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Compass Magazine, May 2004


Gaichi's "Dangling Leg" Houses showcase traditional Miao architecture

By Zheng Lixia Translated by John Johnson


     What is the relationship between traditional Miao "dangling leg" houses and the Chinese word "gaichi", which literally means "must eat"? As it turns out, Gaichi is the name of an area in Chang Hua hamlet, in Ping Lue township, Jin Bing County, Guizhou Province, China. Over the past 30-plus years, this unique house has taken a meandering journey from its original Gaichi home in China to its present location at Taichung's National Museum of Natural Science, where it will be on display until June 13.

     This building's less-than-remarkable appearance is misleading, as the structure is an excellent example of how traditional Miao architecture is a response to the surrounding environment. In an embodiment of traditional wisdom in wood-working, every room of the house is crafted of wood and open for display to the public, giving visitors a chance to enjoy the acclaimed architecture.

     The building itself is constructed from about 1,300 individual pieces of timber. Renovation project director Mr. Hu said that each piece is hand-crafted and assembled to match the original configuration and style. The building even creaked and groaned with every little movement as a foundation was laid and the building's framework took shape. By the first month of the reconstruction, the building became a labor of love for the 14 to 18 people involved in the construction process. The assembly of all the original materials became a challenge that tested the skills of these master craftsmen. The final product, though, is a charming structure which everyone can enjoy.

    As noted above, the exterior of this 30-year-old building appears dark and unimpressive on the outside. But, upon closer inspection, its construction resembles XieShan architecture, a style characterized by a distinct roof ridge and wooden framework construction. But, why is it called a "dangling leg" house? The majority of the Miao people live in the mountainous regions of Guizhou province, which is hilly and impoverished. As they depend heavily on agriculture for subsistence, the Miao utilize every piece of arable land--meaning the flattest--for cultivation. This leaves hillsides and mountainsides the only available spaces on which the Miao build their houses. Sometimes, they even build on slopes with inclines of 30 to 70 degrees.

To overcome the problem of building on an incline, the Miao build their houses on stilts and, to maximize space, they build upwards. The first floor is actually an area under a raised platform built on columns, with the other floors added to this, giving the building the appearance of a modern urban parking tower. As they hold up the building, the stilts have the appearance of "legs" dangling from the main platform, hence the name.

The simple appearance of the building belies its functional design. The lowest level is used for raising livestock and for storage of firewood and manure. The middle floor serves as the living area for the family, with a central area for the ancestral tablets and a guest area. The remaining space is divided according to each family's needs, for sleeping areas, a kitchen and a cooking and storage area. The third floor contains a children's room, a granary and an area to hang and dry clothing. The building is square in shape with a total floor area of 85 pings and a height of eight meters. At the top, the roof ridge and eaves culminate in a fascinating curved shape, giving it an ancient charm, similar to Han dynasty architecture, which is different from Chinese Tang Dynasty or Tang-inspired Japanese architecture.

The craftsmen assembled a building that appears seamless in design, so that a discerning eye is needed to find the joins between each piece of wood. The structure itself is painstakingly crafted and assembled, making it a testament to the skills of the workmen. In addition to this, it possesses a number of surprisingly detailed and accurate wooden carvings, especially gourds, which appear as if they were just gathered after a harvest. The window frames, too, have a number of intricate, carved decorations.

Thanks to effort and detail that has gone into this extraordinary exhibition, modern-day visitors can appreciate the intricacies of Miao "dangling leg" houses, without every having to travel to far-away Gaichi.

National Museum of Natural Science

1, GuanChien Rd; (04) 2322-6940, ext.596

Hours: 9 am-5 pm (closed Mondays)

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