'Sanfang Yizhaobi', literally "three houses with one front wall", is the most common Bai style home, and is characterized by three outer buildings forming a U shape, with a fourth wall as a screen. In the center is a large a courtyard, surrounded by doors and windows intricately carved with local birds and flowers, usually the work of craftsmen in nearby towns such as Diannan and Jianchuan.
The large screen wall, sometimes known as the shining wall, serves an interesting double purpose. The first is to block out the winds the gather during the afternoons, while the second is to catch the reflected early evening rays, and illuminate the main house. In the winter months especially, when the sun's rays are low, this can mean a valuable extra hour of two of daylight in the main living room, something that was invaluable before the very recent advent of light bulbs and electricity.
Artwork detail on a recently built traditional house,Shaxi
The main wall is usually decorated either with a single character, such as 'Fu' for fortune, 'Shou' for longevity, or 'Xi' for happiness, or a short vertical couplet such as "Cai Yun Nan Xian" (colorful clouds appearing in the South), or "Nong Feng Cheng Xiang" (a dragon and a phoenix present a good omen). Stylized curlicues and floral designs soften sharp corners.
In a region famous for its year-round spring weather, it is hardly surprising that Bai family life revolves around the courtyard. Inside the patio, parterres are laid out with brightly colored flowers and bonsai trees, often surrounding large rock art mosaics that utilize local river stones. Many complexes have a front corridor (to help the feng shui) with intricately carved multi layered eaves. The tiled roofs boast graceful curves culminating in upturned ends, reminiscent of Thai temples.
Most homes are composed of two floors, the upper rooms used for storage, while the lower rooms are for family living space. Foundations are constructed from locally quarried rectangular stones, that can often weigh in excess of three hundred kilos each, and need at least four men, a rope, and two yokes to put them in place. The walls themselves are made of rammed earth ('chong chang'), painted with slaked lime. Internal walls also receive artistic attention, often in the form of ink-and-wash painting. Perhaps most impressive of all, is that local carpenters do not use nails in the construction process. Instead of screws and hilti guns, a special "dougong" system of double brackets that support the roof atop the thick timber pillars.
A tobacco drying tower in Shaxi
Traditional rammed-earth house under construction
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