Sub­ter­ranean dwellings in China date back more than 4,000 years, and are unique to the re­gion south of Shanxi prov­ince, where there is a lack of stone. and re­port from Pinglu.


When asked how long his fam­ily had been liv­ing in the sub­ter­ranean dwelling in Pinglu, in North China’s Shanxi prov­ince, the 70-year-old vet­eri­nar­ian Wang Shoux­ian gave an an­swer rarely heard in China, where the av­er­age life­span of build­ings is 30 years: “more than 300 years”.

Not only was Wang was born in the cave dwelling, but so was his fa­ther, grand­fa­ther and great grand­fa­ther.

As the ge­neal­ogy book of his fam­ily was burned dur­ing the “cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion” (1966-76) as a sym­bolic farewell to the “out­dated” past, Wang re­lies on mem­ory to retell the story of his fam­ily.

“There used to be an im­por­tant road near here. So, my fore­fa­thers built the un­der­ground dwelling as a lodge for passers-by. Most old peo­ple in the county know about the Wang Fam­ily Ho­tel,” says Wang.

The wall fac­ing his bed, which is cov­ered with dozens of dis­col­ored photos dat­ing back decades, re­minds him of his big fam­ily. But none of his three sons or the grand­chil­dren, who work and study in the county’s down­town, is will­ing to stay in the un­der­ground cave dwelling.

Since his wife died sev­eral years ago at the aged of 67, Wang is the only res­i­dent of the sub­ter­ranean dwelling. There were hun­dreds of such dwellings be­fore the 1980s, but most have col­lapsed af­ter young peo­ple left and the old peo­ple died.

The dwellings date back more than 4,000 years, and are unique to the re­gion south of Shanxi, where there is a lack of stone and the soil is rich in solid loess brought in by the Yel­low River from the Gobi desert.

Wang was named an in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage ex­pert by the provin­cial author­ity in 2008 be­cause he is one of the few to­day who knows how to build the dwellings.

Wang says the dwellings are not that dif­fi­cult to build but “ex­pen­sive to main­tain”.

To cre­ate the dwelling, a pit cov­er­ing an area of about 200 square me­ters and 7 to 8 me­ters deep, is dug on a flat and thick loess plateau, with a spot care­fully cho­sen by feng shui mas­ters as its cen­ter. The bot­tom of the pit is the court­yard, and arched caves are then dug on the sides of the pit, form­ing rooms.

A wind­ing cor­ri­dor lead­ing to the bot­tom of the pit is dug as the only way to en­ter and leave the res­i­dence. But the en­trance of the cor­ri­dor is al­ways hid­den to keep possi- ble in­trud­ers out.

In the court­yard there is a well, which also col­lects rain for daily use, and a waste­water soak pit.

On the flat roof of the dwell- ing are two stone rollers.

Wang says he uses the rollers to roll the earth to make it com­pact and solid. The grass grow­ing on the top of the plat­form must be re­moved as the roots can dam­age the soil layer.

If main­te­nance is not done in a timely fash­ion, the loess can be­come loose and the arched caves will col­lapse.

Be­sides treat­ing live­stock in nearby vil­lages, Wang spends most of his time mend­ing and re­in­forc­ing his home.

An­cient records show that lo­cal res­i­dents de­vised this kind of sub­ter­ranean struc­ture to avoid wild beasts, as well as the wind.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists say un­der­ground dwellings are a re­minder of early hu­mans in caves.

Wang’s neigh­bors say that his un­der­ground dwelling has good feng shui, be­cause most of the ba­bies born in his home over the past 15 gen­er­a­tions since the Qing Dy­nasty (16441911) are male.

Wang and his wife opened their home to tourists in the 1980s, and they kept note­books for the lodgers to record their re­ac­tions.

Among the com­ments are ones like — “Thank you for en­ter­tain­ing us in your fas­ci­nat­ing and un­usual home. I had pre­vi­ously only heard about such place. I had never seen one. A very com­fort­able life,” from Natalia Read, a vis­i­tor from Lon­don in April 2012.

Wang Fang, a trav­eler from Pinglu and now liv­ing in Shang­hai, writes in Au­gust 2014: “I grew up in such an un­der­ground dwelling in Pinglu. It only ap­pears in my dream now. Thank you for pro­tect­ing my dream and my home.”

Wang says a re­tired Ja­panese sol­dier used to bring his fam­ily mem­bers to live in the cave dwelling in the 1980s.

“He said he used to live in one dur­ing the war and likes it very much,” says Wang.

Now, a big con­cern for Wang is that the cave may col­lapse af­ter he passes away.

“No­body wants to learn how to build it and live in it, be­cause it takes too much work, and the gov­ern­ment says the dwellings are a waste of land,” says Wang.

Con­tact the writ­ers at liyang@chi­

Wang Shoux­ian’s house, be­lieved to be more than 300 years old, is one of the best pre­served un­der­ground dwellings in the area.

An el­derly woman sits in front of her un­der­ground dwelling in Pinglu, Shanxi prov­ince.

The sub­ter­ranean house is dug on a flat and thick loess plateau.

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