1992 / 10月
Ventine Tsai /photos courtesy of Cheng Yuan-ching /tr. by Phil Newell
Is it really the case that the ho-yuan, the multiple winged compound or courtyard building which would house an entire extended family or clan, which survived 3,000 years in China, can now only be relegated to the ranks of "historic artifacts"? Is there really no way it can survive today and indefinitely into the future? Why?
Could it be that the new high-rise developments which emphasize a common space are the heirs to the ho-yuan concept?
Besides the hardware and shape, traditional ho-yuan also extolled a natural, layered and shifting spacial notion. Could this be applied in a vital, living way to modern architecture?
Traditional extended family compounds, or ho-yuan, which find themselves stuck in the city have--unless they have been listed as historic relics--been converted to high rises as each inch of land has become as valuable as gold. This trend is not unusual even in smaller towns in central and southern Taiwan.
"There are always people coming measuring here, measuring there," says a silver-haired grandmother in the Liu family compound in Yuemeichih in Shetou Rural Township in Changhua County. She avidly wants to know, "so when are they going to come and put up a building where we are?"
The disappearing ho-yuan: A small compound covering 600 ping (one ping being about 36 square feet) in the suburbs of the small city of Yuanlin was finally sold under an offer of NT$50 million (US$2 million), with two of the three households in the extended family living there voting to sell and only one voting against.
The ancestral home, in use for four generations, was thus levelled overnight. For the older generation who are accustomed to living in the ho-yuan, there are psychological obstacles in making the leap into a tall building in a single bound. Liu Pai-hsia, the mother in the family of the second oldest brother--who had not wanted to sell--has moved into a three-story building in the town which belongs entirely to them, but thinks that there is no open compound in the building where one can put one's blankets to air out, and there is a road right outside the front door. "Although each person can have his or her own room, you can't find any place to really move about in the new house," she says.
What makes her even more nostalgic is that if she wants to look in on the kids doing their homework, she has to take her attention away from whatever she is doing and make a special trip up the stairs, and inevitably there are times she'd rather not make the effort. "It's getting harder and harder to get the family all together," she sighs.
But there are also extended families who hold closer together who still maintain the family com pound style even after building a larger structure on the original grounds. When the new floors were added to what is a three-story family compound in Tahu Rural Township in Miaoli County, the problems of inadequate light, dampness, and lack of sanitary facilities in the old residence were all solved at a stroke. Ten households from the clan, totalling 100 people, still live in the reconstructed ho-yuan.
Most rural large-scale ho-yuan have not been so fortunate. With changes in the social structure, young people are flowing out to work or study in the cities, and the population has been continually outmigrating. Except for two or three of the households, most of the rooms have only a steel lock to keep them company. If tiles fall off, or pillars corrode, both traditional building materials and craftsmen are rare and costly. With no one looking after it, the whole structure just falls apart, until there is no alternative but demolition.
Form without essence: Also, modern society puts a premium on personal privacy. Because life in the family compound of a close-knit clan offers little privacy, many young people are anxious to escape from the pressures of living in a place where "if you lose a tooth everyone in the clan finds out about it."
Vis-a-vis the type of argument which says that "the ho-yuan is a product of large family clans, and is not suitable for the modern nuclear family society," Wang Chen-hua, who has studied Chinese ho-yuan for many years, says this just shows inadequate understanding of the family compound.
"Chinese ho-yuan could be connected together or divided up," he explains. After a large family subdivides and each member forms his own family, one need only close the side doors of the rooms; the main compound and the hulung, or auxiliary rooms set off to the left and right of the main com pound (separated by an open-air pathway), can then become two independent bodies. In fact, today more and more young couples on the go are choosing to live near their parents or relatives--sometimes buying apartments on adjoining floors--so that the children can have someone nearby to look after them; isn't this is a similar expedient?
But he also confesses that ho-yuan which have been fully restored using only authentic construction materials are also not very suitable to the present. If you want them to be practical, there must be some changes. Otherwise, if one just adopts the form outright, it could turn out like the Hsiu Lang Elementary School in Yungho: The newly built four story school building is a four-sided (fully enclosed) ho-yuan, but because an activities center was added to the courtyard, the school thus became an enormous resonance chamber. The only thing the school could do was to restrict the children from running about, thus contradicting the original spirit of the large communal compound.
On the other hand, Tunghai University on Tatu Mountain in Taichung is a successful example: Taking advantage of being in the mountains, there are winding halls and grass and trees in the ho-yuan style halls of learning.
Always one room short: As for the high-rise apartment complexes which emphasize a central garden and courtyard and security walls around the outside being pushed by construction companies everywhere you look, are these modern versions of the ho-yuan, or just the old buildings pulled up a few more stories? "Businessmen are stressing nothing more than the value of the buildings," says Mi Fu-kuo, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Architecture. But the value of an extended family compound is not in the structure, but in the spiritual content.
What spiritual content makes so many people yearn for these ho-yuan, which developed for 3,000 years in China but are withering under industrial civilization? "The essence of the family compound is flexibility and change," declares Wang Chen-hwa.
When you enter the central hall of a compound, ordinarily there is a pathway. You can sit and relax, or cover it with a tent to make a temporary restaurant for festive occasions. It is a small space, but can be used adaptably.
The other subdivided space can also be opened up for use. For example, in a traditional clan there are many people and many events. If on a given day the main room has guests or is being used for a wedding or funeral, those who don't wish to intrude--or might want to avoid running into someone they would rather miss--can enter the inside hall from a side room even before getting to the main room, or head left or right out from behind the hall into the street or alley, thus avoiding the embarrassment of unintentioned encounters.
Compared to the modern apartment, with its emphasis on functional division into rooms and which "always has one room too few for any family," Wang Chen-hwa queries amusingly, "which room is for arguing?"
Communing with nature: Lai Chin-chang, a doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning at National Taiwan University, has lived in a ho-yuan ever since he was small. He most loves early morning in the family compound, pulling aside the bed curtain and the mosquito net, walking out of the room in the entrancing shafts of sunlight, turning into the interior hall, then going through the exterior hall into the forecourt. To this day he cannot forget that graduated sensation of layers and the harmonious streams of light they created.
Moreover, the passages and courtyards of the ho-yuan change with the passing of the hours, and allow one to feel the movements of nature. The famous British scholar Joseph Needham and the late painter Hsi Teh-chin have both felt the special intimacy and attraction of experiencing rain in a family compound residence. This semi-open space makes one happy to stop in one's tracks and commune with the sounds and sensations of nature, to the point where one knows the time without looking at a watch, and one knows the weather without having to push open a door.
"Why is it that the glass windows in modern buildings are bigger and bigger, but people have less and less time to stand at the windows and communicate with the outside world?" wonders Wang Chen-hua. He suggests that if one would add a window box to this large but sealed window, and arrange a few plants, add an awning, and turn it into a semi-external space that one could open up, then the pane which had once held only visual attractions would now also open onto the calls and scents of the wild.
From artifact to illegal construction: In fact, faced with a window spattered with falling rain, it's the homeowner's choice whether to count the drops as they fall or to curl up under a blanket and watch TV. In the end, the lifeforce of the particular residence depends on the lifeforce of the particular residents. The fun in any home is brought out by the people who live there.
At the Hsu Family in Lungtan in Taoyuan County, the owner chose the spot on the path from the house to the tea shed where one most needs to rest, and set out two or three stone seats. With constant renewal in this way, the living environment becomes evermore enriched. On the other hand, if the habitants devote neither interest nor care to the abode, it doesn't matter if it is an exquisite historical structure, it will, like Cinderella's things at midnight, decay into the kind of dilapidation typical of illegally built shelters.
The old Chen Yue-chi residence in the Tatung District in Taipei is a classic example. The stone flagpole stand erected in the front courtyard to symbolize the family's glory has, jammed in amongst delivery trucks, sedans, and motorcycles, long lost the position of veneration it once had. Entering the ancestral worship room, the sound of a printing machine assails the ears like thunder, and even the ancestral hall has become a temporary storage area. In the well courtyard, there is no sign of greenery, only scattered garbage. As you penetrate in layer by layer, there is no subtle change in mood or increasing quiet, and it becomes so unbearable that one can only hurry through as quickly as possible.
In order to increase the amount of interior space, many courtyards and passageways have been covered over to block out the sun and sky. People have added steel doors along the little lanes and alleys that divide the different families of the clan, turning them into private space, using them to pile up discarded items, blocking the function of allowing people to get in and out and with it the chances for family and friends to come and go and shout back and forth. "If there's space, then someone just sticks anything up there to cover it, so that the old compounds are annexed and chewed up bit by bit," describes Chen Cheng-hui, born in 1966. She really misses those days of watching TV or singing in the courtyard.
Home is where the heart is: The concept of space in architecture is a sign of the culture, and the use of a residence depends on the hearts of the people.
In the hierarchical view of the past, the room to the left of the ancestral memorial room was given to the oldest generation or the head of the extended family; today the master bedroom is occupied by the breadwinning husband and wife.
Originally the best and most central place was the main room where the ancestral tablets are arrayed. Now the largest and best room is the living room, with the best position in that room given over to the holy shrine the whole family gazes upon--the television.
In this close-it-off add-it-on culture where there's always one room too few, all the semi-open spaces where one can see the sun or feel the rain--patios, rooftops, courtyards--are all being made into interior living space.
Is it that people have changed, or that architecture has? Has modern architecture really made people cold and mercenary? Or have people made buildings into places that cut off and isolate us from sentiment and reason? Whether or not the spirit of the traditional ho-yuan family compound can invigorate modern architecture is not just a problem of building materials and architects.
A simple ho-yuan compound is reflected in the spanking new window of a model building. Is there really no room for "transformation" between the modern Structure and the traditional ho-yuan?
In the interior courtyard, one can dry clothes, air out blankets, and br ing out the bedrolls for a little cool air on a summer's night. Can you do this in a modern apartment complex?
Simple materials were used to produce this red brick patterned wall. For its sake, the owner of the Yungan residence in Shenkeng took the initiative to ask that the old structure be listed as an historic artifact, so that it would not be torn down to widen the road.
"Grandma, I'm home!" A child just back from school hurries up the stairs, takes a corner, goes through the courtyard, and then runs up to play with grandma in the front hall of the main room.
In the high-ceilinged and cool ancestral hall, amidst the ancestral tablets and couplets with homely wisdom, a child plays with his toy car.
On Dragon Boat Festival, the people of Erlung Village in Chiaohsi in Ilan County make offerings to the Dragon Boat in a central courtyard. (photo by Diago Chiu)
To split up the family is to divide one's heart: People now wall off the passageways to make private space, and even the ancestral hall is used to pile up odds and ends.