Suitcase and World: The hutongs of Beijing.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The hutongs of Beijing.

o, this is not a posting about a famous family in Beijing or the name of a popular Chinese soap opera. Hutongs are an element of urban life that is unique to Beijing.

This posting begins with a bit of a history lesson.....going back to 1215 AD when Genghis Khan and his Golden Horde invaded Beijing and razed the city. The period in Chinese history that followed, during which the Mongols ruled China (1271-1368 AD), is known as the Yuan Dynasty. During this time, a new city was planned out, laid out based on a grid design. Following the Yuan Dynasty, an emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1628 AD) sought to erase all traces of Yuan Dynasty therefore destroyed most of the Mongol palaces but kept the grid that organized the city. Thus, it was during the Ming dynasty that Beijing, as we know it today, was formed.

The city of Beijing is laid out in grid pattern with the north-south axis being the major artery that connects the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven; the Forbidden City is the center of Beijing.

Residential neighborhoods are contained within the city grid. These neighborhoods are comprised of rows of courtyard houses called "siheyuans". Siheyuans are low building complexes made up of four houses surrounding a center courtyard.

The passages (streets, lanes or alleys) that form between the Siheyuan blocks are known as "hutongs" though it seems like in today's literature, the term hutong refers to the neighborhood that is formed by a collection of siheyuans and hutongs.

Hutongs first appeared in the Yuan Dynasty and continued to be developed throughout the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

Like many a small neighborhood in an inner city in the US, hutongs are contained communities where daily family life takes place. As one website described life in a hutong:

In the mornings and evenings people gather to practice traditional forms of exercise, such as T’ai Chi. Throughout the day there are elderly groups playing mahjong or Chinese chess, while children play, and others converse and cook. It is common to be invited to a meal with a family as you are passing by. Each neighborhood has a string of stalls and carts that sell traditional foods and goods. There are fruit and vegetable markets, as well as dried goods, meats, and fish.

Sadly, destruction of the hutongs started shortly after the People’s Republic of China was formally established in 1949. Back then the hutongs were razed because they were seen as a symbol of poverty and a “source of shame". Today, hutongs are being destroyed because of the rapid urban redevelopment of Beijing.

Fortunately, there are advocates for preserving the hutongs and the cultural heritage they represent. As a result, hutongs, particularly those with distinctive characteristics, have been designated as historic heritage sites under the protection of the state.

I have decided that this, my first trip to mainland China, will focus on the cultural heritage of the country and so I've put a hutong vist on my "must-do" list. I am hoping to find a tour through one of Beijing's hutongs just so I can get a feel for what life is in these neighborhoods.....before they are replaced a by a modern day high-rise building.