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A large 'five-phoenix' house (wufenglou) fronting a river in Hukeng village.

Pingyao's city wall,
which dates from 1370.

Shunxi, Zhejiang province
Roof detail showing geometric balustrade and two layers of roof.
China Lives
by Fred Stern

"Living Heritage: Vernacular Environment in China," Jan. 25-June 10, 2001, at the China Institute Gallery, 125 East 65th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.

The young photographer Li Yuxiang has skillfully assembled a remarkable collection of images of houses and interiors from five, mostly southern Chinese provinces (Jiangnan, Shanxi, Minxi, Wannan and Hong Kong), in this exhibition curated by the designer and writer Kai-Yin Lo. "The show represents the first in-depth study of the functional and spiritual meanings as well as the social and economic organization of the Chinese home," according to the curator.

Li's hungry camera picks out salient features of single-family dwellings, as well as clan domiciles, village streets and the ornate decorations that are part of even modest structures. The exhibition originally appeared in Hong Kong.

Many of the structures photographed are quite old, with some dating from the 1700s. However, in the major cities many historical buildings have been bulldozed out of existence as the government sees greater economic returns from highway construction, new office buildings and stores.

Moviegoers will immediately recognize the courtyards and houses of Shanxi province so prominently presented in the film Raise the Red Lantern. The dramatic settings used for the more recent Chinese film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are also on view.

It's interesting to learn that even elaborate structures, their planning as well as their execution, are the work of carpenters, and that antique China had no architects as such.

Westerners generally view the architecture of an Asian country, particularly China, as all of one piece. This exhibition teaches differently. Given climatic variations and the historical perspective, it is easy to understand why the style of family dwellings change from province to province.

However, the basic concept of the traditional Chinese home remains constant. Concern for security is a major factor in the domestic setup. Usually a home has only one outer entrance, which is in the very front. Here, servants and household members of lesser importance reside. More important members of the family are secure in the back portion of the house, which is generally situtated behind an interior courtyard. Young and unmarried girls live in wings off to the side, in upper stories where they are better protected.

The courtyard of the traditional Chinese house has an important role in the daily routine. For those sequestered in the rear, it is a quick step to gauge the weather and to enjoy a bit of nature. The courtyard usually holds a kitchen garden with herbs and spices, and if there is space, shrubs and flowers as well. In the countryside small domestic animals and chickens are kept there.

Li Yuxiang documents village life as it existed before the political changes of the last century. Almost every village had two structures in addition to domestic ones: the clan hall, which was an ancestral shrine as well as a town hall; and the study hall.

The study hall was a library where young men prepared to take the Imperial examination. These tests in large measure determined whether village youths would qualify for a position offered by the Emperor. Their own future and that of their family were thus determined by the village study hall.

The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated 254-page book, Living Heritage: Vernacular Environment in China, that contains over 100 photos, maps and schematics of the houses. Published in 1999 in Hong Kong by Yungmingtang, the book is priced at $49.95.

FRED STERN is Artnet Magazine's Art from the East columnist.