From the archive – Glass explores the ancient Beijing hutongs with Shu Yi, renowned writer and activist

A moment in time – Shu Yi, renowned writer and activist, takes Glass on a trip through the ancient Beijing hutongs and argues his case for their survival

TOURISTS take rickshaw rides through the narrow streets of Beijing while rowdy bars of the Sanlitun district and the kitschy mega-clubs around Workers’ Stadium entice foreign visitors to enjoy the urban nightlife in a city steeped in cultural history. As China enters a new era of modernisation, government authorities are facing a wealth of challenges in keeping that development balanced. Many lament the loss of the old Beijing. Of the many notable advocates in favour of preserving Beijing’s old architecture, Shu Yi, a writer and former member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), is the loudest and most dedicated voice. Son of Lao She, a Chinese playwright and author of satiric novels and short stories (best known for his 20th-century classic Luo Tuo Xiang Zi), Shu is a scholar who has devoted much of his time to preserving traditional Beijing culture. Walking down the lane of Shu’s memory, he guides us through the history of Beijing’s disappearing hutongs.

A Moment in Time, Photography by Vincent CuiA hutong in Beijing. Photograph: Vincent Cui

Originally set out in the Yuan Dynasty, the city of Beijing was planned in advance of its construction and has become the core of the capital we see today. Resembling an orderly chessboard, the city’s framework in many ways represents an ideological combination of China’s traditional agricultural society and city planning. Hutongs, Beijing’s narrow alleyways, are as representative of the old Beijing as Big Ben is of London. Over hundreds of years, dynasties have fallen and emperors passed and Beijing’s hutongs have silently witnessed them all.

Hutongs were originally used to connect the different courtyard residencies of the city. Today, tourists from around the globe flock into the various alleyways to clutch at an authentic breath of the old Beijing. For a city bound with six dynasties of history, almost every hutong has its own unique personality and story to tell. As the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven stand for the court life and elite culture of old China, the Beijing hutongs are true reflections of the grassroots locals’ lives.

A Moment in Time, Photography by Vincent CuiA hutong in Beijing. Photograph: Vincent Cui

A siheyuan, a four-walled enclosed courtyard formed by inward-facing houses on all four sides, is a traditional Beijing residence. Typical of the city’s architectural style, the history of siheyuan can be traced back as far as 800 years. However, during the 1990s China underwent rapid economic development and along the way a systematic demolition of old urban buildings took place and the large-scale disappearance of the siheyuan began. Between 1990 and 1998, a total 4.2 million square metres of siheyuan were demolished. “Siheyuan, along with hutongs, form a huge part of old Beijingers’ collective memory,” Shu comments.

Originating from a Mongolian word, hutong bears the meaning of water-well, where people used to establish a settlement and live around the centre point. Zhuanta hutong, one of the oldest hutongs with a history of over 700 years, has born witness to years as far back as the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). During that time, and for the two dynasties that followed, Zhuanta served as a centre of entertainment where 10 different opera troupes blossomed. Like many others in the city, this historic hutong still sees local residents chattering casually on the streets in their pyjamas and small children running around the neighbourhood. Each hutong’s name is based on its location or original function. Qianshi hutong, the narrowest in Beijing, is a peculiar hutong that measures only 70cm wide. One can barely spread their arms when walking down the lane. This is because in old days the monetary exchange centre was situated here so the government built the hutong so narrowly for security reasons.

A Moment in Time, Photography by Vincent CuiA hutong in Beijing. Photograph: Vincent Cui

Yan Dai Xie Jie, which literally means ‘Slanted Tobacco Pipe Street’, has become one of the most popular hutongs to date. Resembling a huge pipe of 232 metres long, in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) the street was lined with tobacco pipe shops. Nowadays, hutongs such as Yan Dai Xie Jie and the renowned Nanluoguxiang are home to a great many boutique shops and cafés. Walking in Beijing’s Nanluoguxiang feels very much like strolling through Stockholm’s Gamla Stan.

The irony of purchasing modern souvenirs and modern street food from ancient-looking surroundings is similar. The 768m-long hutongs are packed with handicraft shops, bars and Western-style eateries. Visitors from all over the world mingle with young, local crowds, turning the street into a trendy spot famed for its nightlife. Transforming from a residential neighbourhood into a commercial tourist destination, Nanluoguxiang has lost its old-time charm and over-commercialisation has become a pressing concern for the area.

A Moment in Time, Photography by Vincent CuiA hutong in Beijing. Photograph: Vincent Cui

“From the end of the Qing Dynasty to 1948, many of the old hutongs deteriorated and disappeared as instability in society and foreign invasions came to the fore,” Shu explains. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the hutongs have been torn down and replaced with skyscrapers and boulevards. Today, the area occupied by siheyuan has shrunk from the 17 million square metres of the early 1950s to just three million square metres. Entering a random alleyway near Nanluoguxiang, the demolished hutong resembles the aftermath of an earthquake.

Piles of bricks and broken cement scatter on the streets. A bag of garbage lies on the side of the road. Seeing the destruction before me, I can’t help but ask Shu; is demolition of the tradition the only choice we have to embrace modernisation? According to him, the locals, however, are “mostly happy to move into the new residences.” Unlike tourists and advocates, hutong residents are fed up with dwelling in the old buildings with rotting wood and crumbling bricks. This is where the cultural dichotomy really starts.

A Moment in Time, Photography by Vincent CuiA hutong in Beijing. Photograph: Vincent Cui

Outrage at the loss of historical structures or anger at the wanton disregard for heritage is understandably natural. What was once a vibrant community is now destroyed in exchange for a more developed and modernised city. Many of the old houses in Beijing are being taken down as part of the city’s modernisation plan. Residents in the hutong neighbourhood leave the lanes to move into apartments with modern amenities.

“We used to have over a thousand hutongs in the city. Only less than a hundred or so are still in existence today,” Shu remarks with a sigh. Many of the hutongs are now designated as protected areas by the government and a number of campaigns have been launched to save the narrow lanes that embody generations of history and culture. Preserving hutongs is essential to maintaining the cultural legacy of the ancient capital, Shu explains.

A Moment in Time, Photography by Vincent CuiA hutong in Beijing. Photograph: Vincent Cui

On March 9, 1998 Shu wrote in his article Salvage and Protection of Beijing’s Hutongs and Siheyuans, “Large-scale destruction of hutong and siheyuan will lose Beijing its unique status as world cultural capital.” Shu later aptly explained during a conference held in the same year, “In destroying its siheyuan Beijing is actually tearing down its second city wall.” Besides Shu, 19 experts jointly signed a letter to appeal for hutong conservation. The letter was faxed from Beijing to the UNESCO 28th World Heritage Conference in Suzhou, calling for the protection of Beijing’s old city districts. In the document, urgency of protecting courtyards is emphasised to the Conference as they represent priceless cultural heritage that should be passed on to the generations that follow. In the late 1990s the Beijing municipal government slowed the pace of the demolition of old districts in response to public concern.

Shu recalls his very first visit to London. “Years ago I travelled to London to see my father’s old residence where he lived for five years. The building remains in good shape, and I’m sure it’s not because of my father as he was really just an ordinary scholar back then. I talked to the residents in the houses and they had no idea a Chinese had once lived in their present dwelling. The house still looks just like it used to be in my father’s time. London has done a good job dealing with modernisation and preserving their historical and cultural heritage.”

Shu continues, “They don’t see embracing modernisation and preserving culture as two conflicting subjects. While traditional culture is maintained, tourism income is at the same time highly increased. If we turn Beijing into a replica of New York or Tokyo, then no one will visit our city. There’s no contradiction between modernisation and culture preservation.”

A Moment in Time, Photography by Vincent CuiA hutong in Beijing. Photograph: Vincent Cui

On April 12, 2004, the municipality launched a campaign to encourage groups and individuals to buy siheyuan in Beijing’s old districts and cultural and historical conservation areas. Buyers are not limited to locals. Foreign buyers can now participate in the conservation project of saving Chinese cultural heritage. Asked if the launch of the campaign is still catching on, Shu answers, “Enough has been done. I have tried the best I can. There’s no turning back.” As Beijing hutongs transform into a fusion of the old and the new and progress into a more commercialised future, they will continue to be silent witnesses of the city’s development and popular culture as it dazzles the world with its economic might, one can only hope the city will preserve its cultural legacy in the Chinese way.

by Yolanda Chen

From the Glass Archive – Issue 9 – Hope

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