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The unique landscape of the Loess Plateau in Shanxi Province.

Yaodongs: Cave dwellings of the ancient world


The population of the world today is greater than any period in history, and it is expected to increase exponentially in the next couple of decades. This has caused concern for some as to whether the earth’s resources will continue to be able to sustain human life. As a result, much effort has been done to find ‘green’ alternatives, such as solar energy and organic produce. Yet, such green technology need not always depend on cutting-edge research, as we can look at the ancient world for exemplars of green alternatives. One such example is the Yaodong, a form of dwelling that can be found throughout China.

In the Chinese language, Yaodong means ‘kiln cave’, aptly named due to the building’s arched interior, which looks like the inside of a kiln. These Yaodongs are commonly found in the north central provinces of China such as Shanxi, Shaanxi, Gansu and Henan, which are located on the Loess Plateau.

Traditional Yaodong cave houses in Shanxi, China

Traditional Yaodong cave houses in Shanxi, China. Wikimedia, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It has been claimed that the use of Yaodongs can be dated back to the Qin dynasty in the third century B.C. Over two millennia later, Yaodongs are still a popular choice of dwelling for those living on the Loess Plateau, as it is estimated about 75 percent of the 40 million inhabitants of the Loess Plateau are still living in such structures.

Yaodongs can be divided into different types, depending on the topography of the regions in which they were built. For instance, where hills are available, Yaodongs may be built into the slopes, and a hill may contain several stories of Yaodongs. For instance, an eight story Yaodong hotel with 300 rooms can be found in the north of Yan’an city in Shaanxi province. Where hills are not available, Yaodongs are simply built into the ground. Rectangular wells about 5 meters to 8 meters deep are first dug into the ground. After that, Yaodongs are built into the walls of these wells. The wells serve as a courtyard for the inhabitants.

A typical sunken courtyard complex, or pit dwelling in Shaanxi or Henan. The inhabitants live in the caves due to their practicality.

A typical sunken courtyard complex, or pit dwelling in Shaanxi or Henan. The inhabitants live in the caves due to their practicality. Wikimedia, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There are also Yaodongs that do not need to be built into the slope of a hill or a hole in the ground. Instead, the arched framework of the building is constructed using stone or bricks. Earth is then placed in the empty spaces between the individual Yaodongs as well as above them so as to form a flat roof above the structure.       

The continuous use of the Yaodongs on the Loess Plateau over the millennia can perhaps be attributed to its highly economical and efficient design. In terms of building material, only the local loess soil from the plateau is required for the building of the Yaodongs. Loess soil is the obvious choice of material as it is easily available in the area, as opposed to wood or stone. Additionally, loess soil is a good insulator of heat. The thick earthen walls are able to keep the interior of the Yaodongs cool during the summer and warm during the winter.

Another unique feature of the Yaodongs is the kang, which is a type of heated bed. One end of the bed is connected to a stove in an adjacent room, whilst another end is connected to a chimney. The kang itself is hollow, thus allowing heat and smoke to travel from the stove to the chimney, and in the process heating up the bed and the room.  

Illustration of a large kang shared by the guests of a one-room inn in a then-wild area east of Tonghua, Jilin. 1887.

Illustration of a large kang shared by the guests of a one-room inn in a then-wild area east of Tonghua, Jilin. 1887. Public Domain

In the last decade, Yaodongs have been brought to the attention of scientists and researchers. These traditional dwellings have been regarded as an example of sustainable design. It has been suggested that the Yaodongs are a reflection of a key traditional Chinese concept – the harmonious relationship between human beings and nature. Although the Yaodongs may be a unique feature of the Loess Plateau, the idea reflected in their construction is one that people today can bear in mind.

While Yaodongs might not be suitably replicated in other parts of China or the world, its environmentally friendly design has helped inspire researchers from other parts of China to improve on the architecture of their respective regions, and shape them to be more sustainable in the long run.

Yaodong style dwellings in Yan’an, Shanxi, China. Wikimedia

Yaodong style dwellings in Yan’an, Shanxi, China. Wikimedia, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Nevertheless, despite the advantages of the Yaodong dwellings, they do have one significant disadvantage – they are highly susceptible to destruction from natural disasters. On 23 rd January, 1556 AD, the deadliest earthquake in history, the Shaanxi earthquake, hit Shaanxi province in China. It is estimated that as many as 830,000 people were killed. An 840-kilometre-wide (520 mi) area was destroyed, and in many counties only 40% of the population survived. Millions of people at the time lived in yaodongs and since loess is a highly erosion-prone soil that is susceptible to the forces of wind and water, the earthquake triggered landslides, which destroyed the caves, resulting in a catastrophic loss of life.

Featured image: The unique landscape of the Loess Plateau in Shanxi Province. Wikimedia, (CC BY-SA 3.0)


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By Ḏḥwty

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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