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Seal-like Compound (Yi ke yin)

Many people are familiar with Si he yuan residences in Beijing and other northern cities. However, the Si he yuan is not limited to just the north of the country. In southern China's Kunming, Yunnan Province, there is a variation of Si he yuan. Here the courtyard compounds are called Yi ke Yin, which is Chinese for 'seal' because when viewed from above the layout resembles the familiar shape of the square seal to be seen on Chinese documents and paintings.

A Si he yuan is normally constructed on a north-south axis facing south. The principal rooms are located to the north while those to the east and west are referred to as 'wing rooms'. Those on the south are called dao zuo, which means 'revered rooms'.

The Yi ke yin is more compact than the Beijing style of residences which are noted for their regal air and aristocratic grandeur. The buildings on all four sides are two-storied and connected. This configuration facilitates ventilation and exposes the rooms to less direct sunlight, which suits the local warm climate. The walls are high and with few windows so as to prevent the wind and the sand it often carries from blowing in. There are three principal rooms with two wing-rooms on either side.

The central room on the first floor of the principal building is the living room. The host's bedroom will be on either the left or right of this, while immediately above it on the second floor the central space is the ancestral hall or Buddhist hall. The remaining rooms are for the use of other family members and for storage. Other rooms at first floor level are occupied as the kitchen and shelter for livestock. The upper floors have wooden verandahs supported on timber pillars. At night when these are illuminated by red lanterns the residence assumes a nostalgic touch.

Some compounds have two or more groups of Yi ke yin, that is, two or more courtyards.

The entrance to the compound is in the south elevation with a screen wall standing behind it. This screen wall is important as it is a reflection of Chinese culture and aesthetics. Firstly, it ensures the privacy of those dwelling behind it. Secondly, it has a psychological effect on a visitor. Thirdly, according to folklore the screen wall protects against bad luck. Fourthly, as the Chinese people are naturally reserved the screen wall protects the courtyard from prying eyes. This allows the occupants to live their lives unobserved by the passerby. Screen walls are seldom plain and are decorated with auspicious patterns or characters, adding a dignity and charm to the stately compound.

Close by the Flower and Bird Market , you can find such old houses. Take a cup of pu er tea, in the peaceful surroundings of the courtyard and you will have a deeper understanding of the city and its culture. 

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