Marcus Murphy writes about the historical housing form in Qingdao called the liyuan. This article appears in the FEB 10, No. 7 issue of Arteffect. Check out more info on the disappearance of Qingdao’s architectural heritage.
Beijing has its venerable yet vanishing traditional courtyard style hutongs while Shanghai is home to an East-West fusion architectural type known as shikumen lilong. Lesser known yet equally unique and fascinating is an architectural form in Qingdao called liyuan.
When Germans arrived off the coast of Jiaozhou Bay in the 1890’s, only a scattering of tiny villages made up of mostly siheyuans (四合院), traditional courtyard styled homes, lined the rolling hills of what is today downtown Qingdao. The Germans, greatly driven by economic endeavors, brought long term plans for investments and construction from the early days including those for a railway, port facilities, and numerous impressive government buildings built to last. This close to overnight development of the economy attracted thousands of peasants and businessmen from all over China (with a large percentage from the local Jiaodong Peninsula), and in the early 20th century the population of Qingdao increased exponentially.
Naturally, with this rapid influx, there was a serious lack in housing facilities for both the Western (German) and Chinese immigrants. Entrepreneurs and businessman from both the mainland and overseas quickly capitalized on the real estate opportunities. German architects built grand houses and villas restricted to Westerners along the coast east of the railway station, while Chinese architects built liyuan on the periphery of the German areas, constructed earliest to the west of the railway tracks in the area known as Xizhen, then later Baodao (around the northern tip of Zhongshan Lu), and finally after the Germany colonial era, liyuan were built further north in Sifang.
A publication from 1933 called Qingdao Guide (青岛指南) claimed that in the just over 30 years from around 1898 to the early 1930’s, more than 500 liyuans were constructed, amounting to 180,000 apartments providing housing for more than 120,000 families. The liyuan was the predominant style of housing for Chinese in Qingdao during the first half of the 20th century and today many remain in full use. Some of the first owners and residents of apartments in a liyuan were military personnel and businessmen owning more than 500元.
Later, during the beginning of the 20th century, the demand for rentals was high as migrant laborers were mobile yet relatively poor, and as a result, the overall aesthetic and structural quality in liyuans set up for rental purposes was often lacking. Rent ranged from anywhere between 1-10元 a month and the sizes of the liyuan buildings also differed greatly, but most were home to around 20-30 apartments. During the construction process, methods in line with local conditions were used and this included the melding of two historically significant and yet very different architectural styles. To a large degree, traditional Chinese architecture was a guiding force, but western elements, specifically German, were clearly adopted where seen useful. Some liyuans and other buildings in Qingdao were even designed by the earliest of Chinese students who had returned from Europe. Today they are still considered a jewel representing the wisdom and ingenuity of local Qingdaonese.
The traditional courtyard housing (siheyuans) found across China shares many similarities with the liyuan, however there are also some stark differences.
A square shape and a courtyard are distinctive features of the siheyuan, and although many of Qingdao’s liyuans are square-shaped, there are also many rectangular, triangular and polygon-shaped liyuans. Sizes ranged from the largest, found on Sifang Lu, with its courtyard covering around two football fields, to the smallest, with a courtyard of around 200 square meters. The shortest liyuans reach no less than eight meters while the highest reach up to more than 20 meters high.
Traditionally, siheyuans were built with only one story, however a majority of Qingdao’s liyuans were built two stories high, with a few reaching three stories and even fewer reaching four (the one on Haipo Lu near Sifang Lu being an example of the latter). Directional alignment also differs and few follow the standard north-south and west-east alignment that can be found in many siheyuans across China. This was largely due to the fact that Qingdao is such a hilly city and streets followed an irregular twisting and turning, thus the liyuans are rarely squarely laid out in harmonious cosmic alignment.
One aspect in which the liyuan and siheyuan share a similar appearance is the courtyard in the center surrounded by living quarters. On the periphery of liyuan courtyards are covered porches, mostly used as a walkway but also for storage. The banisters, columns and eaves of these porches were often delicately detailed with typical Chinese patterns of that day, many of which are still well preserved today. Another similarity with traditional courtyard architecture of China is the construction of a ‘privacy’ wall (zhaobi, 照壁), which sits just inside the main gate and serves to block the view from the outside.
These were often decorated with auspicious Chinese characters and some still remain intact today. A majority of the entrances for the liyuans are arched passageways while a few are a rectangular shape. Qingdaonese called these entrances damendong (大门洞), or big door tunnel. Most liyuans only contained one of these tunnel shaped entrances and as a result they were regarded as rather safe. One simply had to close the large door to shut out the chaos of the outside, and a liyuan became its own little independent kingdom in a sense. It is said that people normally left their apartment doors unlocked as honesty reigned on the inside.
There was a visible integration of aesthetic details and amenities coming from abroad. The traditional black roof tiles were replaced by leak-proof red ones, matching the German buildings. For the windows, paper, which was still used in many homes across China, was replaced my glass, making it easier to air out the home and receive more sunlight. Western patterns and classical architectural details were adopted largely for the outside of buildings including steel latticed gates and staircases. There were also electrical lighting, phone, tap water and plumbing systems coming from the west. Still, there were many Chinese features to the buildings. A vast majority of the Chinese immigrants that came to Qingdao were from Jiaodong Peninsula (also known as the Shandong Peninsula and roughly includes the modern regions of Weihai, Yantai and Qingdao), and they brought along with them many of their customs and traditions.
The furnishing and decorations found inside the liyuans closely resembled those found back in their old villages and hometowns. Many residents built traditional stoves and even kang beds (the heat from cooking was piped under the beds and served to keep the beds warm during the winter). Both firewood and coal were burned for heat and cooking and today they are still the sole source of fuel for many residents. Chinese residents also brought along stools, tables, wardrobes and cupboards, and today many liyuans are a treasure trove of antique furnishings.
From the end of the 19th century until the 1920’s and 1930’s a large percentage of Chinese residents were very mobile. Migrant laborers would often return to their villages during the busy farming seasons. Many of these migrant laborers became entrepreneurs and would bring their crops and wares from the rural areas to sell in the city, and so they not only needed a place to live, but also to store and sell their goods. The liyuan was also crafted for this function; stores were set up on the outside lining the streets, people stored their goods in the courtyard and then rested their heads in the rooms above. During the War of Resistance Against Japan (1937-1945) and War of Liberation (1945-1949) Qingdao served as a sanctuary from the devastating conditions in rural areas of Shandong and other parts of China.
From 1937 to 1947 the population almost doubled from around 400,000 to more than 700,000. The real estate market was unable to meet the sharp increase in demand, thus the city became very crowded and shanty towns popped up all over town, including inside the courtyards of liyuans. Inversely the quality in architecture and standard of living dropped as the liyuans were transformed. Much of the woodwork and paint fell into disrepair as landlords could not keep up with rapid inflation, and concrete was used in place of decorative wood. A large part of the elegance these special buildings once possessed was lost.
The word li in liyuan (里) is today most often translated as ‘in’ or ‘inside,’ but in ancient times it was used to describe a neighborhood or community.
People from all walks of life coming together and living together communally was described as a li. It was also used as an organizational unit for governmental purposes and most often around 15 families would make up one li. So it is both fitting and interesting that Qingdao residents upheld this traditional title as a name for the unique architecture that arose here. The second character in liyuan, yuan (院), is defined as a courtyard. Each separate liyuan also developed unique symbolic and celebratory names such as Qingshanli (Celebrate Vituosity Li), Guangheli (Broad Peace Li), and Ruitaili (Auspiciousness to the Highest Li). People often felt a very strong sense of loyalty to their liyuans and in a situation where they would have to announce their familial setup, proudly giving the name of their liyuan sufficed without need to announce the street name or number.
Many liyuans have fallen to the same fate of lilongs in Shanghai and hutongs in Beijing, and it is estimated only around 50 liyuans remain. However, it does appear the local government is aware of their remaining value, whether it lies in tourism or in preserving the soul of a city and its people, as many are supposedly protected from development. In 2008, they even put a polishing touch on one of the more famous liyuans, known as Pichaiyuan, always famous for its local food and night entertainment including opera and cross-talk, all of which can still be found today.
It is easy for an outsider to look in through the tunnel entrance and over-romanticize the ethereal appearance of laundry strung over the sunny courtyard or a glimpse of a grandfather cutting wood with his grandson, but it’s true that many of the current residents would jump at the chance to move into a brand new sky-rise apartment, east of the ‘Old Town’. Yet, it’s hard not to believe that they must hold an inkling of regret or at least nostalgia after they do so, as theirs is certainly a more intimate and communal lifestyle that is being lost.
Liyuan Photos on Qingdao Shanshui 山水 Flickr