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Reviewed by:
  • House Home Family: Living and Being Chinese
  • Sunamita Lim (bio)
Ronald G. Knapp and Kai-Yin Lo, editors. House Home Family: Living and Being Chinese. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2005. xxi, 454 pp. Paperback $30.00, ISBN 0-8248-2953-0.

House Home Family: Living and Being Chinese is an excellent compendium of architectural, cultural, and historical renditions on the concept of jia (the venerable Chinese tradition of home and family); richly illustrated with color photography and line drawings from historical texts. This book's timely, topical selections that shed light on jia are long overdue, making it a valuable contribution to a better appreciation of the underpinnings of Chinese society in today's interactive global economy and cultural exchange.

Whereas it is true that growing up in a Chinese household that was fast-tracking to modernity had enabled me to assimilate non-Chinese notions of making progress with one's life professionally and socially, I was also left with precious little to understand my heritage on more profound levels. It is a similar situation faced by overseas Chinese for over four decades, from the 1940s to the 1980s-eviscerated all the more by China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. However, while researching Chinese decorative styles, I was fortunate in rediscovering jia (home and family) with this engaging volume. House Home Family: Living and Being Chinese is aptly titled, and the title theme is eloquently elucidated by a cadre of distinguished scholars, who share their research from decades of devoted study.

Thematically connected by jia, the volume's essays are logically organized by how the Chinese dwelling (notably the extended family's courtyard or siheyuan [architectural imprint]) determines family structure and kinship relations. The first section covers spatial constructs of the house-how feng shui, garden, furniture, iconographic symbols, and decorative rebuses contribute to the family's well-being. Appropriately, and unequivocally, Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt states, "Wherever it stands, the house is the single most profound symbol of the Chinese family. It is a symbol as powerful as the Great Wall is for the country" (p. 35).

Co-editor Ronald Knapp's 1986 publication, China's Traditional Rural Architecture: A Cultural Geography of the Common House (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press), was the first book written in English on vernacular Chinese dwellings. Thus, it is no surprise that Knapp's two essays (apart from his introduction) discuss feng shui applications in siting and situating homes that extend even to graves. Arcane as the science and art of feng shui are, Knapp's discussion shows how the prudent use of environmental resources and an affinity for the land has guided centuries of pragmatic building on Chinese soil. Additionally, Knapp expanded on Nelson Wu's earlier work in explaining how spatial constructs determine [End Page 435] nonfamilial social relationships, as well as family interactions, within the siheyuan, and how they affect the extended family unit as a whole.

At our family's annual qing ming festivities (spring rites of cleaning the ancestral graves), I'd always wondered why Chinese graves (I was living in Malaysia then) are such huge earth-filled sculptures, shaped like armchairs as if embracing the deceased. Knapp's discussion addresses my observation, and more. I also won-dered: "What are the percentages of open and built spaces within similar-sized plots in China versus the U.S.?" The answer: for China, 30 percent open and 70 percent built space; for the U.S., 70 percent open and 30 percent built space. In other words, a courtyard home in China used the same amount of land to shelter more residents, compared to the United States.

Internationally renowned jewelry designer Kai-Yin Lo is the other co-editor of this compilation. Lo has delighted collectors around the world with her unique designs, as well as with her keen collection of rare Chinese antique furniture and Song dynasty white ceramics. Lo's Classical and Vernacular Furniture in the Living Environment (1998) is insightful for serious collectors of Chinese antique furniture. In House Home Family, Lo updates her queries and observations in the chapter "Traditional Chinese Architecture and Furniture." Chinese furniture design and construction methods are...


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