Throughout history, various cultures have developed ingenious methods to combat the harshness of cold climates. One such innovation is the Kang bed-stove, a traditional heating system that has been used in China for centuries. The Kang bed-stove, also known as a Kang, is a unique and efficient heating solution that provides warmth and comfort during the long, cold winters.
what is a kang bed?
A Kang, also known as a Kang bed or a heated bed-stove, is a traditional sleeping and heating platform commonly found in northern China. It is constructed using mud bricks or stones and features a hollow space underneath with openings for ventilation and smoke release. During the cold winter months, a fire is lit beneath the Kang, and the heat is transmitted through the bed-stove, raising the temperature of both the Kang and the room, providing a cozy environment for sleeping and warmth.
The Kang, sometimes referred to as a “fire Kang” or a “large Kang,” is a common heating device in northern Chinese households and has even been used in imperial palaces, such as the Imperial Palace in Shengjing. Multiple Kangs are often built in a single room, serving both as seating and sleeping areas. The abundance of Kang surfaces helps distribute heat and maintain a higher temperature indoors.
In summary, a Kang, or a heated bed-stove, is a traditional heating device and sleeping platform made of mud bricks or stones. It utilizes the transmission of heat from a fire beneath it to provide warmth and a comfortable sleeping environment. The Kang has been widely used in northern China, including imperial palaces, to combat the cold winter temperatures.
what are Chinese kang bed-stove called?
According to historical records, the fire kang bed has various names, such as “huo kang,” “tu kang,” and “di kang.” It is also referred to as “tu chuang,” “kang chuang,” or “nuan chuang.” A coal-burning kang bed is commonly known as a “mei huo kang.”
There are different forms of kang beds. Some are standalone, while others are connected to a fire wall. There is also a type of kang bed that is connected to a cooking stove. In this case, a coal stove is built in front of the kang bed, with a fire passage connecting the stove and the kang bed. This fire passage is known as “lu xiang” in ancient times. People utilize the residual heat from the coal fire to warm the kang bed, serving dual purposes. This type of stove is known as a “di lu” in ancient terms.
what are kang bed-stove look like?
A kang is a brick and stone structure, typically measuring around 1.7 to 2.3 meters in width and varying in length based on the size of the room it is built in. In northern China, the construction of a kang is known as “pan kang.” Inside the kang, there are brick walls dividing it into sections, with flues running through these walls. On top of the walls, there are relatively flat stone slabs or large bricks. These slabs are covered with a special yellow mud made of yellow soil mixed with crushed wheat straw and lime. After the mud dries, a kang mat is placed on top, and in some areas, a thick layer of wool felt is added, followed by a specialized oilcloth. After this, the kang is ready to be used.
Kangs have a fire opening and a smoke opening. The fire opening is used for burning firewood, and the smoke and hot air produced pass through the walls of the kang, heating the stone slabs and generating warmth for the kang. The smoke is then expelled outdoors through the smoke opening and chimney. In northern China, the fire opening of the kang is usually connected to a stove, allowing the same firewood used for cooking to heat the kang, eliminating the need for a separate heating process.
The area near the fire opening of the kang is called the “kang head” (referred to as “huohuo tou” in Shanxi dialect), while the area near the smoke opening is called the “kang side.” Typically, the “kang head” is reserved for the highest-ranking member of the household or esteemed guests to sleep or rest, while men or younger individuals sleep or rest in the “kang side.”
Kang beds are commonly seen in the northern regions of China, but the decorations vary between families of different wealth statuses. Poor families typically construct kang beds using simple materials such as earth and stones, without much embellishment, keeping them plain and ordinary. Wealthier households, on the other hand, pay attention to the decoration of the kang’s edges, surface, skirts, and surroundings. The kang edges are made of high-quality, well-polished stone slabs that are brushed with black ink and soaked in sesame oil, then wiped and polished until they are shiny and lustrous. Alternatively, they may be made of hardwood such as jujube wood, apricot wood, or the luxurious sandalwood, which are meticulously polished and lightly coated with lacquer, giving them a reddish hue.
In Mizhi City. The surface of the kang was made by finely grinding clay and yellow soil mixed with pulp, smoothing it out and applying a base of red pigment. It was then adorned with delicate plum blossom patterns made of embedded eggshells. Finally, a layer of tung oil was applied to create a bright and glossy finish. They didn’t use any bedding or mats on the kang, allowing the red background with white flower patterns to shine, exuding an antique and elegant atmosphere.
In many regions of northern Shaanxi and northern Shanxi, it is popular to paint the walls around the kang. The lower half is usually painted yellow or light green as the base, with a border delineated by line patterns. Within the border, rectangular grids are drawn, and various paintings of flowers, birds, grass, insects, pine trees, bamboo, mountains, or classical figures and stories are depicted. These paintings often carry auspicious meanings of wealth, good fortune, and long-lasting security. In recent years, when constructing new cave dwellings in rural areas, people have paid more attention to decoration. Many families use coordinated colored ceramic tiles for the kang edges and surroundings, featuring various patterns that are aesthetically pleasing and elegant.
While urban dwellers tend to favor simplicity and elegance in their home furnishings, rural residents prefer vibrant and colorful decorations. Each has its own folk customs and preferences. In summary, while urban or southern people attach great importance to beds in their homes, northern people focus on the embellishment of kang beds. Despite their regional differences, their hearts and sentiments are united by a shared understanding and appreciation.
Types of Kang Bed-Stove
There are many types of Kang beds, which can be categorized based on local customs and natural conditions. They include Southern Kang, Northern Kang, Tiaoshan Kang (Shunshan Kang), Wanzhi Kang (Curved Kang), as well as concave Kangs built around the room. In some rural areas, there are suspended Kang beds, which are elevated and allow for heat dissipation from both the top and bottom. In cold regions, there are underground Kangs where the ground is excavated to create a smoke channel for the fire. Kang beds in rural areas serve the dual purpose of providing warmth and seating/sleeping areas, making them essential household amenities.
There are two main types of Kang beds: “floor Kang” and “suspended Kang.” Floor Kang refers to the traditional Kang beds with deeper bed cavities. They require more firewood but provide decent insulation. They heat up relatively slowly. Suspended Kangs, on the other hand, are a newer technology where the Kang walls and body undergo insulation treatment. They have faster heat efficiency, a more appealing appearance, and can raise the temperature in the room by 8-10 degrees compared to traditional Kang beds.
Due to regional and ethnic customs, the layout of Kang beds also varies. There are Southern Kang, Northern Kang, Shunshan Kang, Wanzhi Kang (Curved Kang), and concave Kangs built around the room. The chimney serves as the smoke exhaust passage for the Kang bed. The Kang body can be of different types, such as straight cavity, transverse cavity, and flower cavity. These forms can be categorized into parallel-type and series-type, with the former providing uniform heat dissipation but poor ventilation, while the latter is the opposite. In addition to the above-mentioned types, there are also Tiaokang, Yaokang, Liandao Kang, Banjie Kang, Lian’er Kang, Shunshan Kang, Xiaokang, Dikang, Duimian Kang, and others.
The various types of Kang beds have their own characteristics:
Southern Kang: It refers to the Kang bed on the southern side of the room (or the southern Kang in the opposite-facing Kang bed arrangement).
Northern Kang: It is the opposite of the Southern Kang, with the Kang bed on the northern side of the room (or the northern Kang in the opposite-facing Kang bed arrangement).
Tiaokang: It is a narrow Kang bed, usually with a width less than half of a regular Kang bed.
Yaokang: It is a Kang bed built in the middle room (waist) of a three-room or multi-room house. The southern half of the room is typically used as a kitchen, and a small room is created on the wall facing the north side of the room to accommodate the Kang bed.
Liandaokang: Also known as Guaba Zi Kang, it connects the Southern Kang or Northern Kang with the Shunshan Kang and all other types of Kang beds, resembling the shape of a sickle. This type of Kang bed is typically built at the two ends of a house, adjacent to the mountain wall, usually due to a large population and limited space.
Banjie Kang: It refers to half of a Kang bed. This type of Kang bed is built when there is only one room, and there is not enough space, so half of the room is left as a living area while the other half is used as a kitchen or when there are fewer people and a large Kang bed is not necessary.
Lian’er Kang: In houses with three or more rooms and a door at one end (according to customs, if a house has a door at one end, it must be located at the eastern end), both the inner and outer rooms have Southern Kang or Northern Kang beds. The Kang beds in this arrangement are connected, sharing a stove platform and chimney (an additional enclosed stove is required for the inner room to provide sufficient heat).
Shunshan Kang: It is a Kang bed built along the mountain wall. The mountain wall refers to the walls on both sides of the house, shaped like the character “人” (person) at the top, resembling a mountain, hence the name. This type of Kang bed is usually built at the two ends of the house or in a single room when there are no other options.
Xiaokang: It refers to a small Kang bed built when a regular Kang bed cannot be accommodated due to limited space.
Dikang: It is a modern invention with two forms. The first form is when the entire floor of a room is a Kang bed, with beds, furniture, and all household items placed on top, often covered with floor tiles. The second form is when the area outside the Kang bed is also a Kang bed, used for heating. Duimian Kang refers to opposite-facing Kang beds built in the same room.
Dongkang: It involves building small walls on the ground, approximately eight rows of bricks high, to divide the space into several channels. The ends of the channels are left open for interconnection, and the top is covered with mud bricks, stone slabs, or red bricks, smoothed with sand or white lime.
Huakang: It is an evolved version of Dongkang, where the small walls are only half the height, with red bricks placed upright for support. The top is covered with red bricks, following the same construction method.
Kongxin Kang: It is a more advanced type, using a few brick pillars for support and covering them with large cement slabs. The remaining construction method is similar to Dongkang and Huakang. Kongxin Kang is considered more advanced because it has a larger internal space, making it less prone to blockage by smoke and ash. It can go for ten or more years without the need for ash removal.
All Kang beds share a common feature: one end is connected to the chimney, and the other end features a stove.
what are kang bed stove made of?
The construction materials for a Kang bed are usually locally sourced, showcasing the great understanding and mastery of the local materials’ properties by the hardworking people of China. The primary construction materials for a Kang bed are adobe and bricks. Craftsmen in many regions often combine plant materials such as thatch and straw with clay to create a sturdy and insulating adobe mixture. This type of adobe has strong heat storage capacity and good thermal stability. Although it takes longer to heat up, it can continue to radiate heat for a long time after the heat supply is stopped. This characteristic makes Kang beds particularly suitable for colder climates. In some areas, stone slabs are also used as the main construction material, providing the advantage of quick heating and rapid heat dissipation.
The surface of the Kang bed is often smoothed with sand. To keep it clean, a layer of mats is placed on the surface, commonly known as “kengxi,” which is a type of mat used to cover Kang beds in northern households. These mats are typically made of sorghum stalks or reed stalks, offering good breathability and uniform heat dissipation. Compared to sand-surfaced Kang beds, they are more convenient for cleaning and provide both aesthetics and practicality. However, these relatively primitive mats have several disadvantages. The woven parts can become worn and uncomfortable after prolonged use, and since the head area tends to be hotter, the mats in that region are more prone to scorching. Later on, parchment paper entered people’s lives, and those who had the means began to paste Kang beds with parchment paper and apply a coat of clear oil on top. This improved surface is much better than mats, as it is cleaner and smoother.
The fuel used for Kang beds is mostly dry grass, wood, corn stalks, rice straw, and other agricultural residues. The ash from burning these materials is alkaline and can be used to neutralize acidic soil and fertilize farmland. Whether it is in the construction or usage of Kang beds, the emphasis on using renewable materials demonstrates their excellent quality in terms of material recycling.
what are kang bed stove used for?
The area next to the stove where the Kang bed gets heated quickly is called “Kangtou.” It is preferred by elderly people who feel cold. The area close to the chimney where the Kang bed gets heated slowly is called “Kangshao,” and it is usually occupied by younger individuals who can withstand more heat. During the cold winter season, rural people always invite guests to sit on the Kangtou first, providing them with a warm brazier to warm their hands. Once you are seated on the warm Kang bed, they start engaging in casual conversations. The warmth of the rural home, the brazier, and the hospitality make people’s hearts even warmer.
The Kang bed serves as the dining area in the rural household. In the middle of the Kang, a square table is placed, its size depending on the number of family members. When hosting guests at home, the table is filled with various dishes and bowls of farm-produced food. A brazier containing warm liquor is kept to warm the guests’ hearts, and a few glasses of liquor warm them up from the inside out, causing beads of sweat to appear. Heart-to-heart conversations resonate, and emotions between individuals are elevated.
The Kang bed also acts as the “bed” for healing within the family. When children or adults in the countryside have headaches or colds, they drink a bowl of ginger soup with brown sugar or a bowl of dumpling soup, cover themselves with a blanket on the warm Kang bed, and take a nap. Without injections or medicine, they sweat profusely and recover. The Kang bed also provides certain therapeutic or alleviating effects for rheumatic diseases and pain in the lower back and legs.
The Kang bed is also the entertainment center for children. After dinner, when the family has the most leisure time, everyone gathers around the charcoal brazier. The mother darns shoes under the kerosene lamp, and family members take turns telling riddles, jokes, or stories. Sometimes, they even shell corn on the Kang bed, enjoying laughter and spending beautiful evenings together.
In the past, rural living conditions were limited, and there were many children in the family. At bedtime, the Kang bed became a battleground for children to claim their territory. Families with many children let the younger ones sleep at the adults’ feet. When someone needed to use the restroom at night, they had to step over several human walls. In such situations, either someone’s leg was pressed or someone’s arm was bumped. Squabbles and spats among siblings were frequent, often requiring parental intervention to settle them down. With the passage of time and the improvement of rural living standards, housing conditions have improved, and young people are no longer fond of the Kang bed. Urban high-rise buildings have phased out the Kang bed. The history of the Kang bed, once flourishing, has gradually faded from people’s lives. Only those born in the 1950s and 1960s still cherish and fondly remember the Kang bed in rural areas.
The Northeastern large kang is not only used for sleeping but also for heating. During winter, there are rarely any items placed on the kang surface. Beddings and such are rolled up and stored in kang cabinets to allow for better heat dissipation. The effectiveness of heat dissipation determines how warm the room will be.
The surface of the kang is covered with kang mats, which are woven from highland barley straw. The more they are used, the brighter they become. When paper made from cowhide entered people’s lives, those who could afford it started pasting the kang with cowhide paper and brushing it with clear oil. This type of kang surface is bright, clean, and much more effective than kang mats. (Some people also started using floor leather on the kang. The standards have been increasing.)
The interior arrangement of traditional Northeastern homes also corresponds to the “Wanzi Kang” layout. On the north and south kang ends (adjacent to the room walls), there are kang cabinets where bedding, pillows, and other sleeping items are stacked. It is commonly referred to as the “bed storage area.” On the west kang, there is a “tangxiang” (or “tangxiang”) box of the same length as the kang, used to store grains, clothing, and other items. On top of the box cover, there are incense burners, candlesticks, and other offerings, as well as dusting bottles, hat stands, and seat clocks, and other daily decorations.
where is Kang Bed-Stove used?
Kang beds are commonly used in Hebei, the three northeastern provinces (Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang), Henan, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shandong, Gansu, Shaanxi, Ningxia, and Xinjiang. Kang beds are widely found in northern and northeastern regions of China. A Kang bed is a brick and stone structure, typically around 1.7 to 2.3 meters wide, and its length can vary according to the size of the room. The construction of a Kang bed, known as “pan Kang” in the northern regions, involves building walls with bricks inside the Kang bed area. These walls contain a flue for smoke ventilation, and on top, there are relatively flat stone slabs or large bricks. The stone slabs are covered with a specially prepared yellow mud (usually a mixture of loess, crushed wheat straw, and lime) that is smoothed over the surface. After the mud dries, a Kang mat is placed on top, and in some areas, a thick layer of woolen felt is added. On top of the felt, a specialized oilcloth is placed, and then the Kang bed is ready for use.
In Northeast China, the large kang bed serves not only as a sleeping space but also as a source of warmth. During winter, the kang surface is kept relatively empty, with bedding and quilts rolled up and stored in kang cabinets to allow better heat dissipation from the kang. The effectiveness of heat dissipation directly contributes to a warmer room.
The surface of the kang is covered with kang mats, which are woven from tall sorghum straw. With use, these mats become increasingly lustrous. As the use of ox-hide paper became common, those who could afford it started pasting ox-hide paper on the kang surface and brushing it with clear oil. This created a bright and clean surface, which was much superior to kang mats. (Some also use floor leather to cover the kang, emphasizing aesthetics.)
The interior layout of traditional homes in Northeast China corresponds to the pattern of the “Wan Zi Kang.” The northern and southern ends of the kang are occupied by kang cabinets, where bedding and pillows are stacked, known as “bei ge” or “bedding storage.” On the western side of the kang, a “tang xiang” or “reclining chest” of the same length as the kang is placed to store food and clothing. On top of the chest lid, items such as incense burners, candle holders, dusting bottles, hat stands, and small clocks are displayed as daily necessities and decorations.
“The people in the northwest mostly lie on warm kangs, using coal for heating,” as recorded in “Xiyuanlu Xiangyi,” a book by Song Ci, a forensic scientist from the Southern Song Dynasty, compiled by Qing dynasty scholars. In Shaanxi, the kang is often heated using “wei tan,” a type of charcoal that is smokeless, odorless, has a low ignition point, and burns easily, making it highly favored by the locals.
In rural villages around Pingliang, Qingyang, and Jingchuan in Gansu Province, as well as in northern Shaanxi, people commonly live in “yao dong,” cave dwellings. Each cave has a “pan yi tu kang,” which has the same structure for thousands of households. Wealthy families embellish their kang with stone decorations to enhance its aesthetics, and in winter, they often burn coal to heat the kang.
In the winter of Turpan, Xinjiang, where the cold is particularly harsh, water in washbasins freezes instantly. There is a saying, “Sharpening a knife turns ice into stone, and heating keeps guests warm like clothing.” This describes the widespread practice of burning coal in kang beds to keep warm. In Ningxia, during the winter, families constantly keep a fire burning in their kang beds. During mealtime, they remove their shoes and gather around a small table on the kang bed to eat together, creating a joyful and harmonious atmosphere.
In a verse found in the “Zhongwei County Annals,” it is written, “In winter and spring, it is difficult to penetrate the city walls due to the fog. In the morning, black snow flies from the swamp, and every household’s kang cave is covered in mist.” This vividly depicts the ancient city of Zhongwei, where coal smoke from the burning kang beds permeated the air, causing the snow to fall as “black snow.”
Furthermore, in southwestern China, as well as in remote mountainous regions of Shandong, Anhui, Hubei, Hunan, and Henan provinces, fire kang beds were also used in the past. Fuels such as tree roots, rice bran, cow dung, and corn cobs were used, and in some cases, coal was also burned.
Even today, in many northern urban and rural areas without modern heating equipment, as well as in certain mountainous regions in the south, this traditional and rustic method of using fire kang beds for warmth during winter is still widely practiced.
How does a kang bed work?
The principle of a kang is that the hot airflow generated by the combustion of fuels such as straw and branches passes through the flue of the kang, dissipating heat to the earthen bricks. The earthen bricks are poor conductors of heat, so once the kang is heated, its temperature will be sustained.
A kang consists of three parts: the stove, the bed body, and the chimney. The stove on the kang can be used for cooking, while the bed body provides both warmth and a place to sit or lie down. The chimney is a built-in smoke exhaust passage within the bed body. The bed body can be constructed in various styles, such as straight hole-style, horizontal hole-style, or flower hole-style.
Inside the kang, there are brick walls dividing the bed into sections, and these walls contain flues. The kang has a fire opening and a smoke opening. The fire opening is used for burning firewood, and the smoke and hot air generated by the burning process heat the stone slabs above the bed’s walls, producing heat for the kang.
How is a Kang built?
The fire kang consists of three parts: the stove, the kang body, and the chimney. The connected stove on the kang can be used for cooking, while the kang body serves both as a heating surface and a seating area. Inside the kang, there is a brick-built kang partition wall with a flue, covered with flat stone slabs and smoothed with mud for the kang mats to be placed on top. The kang has openings for the stove and the smoke, with the stove used for burning firewood. The smoke and hot air generated by burning firewood pass through the flue in the kang partition wall, heating the stone slabs above and providing warmth for the kang. Finally, the smoke is expelled outdoors through the chimney.
In Northeast China, the people mix grass (usually shredded wheat straw) with clay, pressing it into fixed molds to create one-foot-long adobe bricks called “pi.” After drying in the sun, these bricks are used for building houses, barns, and pigsties, as well as constructing fire kangs. The adobe used for the surface of the kang is called “kang surface adobe” and requires special processing to ensure its solidity, preventing the kang from collapsing. The process of making adobe is also called “tuo pi,” which is considered one of the “Four Great Tiresome Tasks.”
Building a kang requires skilled craftsmen who know how to construct a strong and evenly heated kang that can retain heat for a long time. Even during the coldest days of winter, when frost forms on the chimney, the kang should still burn well without smoke filling the room. Such a well-built kang is highly sought after, and if there is a renowned craftsman skilled in constructing kangs, almost every household will invite them to build their kang.
In rural areas of Heilongjiang, you can also find “double kangs” called “Lian Er Kang.” Typically, rural homes consist of three rooms with the entrance facing east. Such houses provide better insulation than those with a central entrance because the heat from the fire is dispersed between the two side rooms, which is not conducive to heating.
Therefore, in houses with an east-facing entrance, the two western rooms are connected. The connected kangs are called “double kangs,” with a separation made by wooden boards or other materials. These two kangs are not connected to each other. If a son gets married, the daughter-in-law usually stays in the westernmost inner room. In Northeastern culture, the east side is considered more honorable and superior.
The kangs are all constructed with bricks, and the constructed kangs are called “hua dong kang.” In this type of kang, the smoke and fire evenly spread inside the kang cavity, resulting in even heating. However, despite the even distribution of heat, there is still a distinction between the “kang head” and the rest of the kang. The kang head is slightly hotter than the rest. Therefore, in Northeast China, there is a saying: “You don’t know the heat of the kang head or the rest of the kang.” It means that you cannot discern the differences between people and don’t understand the nuances of human warmth.
In Northeast China, the kang head is typically reserved for the elderly to sleep on. It is a delightful experience to sleep on a warm kang head during the freezing winters of Northeast China. The respect and filial piety towards the elderly can be seen through this tradition.
In the cold Northeastern region, indoor heating heavily relies on fire kangs. According to the “Compilation of Northern League,” the local people “live in valleys and build shed houses with wooden structures, a few feet high, without tiles, covered with wooden boards or birch bark, or tied with grass and silk… The walls and fences are mostly made of wood, and the doors all face southeast…” The local people consider the “earth kang” as an essential facility for overcoming severe cold and surviving the harsh winter.
During winter, women sit on the heated kang, engaging in sewing activities with their needlework baskets. Children play various games on the kang, basking in the sunlight that falls on their faces. It’s a time of happiness and family togetherness.
If someone visits during winter, the host’s first words upon welcoming them into the house are, “Quick, take off your shoes and sit on the warm kang head…” This sentence not only showcases the host’s warmth but also immediately dispels the coldness from the visitor’s body, allowing them to feel the warmth of the host’s home.
There are several essential items on the kang. Women have their needlework baskets, as well as a tobacco pouch containing northeastern tobacco. There is also a charcoal brazier made of clay, with an iron brand inside. When children are hungry, they can roast sticky bean buns, bake potatoes, or cook eggs in the brazier.
In the past, due to housing shortages, there were “north-south kangs” where multiple families would live together. Typically, it would be one family, but sometimes two families would share the space. This situation was referred to as “opposite kangs.” For example, the Zhang family and the Li family would live with opposite kangs, creating a harmonious atmosphere as if they were one family, never having any conflicts.
In the north-south kangs, both families would hang curtains at night to temporarily divide their respective spaces. During the day, the curtains would be folded and hung up neatly. There were also cases where the parents-in-law and daughter-in-law lived in north-south kangs.
A crucial component of the kang is the kang rail. It is usually made of a long strip of wood, one inch thick or more, and ten centimeters wide. It is best to use birch wood because of its hardness and smoothness. During that time, living standards were low, and anyone with a good kang rail was envied by others. Generally, the kang is covered with kang mats, handcrafted and changed once a year during the Lunar New Year. After a year of use, the kang mats turn into a deep red or yellow color due to the heat and people walking or lying on them. When I was young, during winter, I would sometimes ask my mother not to place any bedding on the kang, and instead, I would sleep directly on the heated kang. In the morning, my body would have impressions of the kang mats, feeling puffy and swollen to the touch.
In Northeast China, people sleep on large kangs, and it is not as strictly divided into individual living spaces as it is in the southern regions. The entire family, including guests, would squeeze onto one kang. This custom may be difficult for people from the south to understand, but it is considered normal for Northeasterners. Starting from the kang head, the older people, parents, and grandchildren have a clear distinction based on age and hierarchy.
There are several methods for constructing a fire kang bed in Northeast China, including the “dong kang” (hole kang), “hua kang” (flower kang), and “kongxin kang” (hollow kang). The specific steps for each method are as follows:
Dong Kang (Hole Kang):
First, build several small walls on the ground, typically around eight rows of bricks high. This will divide the kang bed space into several channels, with open ends to ensure connectivity between the channels.
Use adobe, stone slabs, or red bricks to cover the top of the kang bed.
After covering, smooth the surface with sand or white lime.
Hua Kang (Flower Kang):
- The construction method for hua kang is similar to dong kang since it evolved from it. Again, build several small walls on the ground, dividing the kang bed space into channels, with open ends for connectivity. However, the walls in hua kang are only built halfway up.
- Use red bricks for support on the kang bed, and cover the top with red bricks as well.
- After covering, smooth the surface with sand or white lime.
Kongxin Kang (Hollow Kang):
- For kongxin kang, it is sufficient to build a few pillars using red bricks as support. The kang bed is typically covered with large cement boards, following the same construction method as dong kang and hua kang.
- Kongxin kang is considered more advanced since its internal space is large, making it less prone to blockages from smoke or ashes. Typically, a kongxin kang can go years without needing to be cleaned out.
Construction of a Traditional Northern Earth Kang:
The traditional northern earth kang requires good insulation properties and is built using a combination of adobe and stone materials. The specific steps are as follows:
- Build supporting pillars using red bricks on the ground.
- Construct a smoke channel at the chimney opening on the wall.
- Lay a heat-resistant insulation layer on the kang bed.
- Assemble pre-made kang boards on top of the pillars.
- Smooth the kang surface using a mixture of cement and fine sand.
- Dry the kang surface by burning straw or other materials inside the stove.
- Lay the kang mats on top, and the bed is ready to use.
Construction of a Traditional Northern Earth Kang:
In simple terms, the steps for building a traditional northern earth kang are as follows:
- Build the kang walls from the stove opening to the chimney opening.
- Construct separate smoke and fire channels at the stove opening.
- Build a return air hole (commonly known as a “dog’s nest”) at the base of the chimney.
- Fill the kang cavity with soil up to the level of the return air hole and fire channels.
- Construct the kang cavity walls (commonly known as the “kang hole”) using bricks, which will serve as the surface for the kang bed.
- Use double-layer kang mats at the one-meter-square area of the fire channels and single-layer kang mats for the rest of the kang bed.
- Smooth and compact the kang surface.
- Ignite a fire and heat the kang until the surface is thoroughly dry.
Kang Bed-Stove history
The kang bed was invented by the Han ethnic group in China. Archaeological discoveries in Dongheishan Village, Xushui County, Baoding City, have provided new evidence about the origin of the kang bed. The Dongheishan site, with a total area of approximately 1.5 million square meters, has a rich history from the Warring States period to the Ming and Qing dynasties. Fire kang beds dating back to the early and middle Western Han Dynasty have been found at this site, pushing back the history of the origin of the kang bed by more than a thousand years.
Archaeological findings: Based on current archaeological evidence, the fire kang bed is believed to be a great invention of the “Woju Tribe” of the Longjiang ancestors. At the “Woju Tribe” site excavated in Tuanjie Village, Dongning County, the early form of the kang bed, referred to by archaeologists as the “low fire wall” or “smoke passage wall,” was discovered.
Literary records: According to the “Book of Sui” in the chapter on the Mohe people, it is mentioned: “They dig caves to live in, with openings facing upward, and use ladders for entry and exit.” There are no doors in their dwellings, and people can only enter and exit using ladders. In the center of the cave dwelling, there is a hearth-style stove that serves both for cooking and heating, as well as a facility to prevent dampness.
The emergence of the kang bed gave various northern ethnic groups a “common way of life.” Even today, it is known that people in vast regions north of the Yellow River and the Loess Plateau sleep on kang beds. Kang beds can significantly improve room temperature, hence the saying, “A warm kang bed makes the house cozy.”
There may not be many specific references to the kang bed in ancient texts, but traces can still be found. For example, in the poetry collection “Shihu Ji” by the Song Dynasty poet Fan Chengda, in the poem “Bing Wu Xin Zheng Shuhuai,” it is written: “Stable as a bedding kang, wrapped in thick cotton and blankets.” Cave dwellings appeared as early as the pre-Qin period, and the use of kang beds would not have been much later. Before the Tang Dynasty, the kang bed was already commonly used in the north. Of course, during the summer, when people seek coolness, they switch to cooking outdoors and the kang bed provides a cool surface. In areas with high temperatures and humidity in the southern regions, people need dry and cool environments, so the history of using kang beds did not develop there. Instead, they invented movable beds, influenced by regional conditions.
The Dongheishan site in Xushui County, Baoding City, has a total area of approximately 1.5 million square meters and has a rich history from the Warring States period to the Ming and Qing dynasties. The kang beds found at this site can be dated back to the early and middle Western Han Dynasty, pushing back the history of the origin of the kang bed in China by more than a thousand years and providing new materials for its study.
The “huokang” is a unique residential architectural technique in northern China that combines heating and sleeping functions. It has a history of over two thousand years and can be divided into five periods based on existing literature and discovered archaeological sites: the fire pit period, the scorched ground period, the fire ground period, the low fire wall period, and the huokang period.
During the fire pit period, in the Paleolithic era, people mainly preserved fire by using bonfires. However, this method resulted in rapid heat dissipation. To achieve continuous warmth, people started digging pits and setting fires in them. This type of heating facility is referred to as a “fire pit.”
In the scorched ground period, at the Banpo archaeological site in Xi’an, there are repeated traces of scorching on the ground. It is believed that people used to sit or lie on the ground to keep warm, which is known as “scorched ground” heating. This method differed from the unconscious use of fire pits. In later periods, the ancestors combined the stove and scorched ground, resulting in the emergence of the fire ground.
During the fire ground period, in the Northern Wei dynasty, people started heating the ground from below and installed smoke channels with exhaust facilities. The smoke channels of the fire ground were underground, showing development compared to the scorched ground. However, effectively exhausting the smoke from the stove was still challenging.
In the low fire wall period, people erected low walls in front of the stove or connected the separating walls of the house to the stove. The hollow space in the separating wall served as a smoke channel, utilizing the entire wall to provide heating for the room. This method allowed for better smoke exhaust and efficient utilization of heat within the stove.
In the huokang period, during the late Qin Dynasty and early Han Dynasty in northeastern China, the huokang had taken shape. It protruded from the ground and resembled a bed, creating distinct areas for rest and activities. The smoke channels in the huokang were more rational, and this style has continued to develop until today, resulting in different regional variations such as the northeastern “curved huokang” and “ten-thousand-character huokang,” as well as the northwestern and northern China’s “single-sided huokang.”
Origin of the Northeast Kang Bed
The kang bed was invented by the ancestors of the Manchu people
From ancient times, there has been a saying, “People in the south sleep on beds, while people in the north sleep on kang beds.” It is said that over 2,000 years ago, during the Western Han Dynasty, the ancestors of the Manchu people, who lived between the Bai Mountains and the Heilongjiang River, had already invented the kang bed, which provides warmth in winter and coolness in summer. According to ancient pre-Qin texts, the people living in this region were known as the Sushen people, who were actually the ancestors of the Manchu people.
The strong north-south difference is mainly due to differences in geography, climate, and lifestyle. The southern region has hot and rainy weather, so sleeping on bamboo or wooden beds provides both coolness and moisture resistance. In contrast, the northern region experiences long, cold winters, so people constructed large kang beds in their main bedrooms, which not only served as sleeping platforms but also provided warmth.
Historical development and functions of the kang bed
By the end of the Ming Dynasty, the Sushen people changed their ethnic name to Manchu, indicating that the kang bed had already appeared during the Spring and Autumn period. As a nomadic ethnic group, the Sushen people had to endure the severe cold by dwelling in “cuoluo,” which were rudimentary huts or houses made of wood.
According to records in the “San Chao Bei Meng Hui Bian,” they lived in valleys, using wooden fences as barriers. The houses were a few feet high, with no tile roofs but covered with wooden boards, birch bark, or grass. The walls and fences were mostly made of wood, and the doors faced east. This was the “cuoluo” of the ancestors of the Manchu people, which indicates their simple dwellings.
Although “cuoluo” could shelter them from wind and snow, it was not resistant to cold. Therefore, the Sushen people “built earthen beds around their houses, with a fire underneath for warmth,” which they called a kang.
When was Kang Bed-Stove invented?
The original sentence from Li Daoyuan’s work “Shui Jing Zhu” describing the living conditions of the Half-Pit Dwellers in the Yellow River Basin over 6,500 years ago can be translated into English as follows:
“The stones are arranged at the bottom, covered with a layer of clay on top, with openings for ventilation and branches for spreading heat. The dwellings around have fires burning in all directions. The warmth fills the entire chamber.”
This sentence not only describes the basic structure of the hearth but also explains its functions and uses. It is considered the earliest record of the prototype of the hearth, indicating that the hearth appeared in embryonic form in the Guanzhong region of Shaanxi over 6,500 years ago.
Starting from October 2021, the excavation of Zhao Kiln Site has been completed with an area of 340 square meters, revealing a part of the Shang Dynasty settlement. The most significant discovery was made in the front chamber of House No. 5. Archaeologists found that House No. 5 was a semi-subterranean dwelling with two chambers, with the front chamber located to the north and the rear chamber to the south. In the northern part of the east wall of the front chamber, adjacent to the steps leading to the doorway, there was a semicircular hearth with a diameter of 0.8 meters.
Upon examination, it was revealed that the western section of the floor in the front chamber of House No. 5 was unusually solid, with a layer of ash measuring 3 centimeters in thickness below the hard earth surface. A shallow groove made of red clay extended from the bottom of the hearth along the north wall of the house, dividing into three branches in the middle section of the north wall before entering the layer of hard earth from different directions. There was also a red clay shallow groove below the south wall, which connected to the west with the hard earth surface and to the east with the hearth pit in the southeast corner of the house. The hearth, through the red clay shallow groove, penetrated the layer of hard earth and connected with the hearth pit, thus forming a complete heat conduction system.
Experts speculate that the solid earth surface in the front chamber of House No. 5 was a firebed, which had become uneven due to collapse, and the red clay shallow groove served as a smoke channel. Based on the analysis of the unearthed pottery, House No. 5 can be dated back to the early period of the Late Shang Dynasty.
kang bed stove meaning in Chinese culture
The culture of the “kang” (a heated platform bed) has a long and rich history. Every elderly person surely has vivid memories associated with the kang. The kang is where children do their homework, where mother hen hatches her chicks, where mothers steam buns, where laundry is dried, where children roast potatoes, and where families gather to play cards during the Lunar New Year.
In the eyes of the elderly, the kang represents a place where generations of people are born and spend their entire lives. Therefore, its significance is often profound. In rural areas, there is often a painter who specializes in painting murals on the stone walls of the village. Whenever someone constructs a kang, they have it painted, and when someone passes away, a coffin is painted. These paintings depict various scenes, such as filial piety, a son searching for his mother, and cranes and deer harmoniously coexisting, all vividly brought to life. In the eyes of these dedicated stonemasons, the kang represents a deep connection to the ancient people. After a long and exhausting day, only the warmth of the kang can truly understand the fatigue of both the body and the soul.
The kang is also a symbol of reunion. In ancient China, especially in the northeastern region, during the Lunar New Year or family reunions, a small square table is often placed on the kang. Mothers and returning children sit around it, talking about their experiences, the hardships they faced outside, and the bittersweet moments of life. After the meal, under the lamplight, mothers knit warm clothes for their children. A large kang is spacious enough for an entire family to sleep on, making it the closest moment between children and their families.
To combat the severe cold of winter, traditional houses of the Korean ethnic group in northeastern China are typically low, one-story structures resembling the Chinese character “一” (yi). To increase natural light inside the house, large windows are often designed on the south-facing side. Additionally, these houses feature large roofs and thick walls. For heating, the “manwu kang” method is employed, which involves covering the entire house with kang platforms.
“Manwu kang” is a unique heating method where the entire house is covered with kang platforms. The kang platforms are large, providing a significant surface area for heat radiation. This special heating method not only adapts to the harsh climate of northeastern China but also accommodates the lifestyle of the Korean ethnic group, who traditionally sit and sleep on the kang platforms.
In the northeastern region of China, traditional Korean houses typically consist of three rooms arranged in an east-west orientation, resembling a horizontally lying “目” (mu) character. The central room serves as the main living and kitchen area, with the entrance located here as well. The inner rooms and the cowshed are arranged on the east and west sides. The inner rooms are divided by a wall into two sections, with the south-facing room usually occupied by the elderly and the north-facing room serving as the bedroom for younger family members. The floors of the inner rooms are covered entirely with wooden boards, and underneath are the kang platforms, connected to the large central kang in the main room.
The heating method of “manwu kang” has excellent energy-saving and warmth-retention capabilities. As the kang platforms throughout the house are interconnected, the heat generated by the stove can quickly spread to all the rooms, creating the effect of “heating one room, warming the entire house.” Furthermore, the kang platforms below the ground level are equipped with smoke holes, allowing the heat and smoke from the stove to permeate under the floors of all the rooms. The heat is then conducted upward through the wooden boards, thereby enhancing the heating efficiency.
When Eskimos go out hunting, they often build snow houses. First, they gather compacted and solid old snow, cut it into large bricks, and use these snow bricks to build a semi-spherical snow house. The gaps between the bricks are filled with snow to seal the structure. Inside the house, a fire is lit, causing the outer layer of the snow to melt slightly, effectively sealing the house. Fur is hung on the walls, and even the roof is covered with sealskin for insulation. The lower half of the snow house is underground, with the door partially buried. A curved windbreak made of snow bricks is built in front of the entrance. Some snow houses even have small windows covered with dried animal intestines as windowpanes to allow light to pass through.
South Korea has distinct four seasons, and the winter season usually lasts from December to March, with an average lowest temperature around -10 degrees Celsius. To adapt to the cold winter climate, the primitive form of Korean underfloor heating, called “Ondol,” emerged around the Three Kingdoms period of the Korean Peninsula (57 BC to 668 AD).
It should be noted that the earliest form of Ondol originated from the ancient wisdom of China. According to records, this heating method originated in northern China and was later adopted and improved by Japan and Korea.
During the Three Kingdoms period in China, underfloor heating became popular in 42 countries. By the late Goryeo Dynasty, underfloor heating spread throughout the Korean Peninsula, and Koreans referred to it as “Ondol.” South Korea has preserved this heating method and continuously improved it, making it a unique culture of underfloor heating in Korea.
Evolution of Ondol Rooms
Initially, Ondol was raised above the ground level, but it only provided localized heating. As Koreans have always followed a “sitting” culture, with families accustomed to sitting on the floor for eating and sleeping, living without underfloor heating during the cold winter was considered difficult.
At some point, Koreans gradually transitioned Ondol to be level with the ground, turning the entire indoor floor into a comprehensive Ondol room, providing more extensive and comfortable living space for every household.
In this evolved heating system, smoke flues were built underground, with smoke holes strategically placed. The fire for cooking was burned outside the house, and the heat was transferred through the smoke flues to warm the floor and circulate warmth inside the room, creating a cozy indoor environment. Traditional Korean houses (known as “Hanok”), which are still preserved in present-day South Korea, often feature tall chimneys built specifically for Ondol heating.
The advantages of Ondol rooms include energy efficiency compared to radiators, air conditioning, and electric heaters. They provide even heating, are environmentally friendly, reduce construction costs, save space, have shorter construction periods, and offer a long lifespan (the heating pipes used in underfloor heating can last over 50 years).
As a result, South Korean residences, from ordinary houses to high-rise apartments, have continued to adopt this heating method. Each household also has an automatic control system to adjust the temperature and heating time according to individual preferences.
Currently, the most common underfloor heating design in South Korea involves laying water pipes underneath the floor, heating the water through liquefied gas combustion, and circulating the hot water with the help of a pressure pump. South Koreans continuously strive for technological improvements in terms of heat conduction, insulation, and lifespan of the heating system.
In conclusion, the Kang bed-stove represents a remarkable marriage of ingenuity, functionality, and cultural significance. It stands as a testament to the resourcefulness of ancient civilizations in adapting to their environments. While its prominence may have diminished in recent times, the legacy of the Kang bed-stove endures as a reminder of the enduring spirit of human innovation and the importance of honoring our cultural heritage.
Source: Zhengzhou Evening News