Ancient Chinese houses – Early China

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Chinese mudbrick house out in the country with a tile roof: Ancient Chinese houses

Ancient Chinese houses: Outside a typical Chinese house

How much house could you afford?

There were really two kinds of houses in ancient China. There were poor people’s houses (which is most of them).

And there were rich people’s houses (there were not very many of these).

Rich and poor in ancient China
More articles about ancient China

A house in China built of mud-brick with a tile roof

Ancient Chinese houses: a typical Chinese house

Poor people’s houses

Poor people’s houses were small and made out of cheap materials. They generally had just one room, made of rammed earth (like mudbrick). Builders mixed sand, clay, and gravel and then pounded it until it was hard to make rammed earth. Rammed earth walls could last for many years. The floor was often pounded dirt too, but it might have clay tiles on it. The roof was usually made of thatch.

What is mudbrick?
Why did people thatch their roofs?

These houses were a lot like poor people’s houses in West Asia or Egypt or Greece, India, or Africa. As in those places, poor people didn’t have bathrooms in their houses. They went outside, in the fields or in the woods, or they used a chamber pot inside.

 Read more about the history of houses

clay model of a two-story house with a small courtyard: Ancient Chinese houses

Ancient Chinese houses: a  model of a two-story house (China, ca. 100 AD)

Rich people’s houses

Rich people’s houses were much bigger. They had a high wall made of rammed earth all the way around them, with no windows and just one door, to keep the family safe.

As soon as you went through this door, you would see another short wall in front of you. This was the screen wall. The screen wall kept people from seeing into your courtyard as they walked by, for privacy.

Families in ancient China

All around the courtyard there were rooms. In a very fancy house there were two stories, and there was a balcony on the inside of the upper story overlooking the courtyard.

Bathrooms in Chinese houses

Chinese clay model of a pigsty

A Han Dynasty outhouse-pigsty model (Art Institute of Chicago)

A lot of people had no bathroom at all in their house. They just went outside, or they used a clay chamber pot inside the house. Someone would carry the chamber pot outside to empty it later.

Read more about chamber pots

But some Chinese houses had a pig sty – a place to keep pigs – built in the corner of the courtyard. Over the top of the pig sty, they built a latrine with a hole in it.

More about Chinese bathrooms
Where do pigs come from?

So if you went to the bathroom in the latrine, the poop would fall down through the hole to the pigs. In China, pigs ate people’s poop to get fat. That kept food from being wasted, but sometimes it spread dysentery and cholera and typhoid.

Inside the Chinese house
More Chinese Architecture

Want another source? Read this University of Washington article about houses in China

Bibliography and further reading about ancient Chinese architecture:

Chinese food
More about Chinese families
Chinese schools
Ancient China Home

By |2018-10-18T08:44:24+00:00June 4th, 2017|Architecture, China|10 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Ancient Chinese houses – Early China. Study Guides, June 4, 2017. Web. December 15, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. Zoe October 19, 2018 at 2:46 am - Reply

    How big were the houses (either in measurements or in comparison to something) . Also what things were in an ancient Chinese commoner’s home.

  2. zoe October 18, 2018 at 3:34 am - Reply

    how big were the poorer houses in measurements. if you dont have measurements, can you give a comparison to something? thank you

    • Karen Carr October 18, 2018 at 8:35 am

      Houses come in all different sizes, of course. But a lot of people lived in very small houses, like pioneer log cabins. Maybe about 15 feet on each side? If the house was this small, people didn’t really spend much time inside – just to sleep, or if it was very cold, and then most of the time they were in the courtyards. Like when you are camping you don’t hang out in your tent. Other houses were bigger, though.

  3. Will May 25, 2018 at 5:52 pm - Reply

    great website I found this really helpful for my Assignment on Ancient Chinese culture and lifestyle. Keep up the good work!

    • Karen Carr May 25, 2018 at 5:59 pm

      Wow, that’s great, Will! Thanks for letting us know. We will keep writing articles!

  4. Jake May 17, 2018 at 2:45 am - Reply

    What was Chinese houses like before and after the opium trades with Britain

    • Karen Carr May 17, 2018 at 8:38 am

      Hi Jake! If the Opium Wars had an effect on what kind of houses people in China lived in, I don’t know about it. You can read more about the Opium Wars here (trade isn’t what I would call it, exactly):

  5. Dan April 20, 2018 at 1:39 pm - Reply

    not helpful needs more informaton

    • Karen Carr April 20, 2018 at 3:22 pm

      What information were you looking for? I’d be happy to answer your questions, Dan.

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