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China's Cave Dwellers

YANAN, China, June 22, 2005 - While environmentalists in the West are still scratching their heads for answers to energy-efficient, eco-friendly living, some Chinese have had the solution for thousands of years - cave dwelling.

Whereas cave dwelling in the West conjures up images of prehistoric men, for many millions in parts of China it is just a matter of tradition, and sheer common sense.

Besides, these days cave homes come equipped with all mod-cons such as cookers and refrigerators and are even wired for cable TV.

"Yaodong", as cave homes are known here, can be found mostly on the vast loess plateau of northern China where the unique soft, yellow earth in the mountains is not only easy to dig but so tightly packed that it holds together without any built support.

Throughout dry and mountaineous northern China, an estimated 40 million Chinese still live in caves or subterranean dwellings. For these people, there is nothing more natural and ordinary than to live in the dugouts: their homes are easy and cheap to construct, warm in winter and cool in summer, and shield them well away from the strong winds and harsh weather.

In the new fast-living era, Chinese people love anything modern from flash cars and mobile phones to digital cameras. But cave-dwelling is one thing that the people of Shaanxi province swear they will never give up on their road to modernisation.

Most people in this former communist revolutionary base of Yanan have lived in a cave at some time in their lives, and even for those who now live in modern flats, they still say they miss cave-dwelling.

By a hillside not far from a 1930s communist guerilla army base lives Zhang Xiaoqun, a construction worker, and his family.

Their humble cave house is simply dug into the side of a hill with a facade coated with bricks but is wired with an electrical supply and cable television.

In the 70 square meter (753 square feet) space under arched ceilings, he and his wife sleep, watch television, cook and have family dinners with their grown-up children, who live in a cave home further up the hill.

"The advantage of a cave is that it is cool in the summer and warm in the winter," he says. "There is no need for fans or air-conditioning in the summer, although it can get a little damp after it rains." One very practical advantage of cave-dwelling, Zhang says, is that rents are relatively cheap.

Zhang, who earns just 500 yuan (60 dollars) a month when work is available, pays a monthly rent of 110 yuan (13 dollars) -- less than half that of conventional flats in central Yanan.

Utility bills are also less, with no air conditioning and less heating costs.

Although the temperature in Shaanxi can drop to as low as minus 20 degrees centigrade in the winter, the natural insulation of the earth can keep temperatures in the cave at a constant 10 degrees with the help of a "kang," a huge stone bed that is linked to an indoor stove warmed by the heat of cooking.

For others, cave dwelling is a matter of emotional attachment.

"Of course I prefer living in a cave. I don't know how to explain it, it just doesn't feel quite right in an ordinary flat," says taxi driver Tian Ping.

Standing by a well dug by guerilla communist soldiers in the 1930s, Liu Chaoying, 46, a folk singer and dancer who lives in a modern flat in central Yanan, talks fondly of the peace and traquillity of cave-dwelling in the hills.

"Caves are more primitive, but the air is nice and fresh by the hillside," Liu says.

"People in town, when you close your front door then you don't talk to your neighbours. There, people sit outside and eat, you chat with your neighbours, your children play together, it's a much more friendly setting."

Shaanxi people's pride in its heritage can be seen manifested in Yanan city's cave-inspired architectural style, from shops and garages to a recently-completed government-subsidised housing estate for low-income families where ordinary buildings they are shaped like caves.

Lu Hai, 70, who lives in one of the 698 cave-shaped teracced houses on a hill slope at Dongsheng Gardens -- touted as the biggest group of caves in the world -- said the modern design is much more civilised than the traditional earthen dwellings, where he lived until recently.

"These brick built caves are good, they are much harder wearing than the old ones. These caves have kitchen and toilets indoors, they have central heating, that's much better," he says.

His neighbour a woman surnamed Guo, 54, however feels no romantic nostalgia looking back to her days of living in earthen caves.

"People had no choice when they were poor, now people are well off, there is no need for people to huddle together on top of the brick stove with all their family," she says.

"You needed to chop firewood and all that -- it wasn't all fun."

But architecture professor Wang Jun at the Xian University of Architecture and Technology says that with suitable renovation and improvement, such as ventilation, even traditional earthen caves can be as comfortable as modern houses.

He believes that the durability of caves combined with their energy efficient characteristics mean that caves will not only last into future decades, but will even spread in popularity in a new eco-conscious era.

"Now it has become a trend, people want eco-living and they find that cave dwelling is actually very environmentally friendly," he says.

Not only do caves save space by being cut into hill terraces, they also save arable land since they use non-fertile or hard-to-farm hillsides, and also reduce use of China's hard-pressed energy supplies. "Modern living is often not eco-friendly and sacrifices people's health with harmful building materials and paints," says Wang.

Many Western environmentalists are also keen on cave-dwelling, saying that the natural insulation of the earth makes for high energy efficiency and provides a perfect method for the creation of eco-friendly accomodation.

In one earth-sheltered housing project monitored by the University of Bath in Britain, it was found that the underground design used only 25 percent of the energy that would be required by a standard house on the same site.

Wang is confident that even though more rural Chinese people are migrating to cities, cave dwelling will remain a much-loved tradition of habitation for many years.

"In the past, local officials' political achievement was measured by how many people they manage to move out of the caves, but now many have got to know the value and attraction of caves," he says.

"The caves won't disappear, there are simply too many advantages."

Taxi driver Tian Ping can attest to that.

"When I retire, of course I'll go back to my home village and live in a cave, there is no question about that," he says.

* * * * *

Published on 8/31/05

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