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Cave House Dwelling

9 Intriguing Facts about Traditional Cave House Dwelling

The Cave House (窑洞 in Chinese) is a kind of traditional dwelling form common in the Loess Plateau in northwestern China. Located around the Wei River Valley, the Loess Plateau was formed by the deposit of soil particles brought in by wind storms over millions of years, creating a loamy and fertile land, which cradled one of few the earliest Chinese civilizations. The locals skillfully used the kilometers-thick earth and designed a sustainable and environmentally friendly dwelling form. After 4000 years of advancement in technique the cave house is still widely used in Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Henan housing about 3 million people.



Fact 1: The Cave house has enjoyed a long history in China.
The first Cave House was developed in the 2nd millennium B.C. in the Xia Dynasty. But it was in the Han Dynasty when this dwelling form began to develop and become popular. With the progressive improvements in construction techniques in the Sui and Tang Dynasties, the cave dwelling popularity reached its peak in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Nowadays, it’s said there are still about 3 million people living in cave houses.


Fact 2: There are three major kinds of cave houses.
Cliffside Cave
The Cliffside cave is commonly found on a hillside where people slice off one side of the hill and dig in caves with rectangular floors and vaulted ceilings. Based on the number of cave holes, the caves can be classified into single-hole, three-hole and five-hole types. One outstanding example is a thousand-year-old cave in the Waxie district of Ningxian County. Scaling an area of 200 sq meters, it has one gate and five windows for lighting and ventilation, and can accommodate hundreds of people.

Sunken Cave
The Sunken cave is mainly built in areas with no hillsides and ravines are available. Peasants dig a 5-8 meter deep square pit out of the flat ground, then chisel caves out of the vertical walls. If the pit is surrounded by the flat ground, a slope will be built as passageway. If the pit happens to be nearby a cliff or steep slope, a carved corridor will be made to reach the horizontal ground. The greatest feature of a sunken cave is insulation. Residents in sunken caves are better protected against heat in summer and cold in winter.

Hoop Cave
The Hoop cave is usually built partially or wholly outdoors with absolutely no slope or cliff to rely on. Inspired by the underground dwellings, people that lived in places with thin loess layers, gentle slopes and insufficient soil cliffs made an arched structure with wheat straw and mud. Each arch structure has a high window, allowing sufficient sunlight to penetrate. The Hoop cave is considered the most valuable type of cave due to the complexity of techniques involved.

Fact 3: Cave house is cool in Summer and warm in Winter.

The cave houses surrounded by thick earthen layers are unsurprisingly well insulated. Consequently, residents inside are well protected against cold winters and scorching summers. This is also one of the major reasons why some people, particularly the elderly, prefer to stay in cave houses while their offspring live in concrete modern apartments. Besides the natural warmth generated from the ground in winter, peasants have another secret for keeping warm - the “Kang”. It refers to a special bed that is only found in rural areas, especially cave houses. It’s basically an earthen ledge with a fire underneath connected to the hearth. When cooking, the heat spreads inside and makes the Kang warm, while the smoke exits from a chimney outside of the cave. Thus, in the cold winter, no matter how hard and bitterly the wind howls outside, with hot meals cooked in hearth and dry straws flaming inside the Kang, everyone is warm, safe and sound.


Fact 4: The construction of the cave house echoes with the traditional thinking of ‘round heaven and square ground.’
The arched exterior of the traditional cave house, though plain at first sight, actually makes the bald Loess Plateau lighter and livelier. This nature-oriented living form reflected the traditional Chinese philosophy of ‘round heaven and square ground.’


Fact 5: Cave House is a perfect example of harmonious coexistence of humans and nature.
Most of the cave houses are equipped with high arched ceilings and big windows surrounding the main gate, allowing as much natural light as possible to penetrate into the side walls. The arched interior enlarges the inside space, creating a comfortable and spacious environment. Thermal and energy saving expert Dr. Liu Jiaping from Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology praised the cave dwelling as “comfortable and energy-saving, warm in winter and cool in summer. It is a perfect example of the harmonious coexistence of a traditional human dwelling and nature and looks ingenious and exquisite from the perspective of architectural aesthetics.”

Fact 6: Cave house played an important role in modern Chinese history.
It’s well known that the Communist Party of China is rooted in the rural area, but it’s rarely known that the remote cave houses in Yanan protected the party against the National Troops. After the Long March, Chairman Mao leading the few remaining Red Army members reached Yanan and lived in cave dwellings. It was here that he led the Communist Party to win the decade-long War of Resistance against Japan and defeated the dictator Chiang Kai Shek, laying the foundation for the new China. It is also here that Chairman Mao left his great legacy on the art of war “Talking about the Protracted War”.

Fact 7: Cave house has its shortcomings.
Despite the advantages mentioned above, cave houses are not an ideal solution for modern residences.
1. Carved out of the earth, caves can be very humid in summer, causing possible damage to the wooden objects inside.
2. No matter how big the windows are, only one side is open to light, leading to dim light and depression in bad weather.
3. Cave houses are extremely unsafe in the case of natural disasters like rainstorms, mud-rock flows, and earthquakes.
4. The earthen cave can barely reach basic modern hygiene standards, unless special renovations are done.
5. It’s difficult to incorporate all the necessary modern electrical appliances in such a damp and limited space.
6. With the population explosion, earthly housing isn’t really a good option anymore.

Fact 8: Though widely inhabited, cave houses lost its dominant position.
Cave houses are still common in northwestern China, especially Shaanxi, Shanxi, Gansu, and Ningxia Provinces. According to related records, there are about 3 million residents in cave houses.
The Chinese government has initiated a series of housing measures in rural areas to encourage people leave caves and move in to better and safer modern houses, which has proven to be very effective over the years. If you have been to Shaanxi province, you will know that the younger generation are forsaking their original cave homes and moving to cities seeking more opportunities. People who are left in the cave houses are either old or poor. The Chinese government is extending the housing program in rural areas to tackle this problem, but there is still a long way to go.

Fact 9: Interesting Twist: cave house tourism is emerging.
In recent years, cave dwelling people have created a new way to reuse their cave house. Many modern cave houses in Yanan and other places have been renovated and equipped with modern facilities to host domestic and foreign guests. These cave hotels will reward you with a completely new living experience together with a taste of local culture.

Although the cave house is not popular as a dwelling form any more, it still holds a special place in the Chinese people’s hearts. As the origin of northern China’s dwelling civilization, the cave house nurtured millions of lives and stored tons of memories. It represented the development of the agricultural society of China and also witnessed the drastic change of Chinese society. Unfortunately, this unique culture form is colliding with the modern society of the industrial revolution and at this critical juncture the necessary protection and inheritance are in great demand. Lilysun China Tours is dedicated to preserve this cultural legacy by including the local cave houses nearby Xian city in our tours. We merely hope the short visits to the local families can raise people’s awareness.




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