Why is the house named Yin Yu Tang?
It is common in China for families to name their homes and in so doing, announce desired values for their future descendants who will live in the house. The name Yin Yu Tang suggests the desire to shelter many future generations, as well as the hope that descendants will become high officials.
Where and when was the house originally built?
Yin Yu Tang was formerly located in the small rural village of Huang Cun, in the hills of Xiuning County in the Huizhou region of Anhui Province. Huang Cun is approximately 250 miles southwest of Shanghai.
Though the exact date of its construction has not yet been determined, it appears that the house was built by the 28th or 29th generation of the family at the turn of the 18th century. Since the present living family members are of the 34th through the 36th generation, the house was probably built 175 to 200 years ago.
View a historical timeline.
What is unique about this house?
Unlike many historic homes in China, this house did not belong to a famous person or a member of an imperial household, and so allows visitors to have a better picture of an average Chinese family's home. That the house was carefully dismantled and its construction analyzed also provides a unique opportunity to study traditional Chinese house construction.
Another rare aspect of Yin Yu Tang is the six large lattices covering the windows of the downstairs bedrooms. The carving on these exceptionally large panels is superb, and they create a visually striking atmosphere on the first floor.
Finally, the access to documentary records, household goods, and oral histories make this house a rich resource for understanding Chinese families and their relationship to their homes.
Who lived in Yin Yu Tang and for how long?
Eight generations of family members-often three generations of family members at a time- lived in the house for nearly two centuries. The house is referred to by Huang Cun residents as Qi Fang, or "Seventh Branch," indicating that the house was built by the seventh son of an earlier patriarch. This seventh son had left his own family's home and by building his own home, he began a new family branch. Daughters left the house when they married, and the brides of Huang sons moved into one of the home's sixteen bedrooms. Since the men in the Huang family were merchants who were away on business for years at a time, the house was mainly occupied by their wives, children, and elders.
Did other people besides the Huang family live in the house?
In addition to the Huang family male descendants and other family members, on occasion non-family members lived in the house. At times, when the family was financially strained, they rented out some rooms. At other times, sympathetic to less fortunate neighbors, they took in boarders. Around the turn of the 20th century, when the Huang family was indebted to a neighboring relative, they repaid their debt by ceding him four rooms of Yin Yu Tang. After the 1949 Communist revolution, two of those rooms were confiscated and assigned to two poor peasant families.
Why did the Huang family sell the house?
Over time, Huang family members had relocated to many different parts of China, and by the mid-1980s Yin Yu Tang stood empty. With no one in the family residing in this rural village, the family was faced with a difficult decision regarding the future of their ancestral home. In 1996, family members from across China gathered to discuss the situation and decided to sell the house.
Where is the family now?
Some of the Huang family members still live in their native Xiuning County, though they have moved to other villages for convenience and work opportunities. Others moved to Shanghai many years ago for similar reasons, and remain there today.
How large is the house?
The footprint of the house is about 47 feet 6 inches by 52 feet 5-1/2 inches. This measurement includes the interior courtyard, but not the kitchens. The house has two stories, comprising 16 bedrooms, one storage space, and a reception hall on each floor.
How did the Peabody Essex Museum acquire Yin Yu Tang?
On a trip to China in 1996, Nancy Berliner, an independent scholar of Chinese art and now Curator of Chinese Art and Culture at the Peabody Essex Museum, was visiting the village when she first saw Yin Yu Tang, which was unoccupied at the time. On an ensuing trip to China in the same year, she revisited the house. Coincidentally, family members were present, and on that day they had decided to put the house up for sale.
In addition, Berliner learned that the Xiuning County Cultural Relics Administration was seeking an American cultural institution to assist in an effort to increase international awareness of traditional architecture of the region.
In May of 1997 an agreement was established: Yin Yu Tang would be transferred to the Peabody Essex Museum as part of a cultural exchange that would help protect and promote Huizhou architecture. Additional projects would be established in China to protect and conserve historic architecture in Huizhou.
View the project timeline.
How does the Huang family feel about their house becoming part of the museum? Have they been involved in the project?
The Huang family is proud and deeply pleased that their ancestral home will not be lost to posterity. They have provided information about the history of the house and their family to the museum, and have supplied an enormous array of household objects, including furniture, utensils, documents, tools, photographs, and decorations, to enrich and enliven its interpretation and presentation.
Wouldn't it have been better to leave the house in China and restore it at its original location?
The Xiuning County Cultural Relics Administration felt that exhibiting the house in the United States would help increase international awareness of traditional Huizhou architecture and convey the pressing need to repair and protect other historic structures of this region.
Huang Binggen, a Huang family member now living in Shanghai, expressed his appreciation in these words:
"[This] arrangement is the best solution for preserving the house. It's actually a big favor for us descendants. We can preserve the house forever and it will help us to remember that our ancestors had glorious achievements, and that we must keep forging ahead ourselves and make progress in our own careers."
Through this cultural exchange between China and the United States, visitors, scholars, and students can see the Yin Yu Tang house, gain a better understanding and appreciation of Chinese art, architecture, and culture, and learn about daily life in a Chinese village.
Learn more about the student cultural exchange.
How will the Peabody Essex Museum exhibit and interpret the Yin Yu Tang house?
Yin Yu Tang will be conserved and installed as a major new element of the museum's extensive expansion in the summer of 2003. Two accompanying galleries are planned within the new museum facility, presenting Yin Yu Tang within the larger context of Chinese culture. One will be dedicated to describing the family, the house, its history, and Chinese architecture; the other will feature rotating exhibits on Chinese art. The house will be presented as it appeared when it was last occupied in the 1980s.
What kinds of programs does the museum plan to offer regarding Yin Yu Tang?
In addition to two exhibition galleries, the Peabody Essex Museum will present lectures, screen films, and hold a wide array of programs on topics such as the conservation of Yin Yu Tang itself, traditional Chinese architecture, daily life in rural China, and the art and furnishings on exhibit within the Yin Yu Tang house. Stonemasons, carpenters, and other experts from China will travel to the museum to demonstrate traditional crafts.
The museum will offer a special audio tour to enable visitors to experience the atmosphere of the house when it was occupied. All of these elements are designed to give visitors an understanding of Chinese culture, as well as the fascinating history of the house and those who lived in it.
How does the Yin Yu Tang House fit with the existing collections and mission of the Peabody Essex Museum?
Yin Yu Tang joins the museum's existing collection of 23 historic houses, providing a rare context in which to interpret the American architecture the museum currently features, as well as its commitment to cultural education. Yin Yu Tang also adds a dramatic new perspective to the museum's interpretation of Chinese culture, to its collections of Asian art, and to the historic connection between China, the museum, and the town of Salem, Massachusetts. Together these houses provide a compelling portrait of the diverse ways in which humans shape the world in which they live.
How has the museum preserved the integrity of the house and its history throughout its dismantling and re-erection in the United States?
A team of preservation architects, traditional carpenters, artisans, and scholars from the United States and China have worked together to prepare the house for display. The team followed preservation guidelines designed to retain as much of the original material as possible.
Chinese carpenters and stonemasons skilled in traditional architectural arts helped guide the dismantling of Yin Yu Tang in Huang Cun. After the dismantlement, they came to the United States to instruct the rest of the project team in traditional architectural techniques of the Huizhou region, as well as to assist with on-site repairs. While in the United States, they learned about North American preservation techniques, which they will apply to future conservation efforts to preserve historic Huizhou architecture.
Read the Preservation Guidelines.