Yaodong is an ancient beautiful dwelling of the Loess Plateau of Northern China. Yaodong translates to cave houses. An unusual simple construction that enriched the relationship between man and the earth. A space that was thermally balanced swiftly pushing you to a state of peace and serenity. Residences carved below the soil, creating niches around pit courtyards. Creating and embracing places outside and within. 

Case studies are an efficient method to delve into these deeply grounded homes. Let us look at the Yaodongs through the lens of social, political, and cultural fitting frames to gain a meaningful understanding of these traditional Chinese homes.

Turning Back to the Beginning

The Yaodong was birthed centuries ago and continues to thrive as a dwelling. Historians state that it dates back to the 2nd millennium BC, as per the Chinese tradition; the Xia dynasty. It is widely considered to be China’s bronze age. 

Multiple Chinese scholars predominantly believe that the Yaodongs developed mainly from the Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), onward and forward into the dynasties Sui (581 to 618) with a gradual development of construction techniques followed by the Tang dynasty (618 to 907). Although it was throughout the Ming (1368 to 1644) and Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912) that the pace of construction touched its pinnacle.

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Yaodongs in Shanxi _©Meier&Poehlmann

Loess Plateau: The Geography and Cultural Importance

The topography of the Loess plateau terrain is highly diverse and difficult with slopes, valleys, ridges, and monticules. Most Yaodongs are distributed along the sides of the cliffs and valleys to suit the existing terrain. It was devised as a solution to circumvent the wind and maximize the use of sunlight and water. 

Culturally, three types of Yaodongs transpired:

1. Cliffside Yaodong (kàoyáyáo)

Cliffside Yaodongs, the most popular of them, is a method where people dig caves in the cliff on the fringe of the loess slopes with the top arched the floor rectangular. It has a frontal open space for natural light and ventilation to lighten the space. The Yaodongs can be further categorized into a single hole, two-hole type, and three-hole type based on the number of cave holes. 

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Cliff side Yaodongs carved on the periphery_©https://www.asiaculturaltravel.co.uk/yaodong-loess-cave-house/

2. Sunken Yaodong (dìkēngyáo)

A courtyard dug underground with rooms on all its interior side is called the sunken courtyard or the Yaodong-well. Traditional farmers skillfully used the Loess plateau’s characteristics to dig a square pit in the earth and dig the cave by excavating soil on the four walls from the underground courtyard. It is a sustainable ancient design as the earth’s thermal condition underground is very balanced; it behaves as a heat sink in summers and heat source in winters.

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Sunken caves of practicality_©Kevin Poh

3. Hoop Yaodong (gūyáo)

The Hoop Yaogong; an independent structure, is located in western Henan. The Hoop Yaodongs appear in the terrains where there are no conditions for excavations. Thin Loess layers, insufficient soil cliffs heights, gentle slopes, or exposed bedrocks lead to such dwellings. It has high arches allowing maximum utilization of solar radiation. The arch-shaped forms and vaulted ceilings reflect the traditional Chinese school of thought which believed in a round sky and square earth. 

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Arched entrances of Yaodongs_©https://newsd.co/drones-unexpectedly-find-secret-remained-hidden-4000-years/5/

The Social Life: Yaodong and its Kind People

Statistical data states that there are still about 40 million people living in cave homes. A large part of the population are peasant families and are inhabitants from several generations. Most of them have stayed back due to convenience, comfort zone, and affordability. Although a good number of families have moved into the cities abandoning the Yaodongs. These uninhabited homes are being transformed into folk museums and cultural heritage sites. 

Some Yaodongs have been converted into comfortable hotels and guest houses to vivify tourism. The people living here most often radiate kindness and extremely good hospitality to the tourists who visit them. They share their experiences and fruits from the pit courtyard garden as a symbol of love and respect. 

A Yaodong researcher, and its inhabitant for decades; Yun Shirang shares, “The Design of Yaodong abides by the theory, man is inseparable from nature.”  The people of Yaodong are grounded and are living in humble dwellings underground when the world is reaching out to the skies.

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The everyday experience of Yaodong captured_©Zuo Zhulin
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A typical interior of the Yaodong_© Tim Zachernuk
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An uninhabited home converted into a guest room_©https://architectureontheroad.com/dikengyuan-courtyard-cave-houses-china/#.YH_swugzZPY
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The pathway leading to the sunken courtyard_©https://architectureontheroad.com/dikengyuan-courtyard-cave-houses-china/#.YH_swugzZPY

Politics Rooted in Earth Homes

“A red army university that was probably the only seat of higher learning, whose classrooms were bombproof caves.” (Edgar Snow, 1937)

The Yaodongs played an immensely instrumental role in the Chinese Revolution. Under the vaulted roofs and arches of the Yaodongs, chairman Mao Zedong and his comrades regrouped, ceasing a world-famous strategic shift and initiating the thirteen-year course of the Chinese revolution in Yan’an which further led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

The cave homes have also hosted Edgar snow; the first American journalist to set foot on the communist revolutionary bases around Yan’an in 1936. He has had extensive conversations with the leader Mao as well and the followers that left a lasting impression on him, which further got transformed into a book called “Red Star over China”. This book was significant in drawing the political outline of China for the entire world.

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Chairman Mao Zedong during the stay at the Yaodong_©https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1938_Mao_Zedong_Zhang_Guotao_in_Yan%27an.jpg

Essence and Evolution: A Conclusion

Centuries of human evolution have plunged China through tremendous changes. Modernizing progress has made it one of the most developing countries. However, regardless of the technological advancements and blatant modernity, the Yaodong; one of the earliest architectural forms of China, is still extensively functioning in the Loess plateau. 

A beautiful sustainable design that was carved decades ago blissfully coexists with the new architectural forms. Some architects are even improvising the ancient dwellings with luxury amenities and are curating habitable spaces. The cave dwellings speak of a simple yet comfortable lifestyle. Cave by cave, it has built the culture of the Loess plateau; hardworking, grounded, and thoroughly content. 

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Infusion of the Yaodong culture in a modern campus_©Li Yao
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The New Campus of Yan’an University_©Li Yao


1.Poehlmann, M. (2006). Traditional cave houses (and barns), alongside Wang Family Grand Courtyard (王家大院), Lingshi County, Province Shanxi, China. Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/21/Cave_houses_shanxi_1.jpg/1024px-Cave_houses_shanxi_1.jpg [Accessed 21 Apr. 2021].

2.CHINA & ASIA CULTURAL TRAVEL (2014). Yaodong (Loess Cave House). Available at: https://www.asiaculturaltravel.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Yaodong-600×400.jpg [Accessed 21 Apr. 2021].

3.Poh, K. (2009). Cave dwelling – courtyard. Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/eb/Cave_Dwelling_-_Courtyard.jpg/1024px-Cave_Dwelling_-_Courtyard.jpg [Accessed 21 Apr. 2021].

4.https://newsd.co/ (2018). DRONES UNEXPECTEDLY FIND A SECRET THAT REMAINED HIDDEN FOR OVER 4,000 YEARS. Available at: https://newsd.co/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/78818300.GWLC9zWR.bIMG_5079.jpg [Accessed 21 Apr. 2021].

5.Zhulin, Z. (2019). A snapshot of the life of people living in Yaodong, a typical shelter on the Loess Plateau. Some families still live in this kind of shelter in modern times. The photo was taken in eastern Gansu province in 2000. Available at: https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/attachement/jpg/site1/20170616/b083fe96faac1aadd2a21e.jpg [Accessed 21 Apr. 2021].

6.Zachernuk, T. (2018). Yaodong: China’s Pit Houses. Available at: https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/-WvmGwQSinxY/WnCWvRNXvsI/AAAAAAABVeU/K6hht6cJg087BD-EzngLpe1_exynLNJjgCHMYCw/yaodong-35?imgmax=1600 [Accessed 21 Apr. 2021].

7.https://architectureontheroad.com/ (2018). DIKENGYUAN: SUNKEN COURTYARD HOUSES FROM THE LOESS PLATEAU. Available at: https://architectureontheroad.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/henan_sanmenxia_dikengyuan_interiors-9-of-18-768×576.jpg [Accessed 21 Apr. 2021].

8.https://architectureontheroad.com/ (n.d.). DIKENGYUAN: SUNKEN COURTYARD HOUSES FROM THE LOESS PLATEAU. Available at: https://architectureontheroad.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/henan-july-2019-31-of-70-768×512.jpg [Accessed 21 Apr. 2021].

9.Anonymous (1938). 1938 Mao Zedong Zhang Guotao in Yan’an. Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/01/1938_Mao_Zedong_Zhang_Guotao_in_Yan%27an.jpg [Accessed 21 Apr. 2021].

10.Yao, L. (2018). The New Campus of Yan’an University / THAD. Available at: https://images.adsttc.com/media/images/5d7f/7f04/284d/d194/ee00/00ab/slideshow/%E5%BB%B6%E5%AE%89%E5%A4%A7%E5%AD%A6%E5%85%A8%E6%99%AF2.jpg?1568636669 [Accessed 21 Apr. 2021].

11.Yao, L. (2018). The New Campus of Yan’an University / THAD. Available at: https://images.adsttc.com/media/images/5d7f/7cd8/284d/d194/ee00/009c/slideshow/DSC06842-46.jpg?1568636111 [Accessed 21 Apr. 2021].

Snow, E. (1968). Red star over China. 1st revised and enlarged ed. London: Gollancz, [I.E.(book citation)


Vajjrashri Anand is an architecture student who reads places and people like a story worth being told. She believes architecture is a lot like life; made of wonder, beauty and hurt. She strives to constantly evolve. A nuisance, a delight. A sting, a smile. She's a soul hugging one word at a time.

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