Living below the ground

By Sun Ruisheng and Li Yang | China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-07-10 07:45

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. Sun Ruisheng and Li Yang 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the genealogy book of his family was burned during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) as a symbolic farewell to the "outdated" past, Wang relies on memory to retell the story of his family.

 Living below the ground

An elderly woman sits in front of her underground dwelling in Pinglu, Shanxi province. Liu Wenli / For China Daily

 Living below the ground

The subterranean house is dug on a flat and thick loess plateau. Liu Wenli / For China Daily

 Living below the ground

Wang Shouxian's house, believed to be more than 300 years old, is one of the best preserved underground dwellings in the area. Sun Ruisheng / China Daily

 Living below the ground

The subterranean dwelling houses were once common in Pinglu, where there is a lack of stone and the terrain is rich in solid loess. Photos by Liu Wenli / For China Daily and Sun Ruisheng / China Daily

 Living below the ground

A villager inside her cave house.

 Living below the ground

Wang Shouxian is one of the few who still knows how to build the dwellings.

"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 possible 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 dwelling 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 (1644-1911) 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.

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(China Daily USA 07/10/2017 page10)

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