The country’s wealthy have long preferred Western-style villas, but they’re increasingly eyeing the luxurious courtyard houses of the past.

In China, status and wealth present themselves in many ways: in fancy cars, in brand-name clothing, and in opulent suburban homes that mimic the “McMansions” of Europe and the U.S. Oversized houses inspired by the chateaus of France and the villas of Spain—often hidden inside gated neighborhoods and filled with swanky amenities—are just some of the favored styles among Chinese elites.

But not everyone is looking to the West. The reportedly most expensive home ever listed on China’s mainland—which is going for a whopping billion Chinese yuans, or $154 million—looks nothing like a typical American dream home. Sold recently in the picturesque city of Suzhou and dubbed “utopia” in Mandarin, the 72,000-square-foot estate has 32 bedrooms, 32 bathrooms, and sits on a private island with a massive lakeshore garden. It resembles the siheyuan, traditional courtyard houses once inhabited by the wealthy aristocrats of ancient China.

Most of China’s super-rich still prefer Western-style mansions or buying homes abroad, but according to CNN, they’re increasingly eyeing the grandeur of traditional-style homes. Industry insiders speaking to CNN chalk it up to China’s evolving taste, fueled by the desire for something unique, something to distinguish themselves from the middle class. Indeed, in a country that embraces its copycat architecture, owning yet another cookie-cutter Western mansion, however luxurious it may be, just might be too weak a status symbol.

Courtyard houses, which date back to the Zhou dynasty, were once popular in part because of their symbolism, says Yu-ngok Lo, a California-based architect from Macau who has done extensive research on the courtyard houses of Beijing. Their centrally located courtyards represented the coexistence of humans and nature. Their symmetrical design and divided layout, with master bedrooms pointed North, reflected Confucianist ideology and the country’s social hierarchy. And the thick walls enclosing the estates created a sense of tranquility. “It has that sense of dignity in it,” Lo says.

The style fell out of favor starting during the Cultural Revolution, as the government pushed the idea ridding China of its old imperial system. “There was, in the ‘80s, a mad rush for modernization, a sense that Chinese people needed to catch up to other countries,” says Nancy Berliner, a curator of Chinese art at the Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

The resurgence in popularity of courtyard houses is partly a result of changing attitudes about Chinese history and identity. Both Berliner and Lo agree that more Chinese are embracing older traditions as a proud part of their identity. “There's always been rhythms in Chinese culture, whether it be in painting or architecture,” Berliner says. “Even though these ... might look new to us, it's typical for Chinese to go back and imitate the old.”

Yet there’s an irony to this trend: These newly built utopian estates are modern versions of the same kind of aging homes being torn down in China’s disappearing villages, to make way for China’s continual urban development. They’re the same kind that cultural preservationists have been struggling to save from developers with an eye on the valuable land they sit on.

Lo hopes that the revival of interest in China’s traditional housing will further push support for preservation efforts, but he warns that these new estates could be yet another example of copycat architecture. “There's a difference between just copying the components of a courtyard house and preserving [history]” he says.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo collage of 2020 presidential candidates.
    Equity

    Will Housing Swing the 2020 Election?

    Among Democratic candidates for president, the politics of America’s housing affordability crisis are getting complicated. Just wait until Trump barges in.

  2. A photo of an abandoned building in Newark, New Jersey.
    Equity

    The 10 Cities Getting a Philanthropic Boost for Economic Mobility

    An initiative funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Ballmer Group focuses on building “pipelines of opportunity.”

  3. a photo of Denver city council member Candi CdeBaca
    Transportation

    A Freeway Fight Launched Denver’s New Queer Latina Councilmember

    In a progressive shake-up, 32-year-old community organizer Candi CdeBaca will take her advocacy work to the city council.  

  4. At an NBA game, a player attempts to block a player from the rival team who has the ball.
    Life

    NBA Free Agents Cluster in Superstar Cities, Too

    Pro basketball follows the winner-take-all geography of America as a whole, with free agents gravitating to New York, L.A., and other big cities.

  5. A person tapes an eviction notice to the door of an apartment.
    Equity

    Why Landlords File for Eviction (Hint: It’s Usually Not to Evict)

    Most of the time, a new study finds, landlords file for eviction because it tilts the power dynamic in their favor—not because they want to eject their tenants.

×