Yin Yu Tang, a Traditional Chinese House in New England

01
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Rebuilding a Chinese House

Front of the Yin Yu Tang house seen from the Peabody Essex Museum
Front of the Yin Yu Tang house seen from the Peabody Essex Museum. Photo ©Fletcher6 via Wikimedia commons, Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)

Yin Yu Tang is the first house brought from China to the United States, and you can see it in Salem, Massachusetts. The Huang family lived in this exact house—not a replica—from about 1800 to 1982. The 4,500-square-foot building was named Yin Yu Tang, or Hall of Plentiful Shelter, to suggest that many generations of the Huang family would live within the fortress-like walls.

Built in the early 1800s for a wealthy merchant in the Chinese village of Huang Cun, Yin Yu Tang is a typical house—vernacular architecture—for that region of rural China. Its timber frame construction with a masonry curtain wall was carefully disassembled in China, shipped to the US in 19 containers to a preservation location, repaired, and reassembled offsite in 1998. The parts included:

  • 62 wooden columns
  • 256 beams
  • 2,735 pieces of wood
  • 972 stones
  • ceramic-tile roof

The house is constructed by traditional Chinese methods, without glue or nails—just intricate mortise and tenon joints. John G. Waite Associates, Architects, and Liberty Street Restoration Company worked with American and Chinese craftsmen to disassemble and then reconstruct the home, brick by brick, timber by timber. The process of identifying and labeling each piece took three years.

02
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The Forecourt and Front Door

Front door of Yin Yu Tang, reconstructed at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts
Front door of Yin Yu Tang, reconstructed at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Photo © Jackie Craven

The forecourt and front door can be seen through windows of the Peabody Essex Museum. The forecourt was traditionally a work area, for laundry, gardening, and farm animals to wander, but here at the Museum it takes on a less rural atmosphere.

Architects, conservators, and craftspeople faced many challenges in recreating this centuries-old Chinese house. The house was not built according to modern-day standards for safety and accessibility. It had no electricity. The Chinese roof tiles were unglazed and could not withstand freezing weather.

As they worked on the project, John G. Waite Associates, Architects, and Liberty Street Restoration Company established these Preservation Goals:

  • Preserve the historic building, but also meet contemporary building codes.
  • Provide accessibility for the handicapped.
  • Provide sufficient lighting for displays.
  • Create the realistic effect of a house that stood outside, yet also protect the building from the harsh New England climate.
  • Install new weather-resistant tiles underneath the original Chinese roof tiles.

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Traditional Chinese House Details

Stepped horse head exterior walls and interior courtyard fish pond at the reconstructed Yin Yu Tang house
Stepped horse head exterior walls and interior courtyard fish pond at the reconstructed Yin Yu Tang house. Photo © Jackie Craven

Matou qiang or horse-head walls were typical of houses in the village where Yin Yu Tang stood. These stepped parapets provide fire protection between village homes and within the timber-frame of an individual house.

Yin Yu Tang is two stories high and designed for multi-generational living. Common kitchen areas and an open courtyard called a "sky well" is at the center of the design.  Similar to villas you see in France and Italy, where balconied rooms overlook an open area, the sky well of the Yin Yu Tang house provides air and light to the interior private spaces. The roofs are sloped inward so rainwater can be captured and replenish the well-like ponds.

Sixteen bedrooms (two at each corner on each level) are connected by a narrow corridor that overlooks the courtyard. Intricately carved wooden screens provided both privacy and ventilation. An underground spring feeds the courtyard pond stocked with goldfish.

The ancient laws of feng shui acted as guiding principles in the construction of this home.

04
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Reconstructing a Chinese House in New England

Entrance to Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts
Entrance to Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Photo © Jackie Craven

Yin Yu Tang has been on display since 2003 at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts, USA.

But remember—this is a real house, reconstructed on the grounds of the Museum. Walk around to the back, and take a look for free.

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Yin Yu Tang for Free

Rear street view of Yin Yu Tang, reconstructed at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts
Rear street view of Yin Yu Tang, reconstructed at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Photo © Jackie Craven

On a side street in Salem, Massachusetts, take a careful look at a 19th century Chinese home.

Windows are elevated and tiny, providing enough cross-ventilation without compromising safety. In a typical Chinese village, the houses would be all connected by second-story doorways. These passageways, shown here as a bricked-up area in the rear of Yin Yu Tang house, provided community safety from intruders and escape routes from fire.

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Designed by Moshe Safdie

Interior atrium of Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts
Interior atrium of Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Photo © Jackie Craven

The only way to truly experience the interior of Yin Yu Tang is with paid admission to the museum, and the museum itself is a sight to behold. World-renowned architect Moshe Safdie designed the 2003 brick and glass expansion of the centuries-old Peabody Essex Museum. The visitor enters into a stunning atrium filled with light and excitement, like a town square or crossroads of exploration. The Yin Yu Tang house is located just beyond those windows.

Peabody Essex Museum
East India Square
161 Essex Street
Salem, MA 01970-3783 USA
Phone: 978-745-9500, 866-745-1876

Learn More:

Source: Explore the House, Peabody Essex Museum [accessed January 2, 2016]