Yu’er Hutong: Poetry and Peace
Yu’er Hutong remains tranquil and low-key. Visitors looking for this secluded alleyway should be careful to keep an eye out for the signs, as it is easy to miss.
Located in the northwest of Dongcheng District, the 343-meter-long Yu'er Hutong (Rain Alley) is the third hutong (alleyway) connecting to Nanluoguxiang Hutong in the east—a popular tourist spot famous for its boutiques, snack shops and bars. Although Nanluoguxiang has become a bustling business street which attracts large crowds of visitors every day, Yu'er Hutong remains tranquil and lowkey. Visitors looking for this secluded alleyway should be careful to keep an eye out for the signs, as it is easy to miss.
No one knows how Yu'er Hutong got its present name. However, according to local chronicles, the alley existed even before Dadu (present-day Beijing, the capital of the Yuan Dynasty [1271–1368]) was constructed during the Yuan Dynasty. One of the oldest neighbourhoods in Beijing, the byway was not named when it was first built.
The hutong was given the name “Yulong” during the Ming Dynasty (1368– 1644), when Beijing had once again become the capital of the dynasty. The line “Yulong is the name of Hengshan, one of China's five famous mountains” originated in a poem of Tang Dynasty poet Yuan Zhen (AD 779–831). However, with the decline of the Ming and rise of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), the name was changed to “Yu'er” (Rain)—a name that sounds more amiable and common, and remains in use today.
As an alley with a long history, Yu'er Hutong bears many markers of its years. Entering the alley, visitors will see a pair of memorably shaped stone gate piers outside the entrance to the first courtyard. These exquisite rectangular gate piers are box-shaped; over the years, the patterns on their surfaces have been worn down, but the pair of lifelike mythical animals is still recognisable.
Beijing served as the imperial city, and boasted a large population and strict regulations. In those days, only civil officials could place box-shaped gate piers in front of their houses to indicate that they belonged to a scholarly family. In addition, houses with mythical creatures carved on their gate piers meant that the owner belonged to the imperial family. The complexity and craftsmanship of a carving could also give some indication as to the identity of the house's owner. One can therefore deduce that the earliest resident here must have been a prominent official. Regrettably, the story behind the pair of stone gate piers has been lost to time.
Walking further, visitors come to a large house with a large, wide gate about four to five metres (m) wide. The style of the building resembles that commonly found in the north of China, but it also incorporates some features of
Suzhou and Hangzhou architecture from southern China. The carved beams and painted rafters are extremely exquisite. The coloured painting on the upper part of the gatehouse must have been created using the finest of pigments available at the time. After all these years, the design and colours are still clearly visible. The distance from the entrance to the gatehouse is about 70 centimetres, which indicates that whoever built the house must have been a second-class official. Unfortunately, the exquisite edifice is now a private residence not open to the public.
An even more famous building once stood on Yu'er Hutong: the “Yearly Duty Banner Office,” an official body of the Eight Banners established during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (reign:1722–1735) during the Qing Dynasty. According to Research on Old Records (Rixia jiuwen kao): “The Yearly Duty Banner Office (Zhinian yamen) is a house facing south on Yu'er Hutong outside Di'anmen. It consists of four courtyards with a total of forty rooms.” It seems that the site was extremely large. However, its location cannot be definitively identified today.
Before Emperor Yongzheng's reign, the Eight Banners (administrative and military divisions under the Qing Dynasty into which all Manchu households were placed) each had their own individual management systems and offices. To unify their management, Emperor Yongzheng set up a coordination body. Teams from each of the Eight Banners would take turns leading the organisation, which was called the “Monthly Duty Banner” (Zhi yueqi). The office of the coordination body was established on Yu'er Hutong and named the “Monthly Duty Banner Office.”
Over time, the new management model displayed some clear defects. The banner on duty would often claim that one month was too short to handle complicated affairs, so they would put off these tasks until the next month. In this way, complex problems were often procrastinated indefinitely. In the 16th year of the reign of the Emperor Qianlong (reign: 1735–1796), the young monarch could not bear the situation any longer and ordered the “Monthly Duty Banner” to be changed into a “Yearly Duty Banner.” As a result, there was no excuse for the Eight Banners to put off any matter, and those on duty faced their obligations more responsibly.
Courtyard No. 13 used to be the residence of the fourth son of Huangtaiji (reign: 1626–1636), founding emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Nowadays it is the Memorial Hall of the Former Residence of distinguished painter Qi Baishi (1864–1957).
The house was originally the private residence of an official of the imperial court during the Qing Dynasty. During construction, the planned scale was higher than the official's position allowed; a whistle-blower reported it to the government, resulting in the suspension of construction. Later, Dong Shuping, the chairman of Beihai Park during the Qing Dynasty, lived here. The residence was unsurprisingly called “Dong's Courtyard” at that time. Later, the courtyard was divided into several parts. After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Ministry of Culture purchased Courtyard No. 13—part of the residence—for the painter Qi Baishi to live in.
In 1955, Qi Baishi lived here for a time. Later, however, he moved back to Xicheng District because he missed his old home there. Qi passed away in 1957, and it was decided that the house would be turned into a memorial to the painter. Later, the memorial was cancelled and the house became the office of the Beijing Fine Art Academy. In 1986, it was included in the list of Cultural Relic Protection Units for Dongcheng District. In 2012, the Beijing Fine Art Academy repaired the building and renamed it “Memorial Hall of Qi Baishi's Former Residence.”
Today, the courtyard is filled with a sense of tranquillity. Its rooms feature simple, un-plastered masonry walls, and its roof-ridges are decorated with tiles.
The rooms are connected by corridors, and the undersides of the overhanging eaves feature exquisitely crafted decorative bells.
A statue of Qi Baishi is placed in the centre of the courtyard. There are different exhibitions in each of the buildings, including painting exhibitions, and one room filled with displays on Qi's life. A video plays in the room to the south introducing both the painter and his works, with seats for visitors to take a rest. Each room in the courtyard captures the atmosphere of an original old home.
Besides Qi Baishi, many other renowned figures have lived in Yu'er Hutong. In addition to the previously mentioned Dong Shuping, the former chairman of Beihai Park, Courtyard No. 31 and 33 were the former residences of Marshal Luo Ronghuan (1902–1963) and General Su Yu (1907–1984), both senior leaders in the People's Liberation Army. After the founding of the People's Republic of China, these two generals spent the remainder of their lives there.
Upon leaving the former residence of Qi Baishi, visitors come to a small room with a red sign reading “Photography Exhibition of the Last Empress of China, Wanrong”; she lived nearby before getting married to the last emperor of China, Puyi (1906–1967).
The room is small and holds only about a dozen photographs. However, all the pieces on display are rare gems. Covering the majority of Empress Wanrong's (1906–1946) life, these images primarily cover the period from her childhood to adulthood. The photographs show that Wanrong was a rare beauty with both grace and elegance. There are few photos depicting her later life. It is said that Wanrong became addicted to opium, and grew pale and emaciated in her final years. It seems the organisers would prefer not to dwell on the tragic fate of China's last empress.
Yu'er Hutong is home to myriad fascinating stories. Famed figures, beauties, heroes and ordinary people have all lived there—but in the end, all were just passers-by.