Meiyan's home is in a small village of Jiaxian county, Shaanxi province, a place featuring with amazingly grotesque loess terrain: no trees, no plants, no sign of green whatsoever but bare and arid mesa-style hills and ravines. Absolute scarcity of rain has made the area of northwest China a landscape of weird alien world desolate and inhospitable. Yet, people did live here, generation by generation for thousands of years --- a convincing example of Chinese extraordinary endurance that has borne unique Chinese culture to this day almost untouched fundamentally.

Considering that an area short of rain, timber, stone and fuel for baking bricks but excess of cold wind and sandstorm, it makes sense people choose to dig a cave to be their shelter and home, besides, the cave room is warm in winter and cool in summer.

Cave dwellings are common in northwest loess plateau of northern China and at the middle and upper reaches of Huanghe (Yellow River) where they serve as homes for impressively as many as 40 million people. In the provinces of Shaanxi and Shanxi where the yellow earth (called loess) is quite compacted and structurally uniform, free of stone, and presents an ideal condition for easy digging and stable structural form.

Basically there are two main kinds of cave dwellings.

The first type of cave dwellings is that carved out of the side of a cliff. Cliffside dwellings are often south-facing, and the facades are sometimes faced with bricks or stone. Cliffside type constitutes most cave dwellings up to now including Meiyan's home.
The second type of cave dwelling is built where there are no hills. In this situation, people create sunken courtyards. After digging a courtyard that is usually about 10 meters deep, rooms are dug off the main courtyard around the perimeter. A large sunken courtyard complex, or pit dwelling, can have a courtyard as large as one hundred square meters. A large family of 3 or 4 generations may live in one pit dwelling court or several families share such a unit.

The courtyards of cliff dwelling are usually larger than those of pit dwellings, because they are easier to create than sunken ones that must be excavated. For a pit dwelling, drainage must be addressed in a sunken courtyard, unlike courtyards for cliff-side homes. Usually a small and shallow catchpit is enough for drainage.

The interior decoration varies from leaving bare earth on the wall and floor to laying treated bricks or tiles instead subject to family's affordability. Even the poorest family would paste propitious posters on the wall and paper-cut on the window in spring festival season or cover the flaked off part on the wall with coarse paper for a change of drab interior.

Without exception, no roof mound of dwelling caves is seen growing crops for fear of water leakage. Instead, a popular measure is to make the mound a flat concrete or brick surface for preventing the top of dwellings from collapse as well as functioning as sun-drying platform. Brick or stone are often added to the door arch of cave for additional strengthening against rain scour. In most courtyards trees in different categories can be seen: apple tree, pearl tree, crab tree, poplar or Chinese scholartree.

If possible cave dwellings are constructed large enough to cover a whole big household for several generations and are enclosed by walls to maintain and protect traditional patriarchy and this is particularly eminent with sunken pit dwellings. When a son of a family marries, he is not supposed to move out and have his own independent home; instead, a new cave would be carved up in the same courtyard where he's grown up for the young couple and very likely, for their offspring too.

As for Meiyan, her biggest change of life is getting married, with a man of same village or a neighboring village. What is not going to change is the destined tie of her life with cave house and toil on endless loess plateau.

 

Charpter 1 2 3 4 5 >>>