The Bai “Sanfang Yizhaobi” style architecture is characterized by three exterior buildings forming a U with a fourth front wall that acts as a screen. In the center is a large courtyard surrounded by doors and windows intricately carved with motifs of birds and local flowers. They were made by craftsmen from neighboring towns such as Dali and Jianchuan.
The front screen wall, sometimes known as “the shiny wall” serves a dual purpose. The first is to block the winds and the second to catch the sun’s rays reflected in the early evening. During the winter months, when the sun’s rays are weak, this allows for an extra hour of light and heat.
The main wall is usually decorated with either a single character, such as “Fu” for fortune, “Shou” for longevity, “Xi” for happiness, or a short vertical verse like “Cai Yun Nan Xian” (colorful clouds appearing in the South) and sometimes “Long Feng Cheng Xiang” (a dragon and a phoenix signs of good omens).
In an area famous for its year-round spring weather, it’s hardly surprising that Bai family life revolves around the courtyard. Inside the patio, the flower beds are decorated with brightly colored flowers and bonsai trees articulated around large mosaics of stones from local rivers. The tiled roofs offer graceful curves reminiscent of certain Thai temples.
Most houses have two floors, the upper bedrooms are used for storage, while the rooms on the lower floors are living space. The foundations are built from rectangular stones from local quarries that can weigh more than three hundred kilos each. The walls were made of beaten earth (‘chong chang’) painted with lime. The internal partitions also receive an artistic treatment in the form of murals.
This architectural model, articulated around the courtyard, is found in many provinces in China.