Nail house via triplefivechina

A Chinese nail house (via triplefivechina on Flickr)

CHICAGO — A nail house is not a sharp object or an eyesore. It’s a site to behold, an abode that holds its ground.

The term “nail house” is a literal translation from the word dingzihu (钉子户), a Chinese word meaning either a household or person who will not leave their home to make way for real estate development. They have popped up all over China, and though the concept isn’t exactly novel, the idea behind nail houses has been revived as old-new commentary on a rapidly modernizing China, a country undergoing its own version of an industrial revolution.

When seen in photographs, nail houses appear almost as if snatched from a post-apocalyptic scene in Planet of the Apes or Pacific Rim, or embedded into the ghostly landscape like that haunted mansion atop a hill in The Nightmare Before Christmas. These are actual peoples’ homes, however, not some fictionalized dystopian landscape — but judging from some of the words spoken by residents, it’s hard to tell the difference.

Photo of Ms. Wuping's nail house. Image via

Photo of Ms. Wuping’s nail house (image via

In 2007, the owner of one very persistent nail house refused to leave; developers turned his home into an island, which stood in a 30-foot deep pit in Chongqing city. The Chongquing Zhengsheng Real Estate Company wanted to turn this location into a square complete with apartments and shopping mall. The owner of the home said that he “. . . wants 20 million yan, or he’ll stay till the end of the world.”

In another nail house case, a woman named Mrs. Wuping refused to let developers destroy her home in exchange for a small sum of money. Fighting developers who wanted to build quickly became a political statement and a media sensation that took spread quickly on the internet.

Soon to be nail house? Image via Flickr

Soon to be nail house? (image via Flickr)

As China barrels into the future, we’ll most likely see even more nail houses rising up into the sky, occupying the horizons like tiny islands. And with recent news about the largest building in the world — the Chengdu New Century Global Centre — and Sky City, the impending tallest building in the world (destined for Changsha, the capital of China’s central Hunan province) these proverbial nails will not be wanting for coffins.

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED...

5 replies on “Tooth and Nail: China’s Resilient Holdouts”

  1. These peasants need to realize that just because whatever is going to be built on that land in the future may be worth millions, your ghetto peasant shack isn’t.

      1. No I see the “point” on TV everyday here in China. These people need to quit begging for undue amounts of money (in most cases), and gtfo so these ghettos can be renovated into better areas.

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