Bai family life revolves around the courtyard, which is in direct response to the year-round spring weather enjoyed in the region. The Bai people have expanded their living space by surrounding their flower ladened courtyards with three areas of living and one elegant ‘picture wall.’ Most homes are composed of two floors, the upper room used for storage while the lower rooms are for living. Some complexes, like The Linden Centre, have a front corridor with intricately carved eaves of multiple layers. The tiled roofs of Bai homes are renowned for their graceful curves culminating in upturned ends reminiscent of Thai temples.
The most common layout of Bai homes is the “Three living wings and one front picture wall.” The three living wings are often composed of one large, important wing across from the wall (this wing usually included the ancestral hall and greeting area) flanked by two lesser buildings (sometimes single-storied) used for sleeping. Double courtyard homes include “sky wells” – a type of exposed patio that houses the water well. The Linden Centre is unique in having three contiguous courtyards. There are several ‘sky wells,’ and two water wells and three large ancillary sections (the size of courtyards) used for gardens, cooking, and keeping visitors. We have taken great care to restore all of these areas to their original elegance.
The foundation of a Bai building is usually constructed of locally quarried rectangular stones. The stones often weigh in excess of 600 pounds each, and are moved by four men, a rope, and two yokes. The Linden Centre’s foundation has over 1,000 of these stones holding it above the surrounding fields. Some Bai villagers build up their homes by selecting pebbles from the streams that flow down from the Cang Mountains and mixing them with mud. There is a Bai saying, “Pebbles make walls that never collapse.” These homes are usually topped with mud brick walls and sealed with a mud and grass plaster mix. It is easy to see the hay, rocks, and shells in the walls of Xizhou’s older homes.
Gates are decorated with colorful paintings depicting auspicious stories. Sometimes these include marble slabs that evoke scenes of nature, and even valued porcelain plates positioned strategically to display the owner’s wealth. The rooms of honor, facing the picture wall, are all entered via six carved wood door panels. These panels, which often included patterns of flowers, birds and local characters, were often the source of greatest pride for the Bai owner. The Linden Centre’s door panels have all survived unscathed due to the fact that the military was based in the complex; thankfully our building was off-limits to vandals, thieves, and Red Guards. Walls are usually painted with a lime mixture in white which serves as a reflecting wall to bring in sunshine and warmth. Some familes paint prosperous sayings such as ‘Fu’ for fortune, ‘Shou’ for longevity, or ‘Xi’ for happiness. ‘Xi’ is also in the name of our village, Xizhou – which means “Happiness Town.”
Construction projects are certainly village and family affairs in Yunnan. Ground is broken on carefully chosen propitious days of the Lunar calendar. Local religious leaders will often visit the site in advance and make the selection based on principles of geomancy (Feng Shui). Building begins with a party, with friends and neighbors gathering to help raise the first timbers. The placement of the main roof beam is usually overseen by the village elders. Firecrackers are set off, while the chief carpenter proudly climbs up the frame and arranges gold-colored ropes. Friends and family then hoist the final beam into place, after which colored silk is draped over the main supports. The carpenter then sprinkles water in four directions and, in our case, a live chicken (we refused to kill it in front of our two boys) was paraded outside the structure. Work waits for another day as a feast to celebrate the new project is held. We hosted over 75 workers in our first courtyard – a night of endless toasts to our new beginning and a building to last a lifetime.
The Linden Centre in Xizhou has the support of the local community and government and is being incorporated into the tourism economy in the region. It is widely understood to be a model of architectural renovation, cultural conservation, and a primary partner in the sustainable development of the local economy.