A touch of Qing Dy­nasty life

The Borneo Post - - HOME - By Chang Yi

AF­TER sev­eral de­lays in Kuala Lumpur, 17 of us fi­nally landed in Bei­jing past mid­night, only to be quickly whisked away early next morn­ing to He­bei and other re­mote ar­eas like Ni­he­wan to see the Pek­ing Man and other his­tor­i­cal sites.

Eight days later, we were hur­tled into the main city — with the For­bid­den City as our des­ti­na­tion — on a scorch­ing sum­mer day.

We sur­vived the long walk to our ho­tel, a de­light­ful Qing Dy­nasty-style ‘Si­heyuan’ turned into a mod­ern six-room bou­tique ho­tel.

The place was home to an in­flu­en­tial Qing of­fi­cial who must have been very wealthy as ev­i­dent from the solid walls and floors.

There are six huge guest rooms on three dif­fer­ent lev­els and it looked like the whole ho­tel was booked by our 17-strong group — four dou­ble rooms, one triple room — and one fam­ily room for the six guys.

A three-storey build­ing with a pent­house must have been un­heard of a cen­tury ago but to 21st cen­tury vis­i­tors, it’s cer­tainly a wel­com­ing sight.

We loved the mod­ern fa­cil­i­ties and the lav­ish Qing clas­sic rooms — bright, airy, fash­ion­able plus air con­di­tion­ing.

As most buses are not al­lowed in many of the al­leys and streets (one is, in fact, fa­mously only one foot wide, ac­cord­ing to records), many tourists who booked on­line, would be sur­prised by the dis­tance they had to walk to their ac­com­mo­da­tion. Hu­tongs (al­leys) Hu­tongs are nar­row streets or al­leys, com­monly as­so­ci­ated with north­ern Chi­nese cities, es­pe­cially Bei­jing. They are formed by lines of Si­heyuan or tra­di­tional court­yard res­i­dences.

Our home away from home was, thus, a Si­heyuan, pre­served and con­served by the var­i­ous fam­i­lies who owned it since the Qing Dy­nasty.

Such res­i­dences have been pro­tected by new gov­ern­ment rul­ings so that this as­pect of Chi­nese cul­tural his­tory can be shared with the global com­mu­nity.

In fact, Hu­tongs were first set up in the Yuan Dy­nasty (1206–1341), then ex­panded in the Ming (1368–1628) and Qing (1644–1908) Dy­nas­ties.

The term ‘hu­tong’ first ap­peared dur­ing the Yuan Dy­nasty, and had Mon­go­lian ori­gin, mean­ing ‘wa­ter well’ in the old days.

Af­ter the Mon­gols ar­rived in Bei­jing, many wells were dug, and some are even found in the mid­dle of streets to­day. Wells have been a fea­ture of most af­flu­ent homes in all of China, es­pe­cially Bei­jing.

Later, the term was used to re­fer to nar­row streets or lanes, formed by quad­ran­gle res­i­dences with walled court­yards.

In 1264, the young Kublai Khan de­cided to re­build the city with clear ‘def­i­ni­tions of streets, lanes and hu­tongs’.

As an ur­ban plan­ner, he was way ahead of his time. A 36m wide road was called a ‘big street’, an 18m wide one, a ‘small street’ and a 9m wide lane, a ‘hu­tong’. A few hu­tongs from the Yuan Dy­nasty have been pre­served. Unique ho­tel Through the tra­di­tional dou­ble pan­elled door, we en­tered a small cor­ri­dor to reach the re­cep­tion area-cum com­mon room of the ho­tel, big enough for all 17 of us to meet, dis­cuss and share meals. This is the orig­i­nal court­yard with sky­light.

The court­yard leads to a small din­ing room with a huge ta­ble — a fea­ture one sees in many Chi­nese TV drama se­ries set in the Qing era.

It’s a room meant for busi­ness or an of­fi­cial gath­er­ing. The in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tion is su­perb with a lot of greens and flow­ers.

This Si­heyuan or Qing res­i­dence has a fan­tas­tic lo­ca­tion right in the heart of Bei­jing next to the For­bid­den City. One could sit in the re­cep­tion room for a long time, feel­ing the am­biance and even imag­in­ing an Im­pe­rial courtier might walk in any time.

The ren­o­va­tion has given the ho­tel a sump­tu­ous facelift — sev­eral new stair­cases, a won­der­ful roof top an­nex and even an un­der­ground room (which could have saved many lives in the past). One could get lost here.

But the best part is the rooftop where one could see a large part of Bei­jing. Could a con­cu­bine have com­mit­ted sui­cide here? Or could she have been im­pris­oned for months and then starved to death for mis­behaviour?

So book­ing a ho­tel like Palace Ho­tel and other sim­i­lar ho­tels would be a pre­ferred op­tion. Be­sides vis­it­ing Tien­an­men Square, if your feet were up to it, you should en­joy check­ing out the shops and the restau­rants, es­pe­cially Wang­fu­jin.

The hu­tongs of­fer plenty of good food. Per­haps any Pek­ing Duck restau­rant would be good if you were not too fussy. Made over Si­heyuan The Palace Ho­tel, a ren­o­vated Si­heyuan, is a pri­vate res­i­dence very pop­u­lar in China, es­pe­cially in Bei­jing.

In Chi­nese his­tory, a house, en­closed by four walls, called a quad­ran­gle build­ing, was the ba­sic de­sign for hous­ing, palaces, tem­ples and gov­ern­ment of­fices.

Kublai Khan ini­ti­ated the Si­heyuan.

Ac­cord­ing to writ­ten records, there are three types of Si­heyuan — small, medium and big. For a small and sim­ple Si­heyuan, the main gate opens to face the south with the main rooms in the north for grand­par­ents which also face south.

The cor­ner rooms are for grand­chil­dren, the west and east rooms are for sons and daugh­ters, the rooms by the main gate fac­ing north are used as the liv­ing room or stu­dio.

For medium and big court­yard houses, there are more than one court­yard — two, three or even more with lots of rooms for high-rank­ing of­fi­cials or rich mer­chants.

The four build­ings in a sin­gle court­yard get dif­fer­ent amount of sun­light. The north­ern rooms re­ceive the most sun­shine and are, thus, used as the liv­ing room and bed­room for the el­dest or pa­tri­arch of the fam­ily, usu­ally the owner.

The eastern and west­ern rooms get less sun­light and are used as rooms for the younger gen­er­a­tion or guests while the south­ern rooms, just op­po­site the owner’s rooms, get the least sun­light and are used as rooms for ser­vice staff or stu­dios.

Un­mar­ried daugh­ters lived in some se­cret parts of the Si­heyuan — or an in­de­pen­dent build­ing. Ac­cord­ing to old tra­di­tional val­ues, un­mar­ried girls were not al­lowed to be seen in the pub­lic.

To­day, with ever grow­ing pop­u­la­tion in Bei­jing, the gov­ern­ment has to plan well to ac­com­mo­date the res­i­dents, and land is get­ting very scarce.

Although many of the hu­tongs have been de­mol­ished, there are still some 25 (lanes) and quad­ran­gle court­yards be con­served for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. Vis­it­ing hu­tongs by tr­ishaws For a small fee – say, RM50 — you can share a stan­dard tr­ishaw tour of the hu­tongs with a friend.

The driver is usu­ally in a hurry to get to ev­ery point of in­ter­est along the way and then ask you to get down.

End of trip. End of story. Busi­ness done.

I sup­pose our tr­ishaw driver must have been so bored do­ing this kind of Hu­tong Tr­ishaw Ride for mil­lions of times. But he was fairly in­for­ma­tive, telling us about gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies for wall im­prove­ments (a lot of ce­ment given, for ex­am­ple) and how the roads have been im­proved and driv­ing tr­ishaws has be­come eas­ier.

From him we learned the eastern and west­ern hu­tongs, re­served for the up­per class and the palace of­fi­cials, were more spa­cious.

The north­ern and south­ern hu­tongs for com­mon­ers, ar­ti­sans and mer­chants were smaller and sim­pler in de­sign and dec­o­ra­tion.

Dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty, there were about 900 hu­tongs, and in 1949, the num­ber was 1,330. The new gov­ern­ment has de­mol­ished many of them to build sky­scrapers and apart­ments.

How­ever, there is also a gov­ern­ment pro­tec­tion pol­icy to keep some as pro­tected ar­eas. Many hu­tongs are be­ing re­stored and ren­o­vated in Bei­jing and tourists love to visit them the most. Mei Lang­fan’s old res­i­dence One of our stops dur­ing our tr­ishaw ride was the for­mer res­i­dence of Mei Lang­fan, the most fa­mous Chi­nese Pek­ing Opera singer.

Mei who in­tro­duced Chi­nese Pek­ing Opera to the world, is memo­ri­alised in this mu­seum, hon­our­ing him and Bei­jing Opera.

On the day of our visit, hun­dreds of stu­dents were en­ter­tained to a short de­mon­stra­tion of Bei­jing Opera. They were ac­com­pa­nied by their teach­ers while mu­seum ad­min­is­tra­tors were busy an­swer­ing ques­tions from tourists who dropped by to watch the go­ings-on from the wings.

The the­atre was im­pres­sive and the stu­dents were seated in the same tra­di­tional way as the au­di­ence 200 years ago.

The cos­tumes of the Bei­jing Opera singers were colour­ful and at­trac­tive but the singing was re­ally loud, blar­ing out from loud­speak­ers at ev­ery cor­ner of the the­atre. Each de­mon­stra­tion was fol­lowed by a short ex­pla­na­tion from the an­nouncer.

Mei made suc­cess­ful tours to Ja­pan, the US and the Soviet Union. Through th­ese vis­its, he pop­u­larised the Chi­nese clas­si­cal drama among for­eign au­di­ences. As a re­sult, Pek­ing Opera was bet­ter un­der­stood and ap­pre­ci­ated.

Our hu­tong tour had to end rather hur­riedly as we had to check out from our lovely ho­tel and dash to the air­port.

Our stay in Bei­jing, though short, was so mem­o­rable that I felt my heart burst­ing with un­feigned flash­backs at the mere re­call of the great time we had tour­ing the fab­u­lous Chi­nese cap­i­tal. Yes, I left my heart in Bei­jing.

So who do you think should help me end this write-up but Con­fu­cius who said: “Wher­ever you go, go with all your heart.”

A woman cy­cling along a hu­tong. A room for six is enough for 17 peo­ple to hold a meet­ing.

A shady hu­tong on the way to Ho­tel Palace. The sym­bol of the Qing fam­ily who owned the orig­i­nal quad­ran­gle court­yard home. The en­trance to the quad­ran­gle res­i­dence at Ho­tel Palace. A plaque in­scribed with the his­tory of Bei­jing.

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