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Christian Teran

Traditional Chinese Architecture

Political and Economic Reform

The Naxi Home and the De-Sacralization of the Chinese Ancestral Altar

This essay will go over my individual understanding and ability to analyze a structure

physically, iconographically and historically, specifically that structure of the Traditional

Chinese Architectural home of the Naxi; one of the six ethnic minority peoples we visited during

our stay in Yunnan. Once I go over my personal comprehension of the Traditional Chinese

Architectural home of the Naxi people, I will go on to intellectually dive into the subject matter

of the role of the traditional Chinese Ancestral Altar before the Cultural Revolution and its role

in Post-Cultural Revolution China. I will explain how during the past century the architectural

dynamics of traditional living arrangements as well as the hierarchical sacredness of spaces and

living quarters have been effected by noteworthy moments throughout Chinese history,

specifically the during the Cultural Revolution. We will discuss what and when this trend of de-

sacralization began, which in due course has altered the views on Traditional Chinese

Architecture and its true meaning. We will also be discussing in this section of the essay the

organization of the Ancestral Altar, as well as in which ways the Ancestral Altar is ritualized,

how exactly the Cultural Revolution had an impact on Traditional Chinese Ancestral Altars and

finally what measures were taken in order to attain the information provided in this essay.
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The reason as to why I am so intrigued by the traditional Chinese architecture of the Naxi

peoples home is due simply to the fact that throughout history they have been capable of

withstanding earthquakes of massive magnitudes despite the fact that they are hundreds and

thousands of years old. On top of that, the Naxi home is comprised of many different

characteristics that derive from other parts of China such as the North which makes the Naxi

home what some might call the melting pot of traditional Chinese architecture.
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Feng Shui: Naxi House

The Naxi village that we had the wonderful opportunity in visiting as well as

experiencing the culture of the Naxi people, resides near the beautiful city of Lijiang. It is

situated in the northwest region of Yunnan Province. The city itself has an area that stretches to

over 21,219 square kilometers and within lies a population of approximately 1,244,769 people,

according to the 2010 census. Lijiang is one of the few but very fortunate cities to be able to

proclaim that they obtain one of the UNESCO Heritage Sites, known as Old Town of Lijiang.

Geographically the city of Lijiang is located in the northwestern part of Yunnan and

shares a border with the province known as Sichuan. An interesting fact to note is that in this

region is where the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau converge and grind

against one another, which leads to a common occurrence of earth-quakes in the area. For the

reason that Lijiang has a low latitude though high elevation, this region enjoys that of a mild

subtropical highland climate. What this means is that it has the properties of an oceanic climate

which is normally found in mountainous locations in tropical countries. The major difference is

that a mild subtropical highland climate like that of Lijiang will experience a much drier winter.

From what we were able to note on the landscape and layout of Lijiang was that it was indeed

much drier than the rest of Yunnan despite its elevation. Lijiang was also almost in the center of

a valley, surrounded by mountains and plains.

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Figure 1 Map of Yunnan and location of Lijiang

Figure 2 Map of Lijiang

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Physicality of Naxi Village Homes

Due to the fact that we stayed in Old Baisha Village instead of the actual city of Lijiang,

we can only safely assume that the physical attributes of the city in which we stayed in are going

to be by far less advanced than those within the city. The origins of the Old City of Lijiang dates

back to more than 1,000 years and was heavily influenced by the Old Tea Horse Caravan Trail.

The Dayan Old town is famous for its advanced waterway and bridge systems.

One thing to note about the Naxi people is that they construct their homes as a safe-

haven. They built the frame of the home with timber. Why is this so special? Well the fact of the

matter is that during the 1996 Lijiang earthquake, everything was obliterated and was seen

collapsed on the floor in rubble in the after math. Though what was extremely fascinating was

that the Naxi homes that dated back to over 1,000 years ago were still standing! The reason for

this was that the timber-wood frames that the Naxi used back in the day was put to use for a

reason, it was flexible, unlike stone, brick or clay, which allowed the home to bend and sway in

ways so that the structure would not collapse.

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The main source of materials that the Naxi people used to establish their homes consist of

two major materials, timber-wood which allows for flexibility and mud-brick. The Naxi homes

are very similar to the Han in the way that the home always has only three screens on each side.

Figure 4 Timber Frame Structure

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Figure 3 Pedestal

Figure 4 Modern Naxi House using both cement blocks (left) as well as mud brick walls (right)
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The image below is a representation of the Naxi home that I studied, what it shows is

what the Naxi home would look like if you were standing right in front of it.

Figure 5 3 Bays Front View of the Naxi Home

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The following image is what the floor plan of the Naxi house looks like.

Figure 6 3 Buildings 3 Bays Large Courtyard: Typical Han Style

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As you can see for yourself the Naxi home itself is a very interesting home, now you

know what a Naxi home looks like, what it is made of, how it is held together, why it is made the

way it is, why the Naxi people use the materials that they do and so forth. All in all the Naxi

home is a very simple but beautiful home.

Now that we have gone over the first part of this essay we can go on to focus specifically

on the Ancestral Altar and how they have been affected by the Cultural Revolution. Though

before doing this one needs to have a basic understanding of what an Ancestral Altar is and what

its significance is in Traditional Chinese Culture and Architecture. To start off ancestor

veneration in Chinese culture is the practice or custom of the living family members to pay
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respects to their ancestors. In the Confucian philosophy which has greatly influenced Chinese

traditions greatly emphasized the act of paying respect to ones deceased family members as a

representation of filial piety; especially that of children towards their parents. According to Han

Architecture which is much influenced by the Confucian Four Relationships: Emperor to

Subject, Father to Son, Husband to Wife, and Eldest Brother to Younger Brother, the Ancestral

Altar is supposed to be placed in the center most northern part of the home or the center rear bay

of the home.

In the Chinese culture there are many different manners in which an individual can pay

respects to their ancestors, even the physicality of an ancestral altar will differ from one to the

other. The following are examples of a few ancestral altars that can be found throughout China.
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As you can see in the images above, all the Ancestral Altars look very much alike, some

are big some are small, some have tablets inscribed with good wishes in them and so forth. One
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interesting fact that I came across was that if you look closely, all of these Ancestral Altars look

somewhat like a house. The reason for that is that the individuals who have these ancestral altars

want their deceased ancestors to live comfortably, and they believe that having an altar which

looks like a home with make their ancestors feel at home in the afterlife. An ancestral altar might

also have offerings such as fruit, fake bills, little relics and so on all for the sole reason that

individuals want to make sure that their ancestors have enough to be comfortable in the afterlife.

Although never will you give meats as an offering to your ancestors because meat is a symbol of

killing, because to attain meat you need to kill for it. Most of the time these altars would have a

photo of the deceased family member front and center of the altar but because these photos I

took at the China National Minorities Museum they did not have them.

Now what exactly happened that caused a shift in the mentality towards the traditional

Chinese Ancestral Altar into a de-sensitized version of an ancestral shrine? The main

contributing factor was that of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution or more commonly

known as the Cultural Revolution. This was a social and political movement that occurred under

the reign of Mao Zedong over the Peoples Republic of China during the years of 1966 until

1976. The main objective of this social-political movement was to preserve the true Communist

ideologies within the country by any means necessary. And that meant getting rid of any person,

place or thing that expressed anything other than the ideologies of Communism and Mao

himself. Maoist thought was to be the new dominant ideology within the Communist Party of

China. This purge or cleansing of anything that went against Maos ideas led to the demotion of

people such as Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi, both who were considered revisionist at the time.

During this period, what had started as a mass movement of socio-political ideas to a

complete and total Communist country, became more of a personal mission of Mao Zedong of a
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cult of personality. Using mass-media, propaganda and so forth, Mao decided to take a turn for

the worst and begin an attempt to idolize himself in the eyes of the people of China. In example,

you have Tiananmen Square, where Maos portrait is the focal point of the entire area. This

resulted in the catastrophic destruction of many historical relics and artifacts as well as the

ransacking of prominent religious sites. Although Mao declared the Cultural Revolution to be

over in 1969, in reality it lasted throughout all of Maos reign over China until his death and the

arrest of the Gang of Four. One interesting fact about the Cultural Revolution is that to promote

and gain support or encourage the personality cult, one of Maos first steps in propping himself

up was to distribute millions of copies of what we now know of as the Little Red Book of

Maos quotations. Mao specifically focused on gaining the support of the youth at the time,

which resulted in the creation of the Red Guard. The Red Guard was responsible for making sure

that they would take any measures necessary to get rid of anything that went against Mao,

specifically the elderly and the intellectuals of that time.

Knowing the information above I took the opportunity to interview a few of my friends

of Chinese descent on the subject matter. The questions I asked go as follows:

1. Do you have an ancestral altar in your home? Why? And Where in your home?

2. Does your extended family have an ancestral altar? Why? Where in the home?

3. What significance does it have for you and your family?

4. What is it like? How is it formatted, where in the house or apartment is it?

5. Are you of Han decent or of another minority in China?

It was interesting to note that out of the five people that I interviewed none of them had an actual

shrine in their own homes. And only three said that their grandparents had an ancestral altar. I

was not able to attain photos of their altars due to the fact that they say it is disrespectful to take a
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photo. Another curious thing to be aware of was that none of these ancestral altars were in the

place where they were supposed to be. Mainly for the fact that they live in apartments which do

not allow for a proper structural organization of spaces, but even then, everyone I interviewed

said that it was simply in the living room off to one side, or it simply did not have a designated

area that was there only to venerate their ancestors. When asked what significance these

Ancestral Altars had for them personally, everyone answered that it was simply tradition or that

it was merely there just to be there.

After everything that I have come across I believe that most Ancestral Altars are still

around in modern times in a physical way. Although I get the impression that the spirituality and

significance of an Ancestral Altar has decreased dramatically. I have found most ancestral altars

to be in the homes of the younger individuals grandparents. None of the people I had

interviewed stated that they go back home to their ancestral village to venerate the ancient altars.

When asked why, they all simply had no reason to or at least felt that they had no reason too.

My goal with this research paper was to go out and find out why there was a great shift in

the ideology of the Ancestral Altar. What motivated me to do this was the fact that both on the

Silk Road Excursion and especially on the Yunnan Excursion, there were many times in which I

came across these shrine looking things that always seemed to be in honor of Mao Zedong. And I

personally always deemed Mao to be a negative person in Chinese history, so it peaked my

curiosity to know why people still 40 years later venerate Mao Zedong more than they do their

ancestors. By what I read I came to find out that in makes sense for things to be the way they are

now, even 40 years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. The fact that the Red Guard was

made up of the teenagers and people in their early 20s means that today they are all around the

age of 50 or so. Making it so that those individuals having a huge influence over the youth of
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today. The fact that Mao ordered all revisionist ideas and liberal mindsets to be banned and him

putting himself out there as a God during the late 60s and 70s makes it so that today it is

normal not to be in touch with ones traditions and spirituality since it was stripped away many

years ago. My interviews and research pointed to one clear conclusion, that the youth of today

were not privileged enough to experience their cultural traditions due to the loss of identity

during the Cultural Revolution leading to a China whose history is not of 5,000 years but that of

39 years. China today is not the traditional China it once was, China has lost its cultural identity

and is now struggling to make one for itself.

Images above were taken in rural Chinese homes of various ethnic minorities in Yunnan.
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"Cult of Personality." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 06 May 2015.

"Cultural Revolution." History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 06 May 2015.

"The Cultural Revolution." The Cultural Revolution. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2015.



People who were interviewed: MONICA AGE 19, HUANG WEI AGE 27, AMANDA