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Visiting the Yin Yu Tang House

Have you ever wondered what a 200-year-old country house looked like in China? Well, if you ever get a chance to visit the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, you can see one first-hand.

The reassembled Yin Yu Tang house is not something you’ll find in every museum! I’ve wanted to see it for years and finally got to go recently. It’s outside, surrounded by the rest of the museum and protected from our winters by a glass covering over the open central courtyard. (If you go after May, they remove the glass.) It feels like you’re just wandering through someone’s home and not in a museum. You have to watch your step on the stone in the courtyard and koi fish swim around the two pools.

The house was occupied by the Huang family until the 1980s so they cover quite a bit of Chinese history on the audio tour, including life during and after the Cultural Revolution. The Huangs were a merchant family, a status lower than servants according to the narrative on the audio tour, and the men of the household spent years away from the family doing business in faraway cities. They were essentially pawnbrokers, the forerunners of modern-day bankers.

I loved the architecture! I have a thing for inner courtyards and I loved that the upstairs rooms all had windows that opened out onto it. But this actually served a practical purpose. Only two small windows opened onto the outside for security purposes so the main source of light for everything – and everyone – came from the open courtyard. Thus I think the lattice work throughout the house must also serve a similar purpose. Glass was expensive and the lovely lattice work probably provided light in the bedrooms without sacrificing privacy. (That’s just my theory!)

By American standards, you would be squeezed pretty tight and lack privacy. But I liked how the first-floor bedrooms opened out onto the courtyard and how their main living quarters surrounded this part of the house. When in use, drying herbs and other accoutrements would have filled this area and that’s where the women of the house carried out most of their chores. You can definitely tell they appreciated the light and outdoors, but could still feel safe while enjoying it.

If you’re ever nearby, the town of Salem makes for a great day trip or weekend. But make sure to visit the Peabody Essex Museum and the Yin Yu Tang house before you go!