in. During the 1930s, the Communist Party led by Mao Zedong used several Yaodong in Yan’an as there headquarters and most Yaodong in China are still in use today.

The ancient Yaodong in the Loess Plateau are a must-see and are unlike any other building on earth. Their cultural significance dates back all the way to the Silk Road and leads right up to the Cultural Revolution. The fact that they are still used as homes today gives any visitor an insight into how people in ancient times would have lived and farmed crops or animals in the Loess Plateau. The Yaodong and the Loess Plateau act as a time-capsule that transports you back to what life was like after the establishment of the Silk Road.

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Join a travel with us to discover the amazing land view of the Loess Plateau in Shanxi Province: Explore Chinese Culture through the Ages

Shanxi Grand Compound

shanxi compound

Shanxi Grand Compounds were magnificent courtyard houses that were originally built during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties by prosperous families hailing from Shanxi province. Many of them are scattered throughout Qi County, including the Qiao Family Compound, the Wang Family Compound, the Cao Family Compound, and the Qu Family Compound. These families largely skyrocketed to untold wealth by becoming merchants or bankers, which enabled later generations to take the imperial examinations and become powerful government officials. In short, the golden apple never falls too far from the money tree!

These compounds are so impressive in their grandeur that they are more like castles than mansions, with an architectural style that imitates the traditional “siheyuan” or “quadrangle” of northern China. The Chinese quadrangle is typically formed in the shape of a rectangle, with all of its rooms facing inwards towards a large courtyard. Shanxi Grand Compounds are like a composite of several small Chinese quadrangles, which are ultimately surrounded by high walls for defensive purposes. After all, such a large display of wealth is bound to attract unwanted attention! The layout of these compounds is usually symbolic and expresses the hopes of the resident family. For example, the Qiao Family Compound was designed in the shape of the Chinese character “囍”, which means “happiness” and conveys the family’s desire for a bright future.

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:

  1. Qiao's family compund02The Qiao Family Compound

Thanks to its starring role in Zhang Yimou’s moving drama Raise the Red Lantern, the Qiao Family Compound is the most famous of its kind and has thus been beautifully preserved. Located within the village of Qiaojiabao approximately 30 kilometres (19 mi) from the historic city of Pingyao, the compound was originally known as Zai Zhong Tang (在中堂) and was constructed in 1756 by a renowned merchant named Qiao Guifa, who made his fortune selling tea and tofu.

In the ensuing 160 years following its completion, it was restructured and extended three separate times by Guifa’s successors. The finished estate, which covers a colossal 8,724 square metres (93,904 sq. ft.), is comprised of 6 large courtyards, 20 smaller courtyards, one ancestral temple, and a staggering 313 rooms. Its imposing 10-metre (33 ft.) high walls endow the compound with a fortress-like appearance from the outside.

While the history of this majestic mansion began with the venerable Qiao Guifa, by far the most renowned and successful businessman of the Qiao family was Qiao Zhiyong. During the period when he was head of the family, the Qiao clan controlled over 200 shops located throughout the country, including a number of prototype banks, pawnshops, teahouses, and granaries. It was Qiao Zhiyong who embarked on the compound’s largest expansion, resulting in the grand mansion that we see today. Yet it wasn’t just Qiao Zhiyong’s business acumen that enabled the compound to succeed.

In 1900, the Eight-Nation Alliance sent troops to liberate their embassy in Beijing, which had been under siege as part of the violent Boxer Rebellion. Once they had resolved the issue with the embassy, they decided to invade and occupy the city of Beijing. In response, the governor-general of Shanxi province ordered that all foreigners in the region were to be killed on site. Seven Italian sisters, who were working in the country as missionaries, managed to escape the ensuing panic and eventually arrived at the Qiao Family Compound. They begged Qiao Zhiyong for protection and he accepted their plea.

To honour his benevolence, the Italian embassy awarded him with an Italian flag. Many years later, during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the Japanese army chose not to destroy the Qiao Family Compound thanks to the presence of this flag, as Italy was one of their political allies at the time. The compound was occupied by the Qiao family right up until 1985, when it was converted into a museum.

Wandering through the compound’s many rooms and corridors is a banquet of delights, resplendent with some of the finest wood carvings, brick carvings, stone carvings, murals, and wall sculptures in northern China. Nowadays it houses over 2,000 cultural relics, including porcelain, silk embroidery, paintings, and divine furnishings that are sure to transport you back to the luxurious lifestyle of the Qiao family. Just don’t stay too long, or you may never want to leave!


  1. wang family compound01The Wang Family Compound

While it may not be as popular as the Qiao Family Compound, the Wang Family Compound is actually four times its size and rivals the Forbidden City in its magnitude! With six castle-like courtyards, six lanes, and one street incorporated into its vast complex, it stretches over an area of 150,000 square metres (161,4587 sq. ft.). Its five main courtyards were designed to symbolically represent the five lucky animals according to traditional Chinese culture: the Dragon, the Phoenix, the Tortoise, the Qilin (Chinese Unicorn), and the Tiger. In short, you could say the Wang family were living in the belly of the beast!

Like many of the Jin merchant families from this region, the Wang family began as simple farmers and eventually graduated to becoming small time businessmen. During the Ming Dynasty, they expanded their business gradually and hoped that, ultimately, their efforts would grant their successors the opportunity to gain official positions in the government. By the Qing Dynasty, the family had reached the peak of their prosperity and over 100 members of the Wang family were high-ranking officials. Talk about achieving your long term goals! Unfortunately all this good work would be undone towards the end of the dynasty, as future generations of the Wang family lacked their forebears’ ambition. After having lived in this grand mansion for 27 generations, the last members of the Wang family left in 1996 and it was opened to the public in 1997.

Nowadays, only two of the colossal courtyards and one of the ancestral halls are open to tourists, comprising a total of 123 smaller courtyards and over 1,100 rooms. The complex has been separated into three main areas: the Red Gate Castle; the Gao Jia Ya; and the Chongning Bao. Much like the Qiao Family Compound, these majestic halls have been transformed into exhibitions featuring artwork, calligraphy, sculptures, and other items that once belonged to the family. On August 18th of every year, a Tourism Festival is held in the Wang Family Compound, where visitors have the opportunity to watch and take part in traditional folk activities. It’s the ideal time to embrace the ancient culture in which this grand work of architecture was conceived.



Find more stories about Shanxi Grand Compounds and Jin Merchants on our tour: Explore Chinese Culture through the Ages



Nestled on the banks of the Yellow River to the east of the majestic Wohu Mountains, the village of Qikou was once one of the most prosperous settlements in Shanxi province. The name “Qikou”, which roughly translates to mean “moraine” or “a rock in shallow water”, may seem relatively uninspiring, but it is actually derived from the significance of the location that Qikou occupied along the Yellow River. It is at this point that the riverbed suddenly narrows from about 500 metres (1,640 ft.) to just 80 metres (262 ft.) in width, which forces the river into a tight channel and causes it to deposit a large amount of sediment on the riverbed. This in turn means this section of the river is impassable by boat. 

Historically, the Yellow River represented a vital waterway via which goods were transported between northern and southern China. In order to keep this transportation system running smoothly, Qikou became a major trading port where merchants would dock their ships and have their wares transported the rest of the way over land by camel or horse-drawn caravans. It rose to prominence during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, where it was widely recognised as one of the most important ports along the Yellow River. In its heyday, hundreds of boats berthed at its docks, over 200 hotels and 380 shops catered to its many visitors, and more than two thousand dockworkers laboured tirelessly in its myriad of warehouses. It remained a bustling trade hub until the 1940s, when water and caravan transport was gradually superseded by rail.

Although it may no longer be the glorious trade port it once was, Qikou is still a picturesque ancient town with many historic buildings that have been beautifully preserved. In order to protect them from flooding, many of these houses, known as “yaodongs” or “loess cave houses,” have been physically carved into the steep hillside along the banks of the Yellow River. Looming over these houses on a raised platform, the Black Dragon Temple is the ideal place to enjoy a panoramic view of town. The temple is dedicated primarily to two separate deities: the legendary Black Dragon; and Guan Yu, a military general from the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280) who was eventually deified.

Located about 10 kilometres (6 mi) south of Qikou, the small village of Lijiashan is renowned for its myriad of over 400 yaodongs carved into the cliff-face of Lijia Mountain. When Qikou began to flourish as a port town, many wealthy merchants living in the town decided, for the sake of safety, to build secret homes for their families deep within the mountains. Lijiashan was one of the settlements established for these merchant families, which is why the cave dwellings of Lijiashan are particularly lavish and elegantly decorated. After all, a man’s home is his castle!



At the grand age of 2,700 years, Pingyao is one of the oldest cities in China and was once the financial centre of the entire country. The city was established during the reign of King Xuan (827-782 BC) of the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–771 BC), although it had to be largely rebuilt in 1370, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It was during this time that the city was expanded and its famed city walls were constructed. By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), it was home to more than 20 financial institutions, which represented more than half of the total number in the entirety of China.


The Jin merchants who owned these institutions swiftly rose to prominence and became the most important economic influence on Shanxi province. You could say their sudden wealth meant they were laughing all the way to the bank! Nowadays it is home to some of the most well-preserved ancient structures in the country, many of which are located on its picturesque Ming-Qing Street, and it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

The City Walls

The city was built according to the typical layout of ancient Chinese towns, but also conformed to a traditional theory known as Bagua or the “Eight Trigrams”. To this end, the temples and government offices were located on both sides of the central axis, while the residential houses and commercial markets were in the town centre. This layout has been retained to this day, and the city is still home to some 50,000 residents. The ancient part of the city is surrounded by the city walls, which are 12 metres (39 ft.) high and stretch for 6 kilometres (4 mi) in length! The wall itself is heavily fortified, with four towers at its corners, 72 watchtowers, over 3,000 battlements, and a 4-metre (13 ft.) deep moat at its feet.

The walls are punctuated by six barbican gates in total, with one each on the north and south sides, and two each on the west and east sides. From an aerial perspective, this supposedly makes Pingyao look like a tortoise, with the west and east gates as the legs, the north gate as the tail, the south gate as the head, and the criss-crossing lanes within as the patterns on its shell. This has earned it the nickname the “Tortoise City”!

This resemblance is no accident, as tortoises are a symbol of longevity in traditional Chinese culture. It was believed that, by having city walls in the shape of a tortoise, this would ensure that the city would remain secure in perpetuity. Much like the tortoise and the hare, the slow and steady pace in Pingyao meant it definitely won the race! The city walls are in such great condition that visitors can still take a leisurely stroll along them to this day.

Exchange Houses

In ancient times, these city walls protected not only the people, but also the financial institutions that Pingyao eventually became famous for. Among these, the most renowned is known as Rishengchang or “Sunrise Prosperity”, which was established in 1823 and is thought to have been the first bank in China. During its heyday, Rishengchang controlled nearly half of the silver circulating in the country. It may have traded in silver, but it was worth its weight in gold!


The need for piaohao or “exchange houses” such as Rishengchang arose when traders began using silver coins during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Rampant banditry meant it was unsafe for merchants to carry large sums of silver with them as they travelled, so these exchange houses were able to provide money transfers, accept deposits, and give out loans. While Rishengchang’s base was in Pingyao, it founded branches in major cities throughout China, Japan, Singapore, and Russia, and used bank drafts to move money from one branch to another.

It managed to maintain its prosperity for a staggering 109 years, until it tragically went bankrupt in 1932 due to the advent of modern banking. The development of Rishengchang is considered so integral to the economic history of China that its original head office was restored and converted into a museum in 1995. It was even immortalised in the 2009 film Empire of Silver, about a wealthy banking family living in Pingyao during the turn of the 20th century. From the silver trade to the silver screen, Rishengchang was destined to shine!  (Find more stories about Jin Merchants.)

Temple of the City God

Alongside the city walls and Rishengchang, the other major attractions within the ancient city are the County Government Office and the Temple of the City God. While the County Government Office was designed to rule the “yang” of the human world, the Temple of the City God held sway over the “yin” of the spiritual world. These two buildings were placed on the same street in order to balance each other out, with the office in the west and the temple in the east. The County Government Office was originally built in 1346, during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and is the largest of its kind in China. It represented a vast complex containing the home of the local magistrate, various offices, a prison, a court, meeting rooms, and a scenic garden.

In the same vein, the Temple of the City God is comprised of several decorative courtyards and magnificent halls. This Taoist temple was constructed during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and, unlike other city god temples in China, it honours the God of Wealth and the Kitchen God as well as the City God of Pingyao. While it is a popular tourist attraction in the city, it should be noted that it remains an active house of worship and is frequently visited by residents eager to appease their local deity!


Outside the city walls, two other temples have been included as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Shuanglin Temple and Zhenguo Temple. Shuanglin Temple was built in 571 AD and is renowned for the more than 2,000 coloured clay statues that bedeck its halls, which were crafted between the 13th and 17th centuries. Similarly, Zhenguo Temple was constructed in 963 AD and boasts a number of magnificent sculptures that date all the way back to the Northern Han Dynasty (951–979). In short, Pingyao may not have the notoriety of the Great Wall or the Forbidden City, but its historical pedigree is beyond compare!


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Shanxi Province, with the short abbreviation of Jin, is located in North China, not far from the capital Beijing. The Chinese meaning of Shanxi is “west of the mountains”, where “the mountains” means Mount Taihang.

The Yellow river forms its western border with Shaanxi Province. There are two tributaries of the Yellow river – Fen River and Qin River, run from north to south through the province. In the north of the province there are some tributaries of the Hai River. However, even though so many rivers in Shanxi, the field there is barren because most of the areas in Shanxi belong to the Loess Plateau. There is a large natural salt lake in the south of Shanxi, which made Shanxi people wealth in the history.

shanxi locationShanxi is called “the museum of Chinese ancient architecture”.  It has more than 70% old buildings constructed during or before Song Dynasty (960-1279). Apart from this, there also have Yungang Grottoes, Mount Wutai that is one of the four Buddhist pilgrimage destinations. Mount Hengshan is one of the “Five Great Peaks” in China. The Ancient City of Pingyao is a well-preserved old town prosperous in Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties.

Shanxi has various traditional cultures and arts. Paper cutting and dough modelling are the two most distinctive crafts.

Yaodong (loess cave house) is the very typical traditional residence in the Loess Plateau. There are still many villages in Shanxi Province formed by this kind of house caves.


Join a travel with us to explore more about Shanxi ProvinceExplore Chinese Culture through the Ages

Yaodong (Loess Cave House)

The yaodongs of northern China represent the ultimate mingling between natural beauty and manmade ingenuity. Stretching across the Loess Plateau within the provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi, Gansu, and Henan, they have been an integral feature of the landscape for over 4,500 years. Their name literally translates to mean “kiln cave” and is a reference to their arched interior, which supposedly resembles the inside of a kiln. While the name may sound rather fiery, yaodongs are renowned for being pleasantly cool during summer and comfortably warm during winter. Nowadays, it is estimated that more than 40 million people continue to live in yaodongs. To put that into perspective, that’s nearly four times the population of Belgium!

The first yaodongs were said to have been built during the Xia Dynasty (c. 2100-1600 BC) and were even mentioned in the Book of Songs, a collection of Chinese poems that were written from the 10th to the 7th centuries BC. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), these yaodongs become much more elaborate, with inhabitants installing chimneys, functioning kitchens, and heated brick beds known as kangs. The Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties saw even further progress as these humble cave houses evolved from single room retreats to fully fledged homes with separate living quarters, livestock stalls, and even defensive walls. By the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, their popularity had reached its peak and they were built widely throughout northern China.

The prevalence of yaodongs in northern China is usually attributed to their efficient design and cheapness to build. The loess soil from which they are constructed is abundant in the Loess Plateau and acts as an exceptionally effective insulator of heat, meaning inhabitants of yaodongs don’t need to spend extra money or effort heating their homes during the cold winters. In terms of style, they can be roughly separated into three different types: loess cliff houses; hole-courtyards; and “updated” brick houses. The ingenious loess cave houses are the simplest of the three and are dug directly into the loess cliffs that line the deep valleys of the Loess Plateau.


The hole-courtyards are more complex, revolving around an excavated courtyard about 5 to 8 metres (16 to 26 ft.) deep that has been dug into the Loess Plateau itself. For this reason, they are sometimes called “yaodong wells” or “sunken courtyards”. The walls of this courtyard are then carved out to form rooms, much like the simpler loess cave houses. Fortunately for the inhabitants of these “yaodong wells”, it does not rain very often on the Loess Plateau, so there’s no risk of their home being turned into a swimming pool!

“Updated” Brick Houses

The newer tradition of “updated” brick houses are built partially or wholly above ground and outdoors, with an arched structure that is inspired by the original yaodongs. Although their roofs are covered with loess soil, they are stand-alone structures made of stone or brick and typically have elaborate designs carved into their façades. No matter the type, each yaodong usually consists of 3 to 5 carved out rooms, which are generally about 7 to 8 metres (23 to 26 ft.) long, 3 metres (10 ft.) wide, and 3 to 4 metres (10 to 13 ft.) high. After all, size doesn’t matter when you have a home this cosy!

Not only are yaodongs a fascinating form of folk architecture, they also played a critical role in the history of China. From 1935 to 1948, Chairman Mao Zedong and the Communist Party used yaodongs in Yan’an as their base of operations. American journalist Edgar Snow even visited Mao and his party in Yan’an before writing his acclaimed novel Red Star Over China. If you want to relive this exciting chapter in Chinese history, you can now stay overnight in a yaodong hotel and visit the original yaodongs where the Communist Party held their secret meetings.

Try the special Yarding hotels on Cultural Tour in Shanxi.