Sophomore English class 7: Talking about Chinese Architecture: Appraising debates

Nimen Hao,

welcome to today’s class. Let’s first continue the work we were doing on debate preparation last week, and then we’ll talk about modern and traditional Chinese architecture.

Part One: Appraising a debate, class exercise.

Listen to the two sides of the following debate.

Proposition: My Hometown is better than Shenzhen

The first is Lu Jian’s argument against the proposition: She argues that Shenzhen is better than Tianjin (her hometown).

The second is my argument for the proposition, that (my adopted hometown) Tianjin is better than Shenzhen.

While you listen, consider whether you think the two debate presentations meet the criteria for a good presentation outlined in the class last week. Consider the following questions.

  • What did you notice about the structure of the two arguments?
  • What were the speakers’ main points, and how did they support them?
  • How did the speakers finish their debate presentations? Did they achieve sufficent unity and coherence?
  • Did the speakers demonstrate good sentences skills/ did you notice any errors?
  • Were their sentences varied and interesting?
  • Did they make good use of their allotted time and stay within the time limit (3 minutes)?
  • Did the speakers enunciate clearly?
  • Who won the debate? Why?

OK, now listen to the debates. Then, once they’ve both been presented, we’ll discuss them together in our class group.

Part two: Chinese Architecture: the new stuff “sucks”!

Warm-up exercise. Expressive practice

Good. Now, working in your small groups, tell each other four sentences about things you like and four sentences about things you don’t like.  Read your sentences to each other in your small groups and discuss.

Let’s our keep ideas about how to talk about things we like and don’t like as we begin to discuss Chinese architecture. In this class we will just focus on a few aspects, including hutongs and siheyuan courthouses.

Descriptive Exercise. To begin talking about architecture, let’s do the following exercise, using the photographs of old and new buildings in different parts of China below.

Describing the images

drum tower

Choose one or more of the images above and compose two sentences describing the architecture and the way the spaces are used. Make another sentence telling us why you like or dislike the architecture in the pictures. Tell eachother your sentences and discuss in your small groups.

Reading: The world of the hutong and siheyuan courtyard houses


Now let’s read the following article together, sentence-by-sentence.

Reading one: The world of the hutong and siheyuan courtyard house

He Shuzhong describes the hutong way of life as the one thing that best represents ancient Chinese culture. The term ‘hutong’ refers to a laneway, connecting the living compounds of houses (generally belonging to one family) and courtyards (often shared by several families whose houses face onto the courtyard). The hutong area refers to all three elements (the lane, houses, courtyards).

Courtyard houses were originally built for family use (sometimes inter-generational families), rather than as dwellings shared between different families. In the late 19th and early twentieth century they began to be subdivided as many people migrated from the rural areas to the cities, and needed somewhere to live. So the crowded way they came to be inhabited was not how they were originally inhabited.

Ancient Chinese favoured courtyard housing because the enclosing walls gave privacy and protection from the wind, noise, dust and other threats. They like the courtyards because they provided light, air, and pleasant views, as well as acting as a family activity space.



In north eastern China (including Beijing and Tianjin), the builders typically used grey tiles and bricks for commoners, and red walls for officials, as ell as red beams and columns and green windows and door sashes.




In the south, in cities like Suzhou, they had white walls, black tiles, and brown beams, columns, windows and door sashes.




OK, let’s pause and discuss any words or phrases that need some explanation.

Yang writes that the hutong laneways, the courtyard and the house were all experienced as hutong nanharaspects of home, rather than separate spaces.

Hutong were originally only wide enough for pedestrians and bicycles, and so provided “a haven for kids to play in without fear of an accident”.

Lu Jian, who often stayed in her grandparent’s (Tianjin) courtyard house agrees that the freedom of the hutongs was one of the pleasures of childhood.

The architectural writer Donia Zhang described her childhood in Beijing courtyard housing:


I was sent back to Beijing to stay with my grandmother and
aunt … in a traditional courtyard house in the Western
district of the city, where I played with the neighbors’ children in the courtyard
almost every day of the year. We made a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ to get up at the
same time in the morning, to fly kites, to skip and dance over stretched chains
of rubber bands, or to kick shuttlecocks in the courtyard. If any of us broke the
‘agreement,’ all of us would go and wake him/her by knocking on the door. During
the winter, we would be so excited to see snowflakes falling from the sky that we
could not wait to build a snowman in the courtyard, or simply throw snowballs at
each other. My childhood in the courtyard was jolly, sweet, and carefree.

Once more, let’s pause and discuss any words or phrases that need some explanation.

  chess under tree *****.

The home-courtyard-hutong space was shared among inter-generational family and neighbours.

Yang gives the example of the pomegranate tree grown on a trellis across a hutong.

The shade of the tree provides a meeting place where neighbours pull up stools to sit and talk and play mahjong.



Shared outside washrooms also provide an opportunity for togetherness.


Residents’ wearing of sleeping clothes (pyjamas) in the street shows their feeling of home includes the hutong.

Lu Jian recalls the sharing of food among the different families who ate together in her grandma’s (Tianjin) courtyard; if someone went to the market and got fresh fish, crabs, or shrimp, then they would be shared with the neighbours.

Again, let’s pause and discuss any words or phrases that need some explanation.

Hutong life provided for little privacy and there was little escape when there was conflicts among neighbours. Jonah Kessel suggests the hutong’s space was cramped, buildings suffered from crumbling bricks and leaking roofs, residents relied on coal for winter warmth and had to go outside to the communal washrooms.

Many former hutong-dwellers have since moved to modern high rise apartments where they enjoy better facilities (like private washrooms). Local governments and developers have worked together to replace the hutong with high-rise apartment developments. You can see the changes in downtown Tianjin, where the historical area used to be:


Tianjin historical area after demolition in 2004 (from above)

Last one: let’s pause and discuss any words or phrases that need some explanation.

Descriptive Exercise: Describe the images: hutong and courtyard houses

shanghai shikumen

Expressive exercise. Do you like the hutongs and siheyuan?

Working in your small groups, write four sentences about hutongs and siheyuan. You should describe them and choose whether you like hutongs or dislike them, and all of your sentences should support your point of view.You can use the images above to help with your descriptions.

I will walk around and discuss your work with you, and then we will have a group discussion.

Exercise 5 Your favourite or least favourite building

Working in your small groups again, write a sentence telling us about a building you really like or dislike. Tell us your reasons.

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