30 Million Chinese People Live In Caves

“Democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it.” —Isaac Asimov

In A Nutshell

When we think of China, we often consider hopelessly overcrowded cities like Beijing and Hong Kong, but in more remote areas of the country, some people live like hobbits—in caves dug from hillsides. This is not a rare phenomenon; over 30 million Chinese live in caves, nearly as many people as live in all of Canada.

The Whole Bushel

China has far and away more people than any other country in the world, but much of the nation is sparsely populated, with the vast majority of residents living near the major cities of the east like Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. But outside these urban areas, some Chinese have taken to living in caves called yaodong. One area that hosts many such cave dwellers is the Shaanxi province, where the soil is conducive to digging. Neighborhoods can resemble Tolkien’s Hobbiton, with burrowed entrances winding up a hillside in terraced levels. It has been estimated that over 30 million Chinese live in such a fashion.

Of course, the major benefit of cave dwelling is cost. Rents in China’s biggest cities can be enormous, thousands of dollars a month. A cave on the other hand, can be had for $30 a month or so. Yet this is hardly the only advantage to this seemingly prehistoric lifestyle. For the environmentally conscious, one can be assured that living embedded in the hillside leaves a relatively small carbon footprint. The caves are also well-insulated; cool in the summer and warm in the winter months, and are surprisingly resilient to natural disasters like earthquakes.

While the majority of these abodes are as humble as they sound—earthen walls and cloth hung over the entrances—others can be quite elaborate. Some caves have brick walls, electricity, running water, and multiple bedrooms. Many people sleep on stone beds called kang, which are cool in the summer but have hollows beneath them that can be heated with fire on chilly evenings. Not surprisingly, this rural lifestyle does not resonate with China’s youth, the majority of whom move away from the caves and into more modern apartments when they become adults.

Show Me The Proof

BBC Travel: The cave dwellers of 21st-century China
NY Daily News: More than 30 million people in China live underground in caves