Captivating Streets and Alleys
Back in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Beijing’s distinctive hutong criss-crossed the entire capital. Today, many of these alleyways still exist, delighting tourists from across the world, who visit in search of history and local culture. Visitors can get a glimpse at what traditional life was like in the capital in places like Qianmen.
Looking back to ancient times, one finds Beijing’s signature chessboard pattern took form in urban Beijing as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) Dadu (“Great Capital”) period. At the centre of that Great Capital were the glorious imperial palace and city. Arranged in accordance with the imperial city, wide streets, and narrow alleys and hutong were built square and straight. This network of streets and alleys was at its densest during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), forming the “grid” of a time-honoured Beijing.
These street blocks and lanes carry the history and profound culture of Beijing, mixing the past and present. For centuries, Beijing's customs, etiquette, and anecdotes have been unfolding here, each step a new story in a long historic scroll.
A Trip to the Marketplace
Returning to the present, one finds each of Beijing's crisscrossing streets and alleys have their own unique character.
Some of these blocks have truly ancient beginnings, displaying the graceful bearing of an ancient capital and inheriting the charms of China's time-honoured culture. Others yet are aggregations of Beijing-style buildings and time-honoured stores in a display of the unique merchant culture in Beijing. Still more reveal the epitome of Beijing's modern, international urban charm. Tradition perfectly blends with modernity in these street blocks, fulfilling the needs of people looking for leisure and entertainment with a hint of the ancient. Together, these streets have long been attracting people from across China and the world over.
Qianmen and Dashilar
Spend any amount of time in Beijing and there is no doubt one will hear the names Qianmen (“Front Gate”) and Dashilar (“Grand Fence”).
Qianmen's Dashilar, located in the “outer city,” has been the most significant cultural and commercial landmark in Beijing since the Qing Dynasty. As stories from the marketplaces of the streets and alleys continued to spread, the area has attracted attention from all over the world.
Qianmen Street has a history that can be traced back more than 500 years. An important part of the southern Central Axis, Dashilar has been a prosperous business district for ages. Formed in 1436, it had its beginnings in the Yuan Dynasty, was formally established in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and has been prosperous since the Qing Dynasty. Once called Yulu Tianjie (“Imperial Road and Heavenly Street”), the name it has today has its roots in the Ming Dynasty. At the time, wooden fences stood at street entrances to prevent thieves from hiding in the streets and alleys. According to the later Qinding Lingdian Shili (“Imperial Orders, Standards and Cases”), 440 fences were approved in the outer city in 1730, and another 1,919 fences in the inner city and 196 fences in the imperial city were recorded in 1754. Today's “Grand Fence” (Dashilar) was noted for making larger, better preserved fences, gaining renown throughout Beijing and the name “Dashilar” with it.
A featured historical block, Beijing's architectural, mercantile, guild-hall, opera and folk cultures have come together with the flow of time. Flourishing and prosperous since its early years, row upon row of stores line the 9-metre (m)wide Dashilar Street. Gathered here are century- old Chinese brands like Tongrentang, Ruifuxiang, Zhangyiyuan, Liubiju, Houdefu Restaurant and Changshengkui Dried Fruits Shop. Dashilar is also second-to-none when it comes to leisure and entertainment. Long-standing opera houses like the Qingle Opera House, Sanqing Opera House and Guangde Tower welcome guests from worldwide to this storied street. Beijing's first cinema, the Daguanlou Cinema, opened during the early Republic of China period (1912– 1949) on this street, where China's first film, Dingjun Mountain, played on the silver screen.
The old street has taken on new life
thanks to renovations based on how the street looked during the early Republic of China. Street lights designed with birdcages, bronze drums, and candied hawthorns on a stick characteristic of old Beijing, speak of how Dashilar and Qianmen Street have renewed themselves after 500 years of challenges and successes. As part of its old-yetnew renovations, Qianmen Street has been paved in green and white stone, revealing the past mien of an imperial road. The rapid changes have also revived the unique scenery of the Wupai Archway and other Ming and Qing dynasty buildings. Among those buildings, a crisp “clang“rings out from days gone by—the tram too has returned, to bring visitors through Beijing's beautiful scenery.
Even after its renovation, Dashilar Block has retained the same street layout that was built during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. Among its twelve streets is Langfang Ertiao, a flourishing road since the end of the Qing Dynasty. Though it looks a bit plain on the outside, there is much to be found within. Inside Zhenyang Bookshop are the written memories of old Beijing, while old items in the general stores recall a sweet sense of nostalgia when there was no shortage of customers. Outside, the mere mention of roasted duck at Siji Minfu Restaurant, Feng's Quick-fried Beef Tripe (a centuryold favourite) and dalian huoshao (a flatbread wrap with a variety of stuffing) in Menkuang Hutong is enough to make the mouth water.
The “Eight Great Hutong” located south of Tieshuxie Street were formed in the reign of Emperor Qianlong, thrived in the middle and late Qing Dynasty and came to their “great fame” at the end of the Qing Dynasty and Republic of China period. After Huiban (Peking Opera troupes from Anhui Province) arrived in Beijing, the Sixi Troupe took up residence in the Eight Hutong area.
When it comes to commerce, today's Qianmen Street highlights a combination of modern commercial functions and the classic features of an ancient capital. In addition to such “century-old trade names” as Yueshengzhai, Qinglin Spring Tea House, and Quanjude moving back to their original sites, dozens of well-known international brands have also set up shop there.
Based on Dashilar's nearly 600 years of cultural history is Beijing Fun, an architectural complex that carries on the area's ancient hutong styling. Historical features organically blend with a traditional commercial environment in this architectural love letter to the past, building a humanistic, cultural and commercial complex that stands apart as “a new landmark of urban culture.”
Reaching Zhubaoshi Street to the east, Langfang Ertiao to the south, Meishi Street to the west and Xiheyan Street to the north, at the heart of Beijing Fun is the century-old site of Quanyechang. With such protected cultural and historical buildings like Qianxiayi and the former sites of Yanye Bank and the Bank of Communications, the vast complex has integrally sustained the features of building during the Republic of China period. By bringing in internationally famous brands alongside local Chinese brands, Beijing Fun aims to create an innovative industry with regional cultural characteristics, realise high-quality urban life in the area and bring forth a uniquely charming culture that blends ancient history with modern reality.
Dashilar, an historic and cultural block, conforms to the spirit of the capital and meets the needs of Beijing's future urban development. In its protection, transformation and renewal, Dashilan glows with new vitality.
Liulichang, Ancient Cultural Street
A short walk west from Dashilar brings us to another street famous for its ancient culture: Liulichang.
During the Yuan Dynasty, an official kiln was set up here to produce glazed tiles for the imperial palace. By the Ming Dynasty, the Glazed Tile Factory (Liulichang) became one of the five factories under the supervision of the Imperial Board of Works. After Beijing's outer city was built in 1553, the area became part of the “city proper,” and thus no longer suitable for the production of tiles. Though the Glazed Tile Factory was relocated to Liuliqu Village Mentougou District, the name “Liulichang” remains to this day.
As the Siku quanshu ( Complete Library of the Four Branches of Literature) was compiled during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736–1795), booksellers from across the country flocked to Liulichang to set up stalls and stores. By 1876, it was home to over 270 bookstores. In the early years of the Republic of China, nearly 200 shops and
workshops sold cultural commodities, establishing Liulichang Cultural Street, famed both at home and abroad.
In addition to such famous bookstores such as Huayin Mountain House, Daiyue Xuan and Li Fushou Pen House, Liulichang is also home to the China Bookstore, the largest antique bookstore in China. The Commercial Press, Zhonghua Book Company and the World Book Company, three major publishers, originally stood in Western Liulichang.
Among its many stores and publishing houses, Rongbaozhai is well worth visiting. It was once a focal point of gatherings for men of letters in the late Qing Dynasty. Former generations of calligraphers and painters such as Yu Youren, Zhang Daqian, Wu Changshuo and Qi Baishi frequently visited this house of the written word.
Rongbaozhai has its beginnings in the early Qing Dynasty. Not only do they sell authentic calligraphic works and paintings here, they also use woodblock printing to create copies, a process which incorporates engraving, printing, folding, cutting and other techniques.
As the Republic of China came about, Liulichang was on the decline. Following the construction of Heping Gate and Xinhua Street renovations in 1927, Liulichang Cultural Street was divided into Eastern and Western Liulichang. Businesses here mainly sold calligraphic works, paintings, the “four treasures” of a study (brush-pen, ink, paper and ink slab), antiques and ancient books, sustaining its reputation as a “gathering point” of the cultural industry since the Qing Dynasty. With its ancient, uniquely charming oriental culture, Liulichang is famous both at home and abroad.
Along the streets of Liulichang, this living antique, the traditional Chinese culture is palpable. Walking amid the unique fragrance of books and the rhyme of the ink well, one cannot help but feel imbued with authentic Beijing culture and the charms of an ancient capital.
Guozijian (“Imperial College”) Street has greeted travellers in Beijing for over 800 years. Amid the green shade of the street lined with ancient Chinese scholar trees looms a towering archway. On both sides stand temples and residential courtyards, adding to the antiquity, simplicity and tranquillity here.
The 670-m-long street starts from the inside of Anding Gate, stretching eastward to Yonghe Palace Street. On its archway, a horizontal tablet with the characters for “Chengxian Street“reveals a hint of the street's past.
With the institution of Confucianism and the birth of the imperial examination system, educational institutions related to Confucianism came into being. Guozijian and Beijing's Confucius Temple are examples of such buildings.
In 1306, Guozijian was constructed to the west of the Confucius Temple. Known as “Chengxian Street” during the Qing Dynasty, it was renamed Guozijian Street in 1965.
Just across the west wall of the Confucius Temple is Guozijian, which from the Sui Dynasty (AD 581–619) onward, had been the highest institution supervising education and responsible for government decrees related to Chinese studies. Disciplines such as rituals, music, law, archery, charioteering, calligraphy and mathematics fell under its jurisdiction. Since Guozijian was constructed in the Yuan Dynasty, the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties had used it as the highest educational institution. During those times, there was hardly an act more illustrious to one's ancestors than studying in Guozijian. By the late Qing Dynasty, Guozijian was no longer a venue for education but one for examinations. Its Chinese scholar trees were planted throughout Guozijian to symbolise the task of “ascending the Chinese scholar trees and the cauldron.” Past the entrance of the Jixian Gate (Gate of Gathering Talents), is the only glazed archway which does not belong to a temple. Atop the three gates of this hiproof glazed archway is a horizontal tablet with the inscription yuanqiao jiaoze (“imperial grace of a circular bridge”) written by Emperor Qianlong on its front and another with xuehai jieguan (“sectioned view of the sea of learning”) inscribed on its back. After traversing the magnificent gateway, one reaches Biyong, the core building of Guozijian.
Biyong, a square pavilion hall with double- eaved roofs, was built in the centre of a circular pool surrounded by a long corridor. Symbolising a “round sky and flat earth,” Emperor Qianlong gave lectures in Biyong with an unprecedented grandeur. Since then, every emperor was impelled to give a lecture at Biyong after ascending the throne, to show the importance the central government placed in higher education.
As teaching and learning complement each other, so too has Guozijian preserved its ancient charm. Guozijian Street is famous the world over owing to the Confucius Temple and Guozijian. Beijing's long and profound history and culture lives on here, with such ancient customs as officials being required to dismount (then, a horse) and walk continuing today. For those wanting to explore that history and culture, Guozijian Street should be on the top of your list. Wandering the old street, with its over 700-year history amid those green pines and cypresses, traces of the unique heritage of Beijing's culture unveil themselves to thoughtful eyes.
North of Guozijian Street is a long, narrow hutong that runs east to west.
While 632 m long, Wudaoying Hutong is only 6 m wide. This was once the stronghold of the Ming Dynasty Wudeweiying Battalion, a garrison which safeguarded the city. By the Qing Dynasty, the name had mistakenly become “Wudaoying Battalion.” Although the name had been altered, it was also named after the troop stationed there, which belonged to the Xianghuang Banner, one of the eight major military divisions of the Qing Dynasty.
With the progress of society, many foreigners who love Beijing's hutong culture have laid down roots here, opening restaurants and cafes. Stores selling creative, cultural supplies have also taken heed of these trends, flocking to set up branches here. This has attracted an ever greater influx of visitors to this “new strongpoint of culture and innovation,” gradually giving rise to its current scale. Whatever style you are after, trendy, vintage, cute or otherwise, they can all be found here. In this lane where Chinese and western styles meet, many visitors, especially young people fond of literature and art, come here out of admiration. It has also become one of the most ideal locations for outdoor photography. A mindful hutong visitor may also see the most down-to-earth hutong scenes unfold, like an old man wearing slippers taking a walk, a middle-aged woman carrying an enamel bowl to buy tofu, children playing with sand or foreigners on their bicycles.
Every year tourists pour in to Nanluoguxiang from all over the world. It has something to do with its unique, completely preserved, traditional chessboard-style residential area with its distinct Yuan Dynasty lanes and courtyards. Its large scale, high quality and rich resources create a spectacular view for any visitor.
In the Yuan Dynasty, the city of Dadu was divided into 50 blocks, with the present-day Nanluoguxiang serving as the dividing alley between Zhaohui Block and Jingong Block. Later in the Ming Dynasty, the inner city of Beijing had 28 such divisions, with Zhaohui Block and Jinggong Block merging into one known as “Zhaohui Jinggong Block,” with present-day Nanluoguxiang as its northsouth axis. Known then as Luoguoxiang (“Hunchback Alley”), a careful look at its landform reveals a high centre amid its lower northern and southern parts, taking on the likeness of an old man with a hunchback. The Jingcheng Quantu (“complete map of the capital city”) painted in 1750 shows that “Luoguoxiang” had since been renamed “Nanluoguxiang” with Di'anmendong Street on the south and Gulou Street to the north. As there was a “Nan” (South) Luoguoxiang, so too there must be a “Bei” (North). Indeed, opposite of Nanluoguxiang on the north side of Gulou East Street is “Beiluoguxiang.” This northern counterpart was in fact the dividing line between the Lingchun and Jintai Blocks during the Yuan Dynasty. During the Qing Dynasty, the imperial court stipulated that in Beijing, soldiers and citizens should live in different parts of the city, with the Eight Banners soldiers living in the inner city and the Han living in the outer city. At the time, Nanluoguxiang and Beiluoguxiang belonged to the Xianghuang Banner.
Just 8 m wide and about 800 m
long from north to south, Nanluoguxiang has a number of hutong that branch off the street. On the eastern side there are Miaodou, Banchang, Dongmianhua, Beibingmasi, Qinlao, Qianyuanensi, Houyuanensi and Ju'er Hutong, while to the west are Fuxiang, Suoyi, Yu'er, Mao'er, Jingyang, Shajing, Heizhima and Qiangulouyuan Hutong. These names alone rouse an anticipation for many stories. With its eight symmetrical lanes on each side neatly arranged, Nanluoguxiang looks like a centipede, earning its vivid nickname, “Centipede Street.” This layout is all thanks to the street maintaining the same layout since the capital's Dadu ( Yuan Dynasty) period.
Nanluoguxiang and its surrounding areas were at the centre of the Yuan Dynasty's Great Capital, and served as land for the wealthy and nobility during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The street and its alleys attracted numerous dignitaries who built countless kingly mansions and noble houses. In this block abundant in the features of old Beijing “loom” many mansions and houses in a plethora of styles. Boasting either deep and profound or bright and exquisite architecture, each building has multifarious stories behind them. Taking any random house or mansion in Nanluoguxiang, one finds stories relating to generals in the Ming Dynasty, princesses in the Qing Dynasty or men of letters in past dynasties.
Yet today, rich and influential families live among more ordinary citizens. From the Qing Dynasty to the 1930s and 1940s, the hutong of Nanluoguxiang have gradually developed from their original Manchurian Xianghuang Banner demographics, with an ever increasing population. This was followed by the rapid emergence of small stores in Nanluoguxiang, including stores which took “food as the paramount necessity of the people,” which specialised in grains, vegetables, oil and salt, pork, mutton, sliced noodles, wine or ready-to-eat foods as well as businesses closely related to local livelihoods, involving coal, brick and tile, shredded linen, mats, sheds and blacksmithing tools. Still other businesses followed suit, like shops for wedding sedan chairs, medical clinics, pharmacies, barbers, tailors, cobblers and weavers. And one could be assured that teahouses and pawnshops also dotted the landscape here. In spite of its relatively compact size, these shops covered nearly 30 industries. As for certain large shops specialising in satin, gold, silver at the like, those were concentrated in the area of Di'anmenwai Street and the Drum Tower. It was only after the Qing Dynasty disintegrated that Nanluguxiang temporarily withered from its prosperity, once again falling silent.
As time has passed, recent visits to Nanluguxiang welcome travellers not only to the Central Academy of Drama to the north of Dongmianhua Hutong but also many more bars and small shops selling creative, cultural commodities which have a wealth of content despite their humble façades. Nostalgic, cordial and refreshing business icons are found everywhere, making it among the liveliest and most fashionable alleys. “Let's look around Nanluoguxiang” has become a muchanticipated activity by fashionistas and trend-setters alike, regardless of gender or age. Nanluoguxiang has also become a must-visit destination for visitors who truly appreciate what the capital has to offer. Whether vacationing traveller, lover of ancient stories looking for the former residences of such figures as Qi Baishi or
Mao Dun, or merely a passer-by craving a simple and idle afternoon, this place, with its profound historical culture and relaxed, comfortable atmosphere, is a road well worth taking. Yandai Xiejie Yandai Xiejie (literally, “Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street”) is a famous attraction in Xicheng District's Shichahai area.
The street is intrinsically related to the transportation of rice and other imperial tributes through the Huihe River, dredged in the Yuan Dynasty. After Kublai Khan constructed Dadu (“Great Capital,” today's Beijing) to have its “imperial court at the front and marketplace at the back,” the Huihe River was dredged to connect it with the Grand Canal so that rice, tea and other commodities were supplied by a merchant fleet that sailed past a forest of stores and hotels. This inclined street was constructed to serve as a channel from a dock in the Jishuitan Pool to the Drum Tower. In the 1960s, during the construction of a department store near the Di'an Gate, relics of the embankment were found here, indicating that it was part of the northeastern shore of Haizi (another name for Jishuitan Pool). This in turn gave rise to the streets and alleys as found in the present-day Yandai Xiejie.
In the early Ming Dynasty, the street was called Dayuting East Street. At that time, dignitaries built houses along the shores of Jishuitan Pool. The adjacent inclined street not only maintained the prosperity of the past, it saw the emergence of restaurants catering to those dignitaries, alongside literati and scholars in their tours and feasts. In the Rixia jiuwen kao (“a review of present-day antiques”) printed during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, the section in front of the Drum Tower was called Gulou Xiejie (Drum Town Inclined Street). At that time, the people of the Banners (people of Manchurian military divisions) living in the northern part of the city were particularly fond of having tobacco in holders or water pipes, carrying their shredded tobacco in pouches. As the tobacco industry in Beijing developed, demand for tobacco pouches increased with each passing day. On this street, stores selling tobacco pouches began popping up one after another, with high staircases and oversized wooden tobacco pouches serving as store signboards. With its vivid black pipes and golden bowls of tobacco, the name Yandai Xiejie became ever more appropriate.
Adjacent to Houhai Lake, the street itself looks something like a cigarette pouch—its eastern entrance like the mouth of a tobacco pouch; slender street its pipe; and southwestern turn leading to the Silver Ingot Bridge its bowl. Beijing is predominately a square city, with nearly all of its streets facing due east, west, south or north. Only a few skewed, or inclined, streets exist in Beijing, such as Yandai Xiejie, Litiegai Xiejie (Iron-crutch Li Inclined Street) and Yangmeizhu Xiejie ( Waxberry and Bamboo Inclined Street).
An inclined street is called “xiejie,” a narrow street is called “jiadao” (lit. “narrow way”). Beijing also has badaowan (“eight bays”) for twisting streets and xiawazi (Low-lying Area) for a low-lying street. There are many lanes in Beijing named after their layouts.
As one of the oldest streets in Beijing, the 300-m-long inclined street was mainly engaged in selling tobacco pouches, tobacco implements and antique calligraphic works and paintings. During the late Qing Dynasty, it was known as “Little Liulichang.” As time went on, stationery, local snacks and other businesses appeared on the street. Today the inclined street is flanked with stores with plain storefronts, reflecting the characteristics of old Beijing. As a well-known cultural street in Beijing, many cultural celebrities have walked down its street.
The present-day Yandai Xiejie focuses on developing a uniquely Beijing culture alongside China's folk culture. As a featured street for business and tourism, it has plain and elegant buildings with the eye-catching traditional styles of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Its layout, having stores at the front and dwellings in the back, reveals the profound marketplace features that undeniably belong to Beijing. If you are in Beijing, you owe it to yourself to make the trip to Yandai Xiejie. Peruse the antiques, take in its calligraphic works and paintings and, of course, keep an eye out for the delicious local food—it is an undeniably satisfying cultural tour.
Vibrant Life in the Hutong
These streets and alleys are meant to be wandered down. Every tourist in Beijing, after visiting so many of Beijing's renowned street blocks, should not miss the activity, that is, to take a look here and there in the lanes in Beijing to feel these places at their most “alive.”
As many know, from their rudimentary Yuan Dynasty beginnings to their maturity in the Ming and Qing dynasties, the hutong and the siheyuan courtyards have carried on the uniquely urban, uniquely human character of Beijing. “Hutong are unique to Beijing. Why they are called ‘ hutong?' There are many answers. Most scholars think it is from a Mongolian word meaning ‘wells.' I've heard a fellow writer in Hohhot say that hutong is the Mongolian ‘gudum,’ meaning a long, narrow landform that recesses down the middle,” wrote Wang Zengqi in his Gudu canmeng (“Residual Dream of an Ancient Capital”). There is indeed a saying that “hutong” originated from a Mongolian transliteration of “a well” or “a settlement
of inhabitants.” After all, in nearly every settlement there must be wells.
The Jingshi wucheng fangxiang hutong ji (“a collection of the blocks, alleys and lanes in the five cities of the capital”) compiled by Zhang Jue (1485–1566) in the Ming Dynasty is the first book giving detailed records on the hutong in Beijing. In this book, Zhang Jue recorded that, at the time, Beijing had 1,200 streets and alleys, as well as 459 hutong. In the late Qing Dynasty, Zhu Yixin (1846–1894), a man of letters, stumbled upon this work and sustained the historical record of the blocks, alleys and lanes in Beijing. Jingshi fangxiang zhigao (“a gazetteer on the blocks and alleys of Beijing”) recorded 2,077 streets and alleys, 978 of which were directly called hutong, 40.7 percent of all streets. Following the Republic of China period, the number of streets and alleys in Beijing continued to increase. Records reveal that Beijing had over 6,000 lanes at its peak, nothing short of voluminous. Most are straight and regular, concentrating along the eastern and western sides of the imperial palace and line up neatly along the streets from south to north. These roads were once home to relatives of the imperial family and other dignitaries. Relatively simple streets are situated on the northern and southern sides, further from the imperial palaces. These lanes were mostly occupied by merchants and commoners. “Connecting these streets facing due east, west, south and north are hutong. They have taken the big tofu of Beijing and cut it into many small pieces. It is in these small tofu pieces that Beijingers live their lives.
“Many small lanes in Beijing feature simple and ordinary exteriors and superbly complex and magical interiors.” As written in “I Love the Small Lanes of Beijing” by renowned Chinese linguist Ji Xianlin. Each hutong seems the same on the outside, yet are vastly different on the inside.
If there is any hutong in Beijing that has an extraordinary reputation, it is Shijia Hutong.
Shijia Hutong stretches from Chaoyangmen Nanxiaojie to the east and Dongsi Nandajie to the west, connecting with Dongluoquan Hutong and Xiluoquan Hutong to the south, and adjacent to Neiwubu Street to the north. While it appears to be just any regular hutong, it is a place of “crouching tigers and hidden dragons,” with legendary stories in each courtyard.
The No. 51 Courtyard in Shijia Hutong was the former residence of Chinese politician Zhang Shizhao (1881–1973), the chief of education after the Revolution of 1911. In 1949, Zhang Shizhao participated in the peace talks in Peiping as a member of the Nanjing-based Kuomintang delegation. He began living in Shijia Hutong in 1959. Chinese diplomat Zhang Hanzhi, the adopted daughter of Zhang Shizhao (1935–2008), was fond of the courtyard. Recalling the past, she said she often sat in the courtyard listening to her father talking about the past. Among the courtyard, the green plants she grew personally are still lush.
The No. 32 Courtyard, though not as famous as No. 51 Courtyard, has a prominent historical position. It was occupied by Fu Zuoyi (1895–1974), a senior general of the former National Revolutionary Army prior to the founding of the People's Republic of China. In such wars as the Revolution of 1911, the War of the Northern Expedition, the War of the Central Plains and the War of Resistance against Japan in Suiyuan, he had created a record winning victories in five plains. He can be counted among the most famous generals engaged in multiple wars during the twentieth century. In 1949 when Peiping was peacefully liberated, it was he who “relinquished” Peiping. After the founding of the People's Republic of China, he became its first Minister of Water Resources.
Ling Shuhua, renowned modern Chinese writer and painter, also lived in Shijia Hutong, where she was the owner of No. 24 Courtyard. Ling, alongside Lin Huiyin and Bing Xin were considered the “three talented women of the literary world.” Coming from a family of scholars, Ling was adept at both painting and writing, educated by Gu Hongming, a famous man of letters. She had a deep friendship with essayist Hu Shi and poet Xu Zhimo, and would organise painting meetings in this courtyard with artists Chen Hengke and Qi Baishi. At her behest, Tagore, an Indian poet, had also painted lotus leaves and Buddhist statues on sandalwood chips here. It was in this courtyard that Ling Shuhua met her husband, Chen Xiying, a renowned modern Chinese critic and translator.
Those who built a bond with Shijia Hutong include men of letters, figures of renown and patriotic generals. In the late Qing Dynasty, Liu Fucheng, Chairman of the China-france Bank and Sai Jinhua, a famous courtesan, also had houses here,
among many others. Its many years of accumulating such prominent names have given rise to its unique celebrity culture.
Although Shijia Hutong is only one among numerous hutong in Beijing, it carries the history of Beijing, a container of profound culture and the rich flavour of life. This hutong, with over 400 years of history, is a microcosm of Beijing's lanes. Among its courtyards is No. 24—which became the Shijia Hutong Museum, the first hutong museum in Beijing. With old mottled bricks, 130 courtyards were restored in miniature. Though hidden in the lane, the museum displays the culture of the siheyuan courtyards and a collection of old hutong memories.
Among the ‘Firsts’
The longest hutong in old Beijing is Dongjiaominxiang–xijiaominxiang, which runs nearly 3 kilometres from Chongwenmennei Street to Xuanwumennei Street. Yet it is known for more than just its length.
A Yuan Dynasty hutong, with its tax office and customs office that controlled the water transport of rice and other grains into Beijing, it became a strategic location in the transport of grains from the south to the north. Owing to this it was named Jiangmixiang (“River Rice Alley”). In fact, Jiangmixiang refers to the interconnected alleys of Dongjiaominxiang and Xijiaominxiang. The original Jiangmixiang was split into two parts owing to the construction of the capital's “chessboard layout” during the Ming Dynasty, creating Dongjiangmixiang (“Eastern River Rice Alley”) and Xijiangmixiang (“Western River Rice Alley”).
Dongjiaominxiang was originally the venue of the “five chief military commissions and six boards” in the Ming and Qing dynasties. In the years of Emperor Qianlong and Emperor Jiaqing, parts of the alley served as a “Welcoming Hotel” temporarily housing foreign diplomats and envoys. After the Opium War, embassies of the UK, Russia, Germany and France and other countries were established here. After 1901, it was renamed “Embassy Street.” Eleven countries, including the UK, USA, and France set up a joint administrative body, along with banks like the “USA'S Citibank,” “France's Credit Agricole Corporate and Investment Bank,” “UK'S HSBC,” “Japan's Yokohama Specie Bank Ltd,” and churches, hospitals and buildings. A visit to the present-day hutong offers the chance to view former sites of the embassies of Japan, the former Soviet Union, Portugal and other countries.
This particular historical period and “Embassy Street” itself have left many western buildings of various styles. To see an exquisitely small church here is also no cause for shock. The distinctive Cathedral of Jiaominxiang, also known as St. Michael's Cathedral, is a Gothic building built in 1901, known especially for its exquisite angel statues above its main entrance. The walls on both sides of the church are beautifully decorated with coloured glass windows imported from France during the late Qing Dynasty.
In the Qing Dynasty, Xijiangmixiang was renamed Xijiaominxiang. During the Ming Dynasty, it housed five chief military commissions responsible for such matters as ceremonies, exchanges and the Imperial guard. By the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic of China period, Xijiaominxiang was known as “Bank Street,” once home to the Peiping Branch of the Central Bank, the Agricultural and Industrial Bank of China,
the Mainland Bank and the Commercial Guarantee Bank of China. The head of the Shuanghesheng Wine Factory, Chinese merchant Zhang Tingge (1875–1954) also had his mansion here. Adjacent to its northern face were such influential branches of the court as the Regional Court of Peiping, the Ministry of Justice and the Higher Court of Justice.
Dongjiaominxiang–xijiaominxiang has been through more ups and downs than most care to count. A walk along the longest hutong in Beijing enables one to find its unique historic countenance.
Speaking of the longest, then which is the shortest hutong in Beijing? That would be Yichi Street. Meaning “thirdmetre,” it certainly sounds short enough. The diminutive lane is between Tongzi Hutong and Yangmeizhu Xiejie at the eastern entrance of Liulichang East Street. Although in spite of its humble name, the hutong is in fact over 30 metres long.
Then there is Lingjing Hutong, the widest hutong in Beijing. 32 metres at its widest, it was the boundary between Anfu Block and Xiaoshiyong Block during the Yuan and Ming dynasties. Its name comes from the Ming Dynasty Lingji Palace (later renamed Lingqing Palace), and was later called Lingjing Hutong during the Republic of China period. On the southwestern side of the hutong is the former site of the Qing Dynasty Doroi Beile Mansion.
Building a Bond with Hutong
Which is the oldest hutong in Beijing? That must be Zhuanta Hutong, which has been around since the Yuan Dynasty.
Zhuanta Hutong, which connects with Xisi South Street, is named after a brick pagoda at the eastern end of the alley. The ancient octagonal, seven-eave pagoda made with green brick stands tall. Legend has it that in this ancient pagoda lie the remains of Elder Wansong, an eminent monk.
Coming from Luoyang, Henan, Wansong became a monk at the Jingtu Temple (“Pure Land Temple”) in Xingtai, Hebei Province at the age of 15. After that, he began to travel, specialising in the study of Zen Buddhism. He later returned to the Jingtu Temple and built Wansong Pavilion there, calling himself a “Wild Elder of Wansong,” while the world respectfully referred to him as “Elder Wansong.” Elder Wansong was knowledgeable and versatile, and was known for his thoroughly alarming speeches. When the capital of the Yuan Dynasty was established in Beijing, Emperor Shizu and his valued minister Yelü Chuchai approached and honoured the monk as a tutor in Yanjing (present-day Beijing). They talked about the Buddhist classics and the Great Way; and played zithers and chanted tunes. Following their three years as disciple and tutor, Emperor Shizu gave the ancient zheng (a musical instrument) and the score to “Tragic Wind” kept in Chenghua Hall to Elder Wansong as gifts. After Elder Wansong passed away, this 16-m octagonal, nine-eaved brick pagoda with its plain yet delicate style was built to commemorate the favoured monk.
Zhuanta Hutong, named after the pagoda, was a lively centre of opera activity in the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.
During the Yuan Dynasty Zaju Opera was particularly popular, with over 30 troupes, musical households and goulan (“performance venues”) in Zhuanta Hutong and the nearby Qianchuan and Yudai Hutong, gongs and drums sounded all day long. “Goulan” referred to the theatres which staged Zaju Opera, complete with a stage, theatre room and shrine. Large goulan could accommodate thousands of people. During the Qing Dynasty, Zhuanta Hutong was also used as the camp for the gun team of the rightwing Han army under the supervision of Shenjiying (“Divine Engine Division”). Not long after that, “the forest where songs were sung” reappeared. In 1900, when the Allied Forces of the Eight Powers invaded Beijing, Zhuanta Hutong gradually resumed its serenity.
Among those who had built an inextricable bond with Zhuanta Hutong include no shortage of celebrities. It was here that Lu Xun, renowned modern Chinese writer, wrote “Blessings,” “Soap” and many other works and where Zheng Henshui, a writer of the Mandarin Duck and Butterfly School, passed away.
This inextricable bond with the hutong may have been something predestined. In Beijing's hutong, great and small loom the shadows of many famous figures.
Chengxiang Hutong (“Prime Minister Alley”), a horizontal street, is situated in the Xuanwumenwai area. The hutong takes its name from its resident Yan Song
(1480–1567, infamous Ming Dynasty official). Behind the Bell Tower, shaded by Chinese scholar trees is Doufuchi Hutong, once the home of Yang Changji, modern Chinese ethicist and educator, and his daughter Yang Kaihui, modern Chinese revolutionist. Walking along Shichahai Lake, one can reach the former residences of Soong Ching Ling, modern Chinese politician and social activist; and scholar and writer Guo Moruo. And on the subject of Beijing-style writers, the prominent writer Lao She lived in the depths of Xiaoyangquaner Hutong. The hutong was also where many of his stories took place, such as Four Generations under a Roof.
Enamoured by Siheyuan Courtyards
“I live in just a corner of this large courtyard, in the northwest corner. But this corner is not small. It's a three-row courtyard, and for the very first time I feel that artistic conception of ‘a deep, deep, deep courtyard'.” Much as Ji Xianlin (1911–2009, prominent historian and writer) had felt, the hutong is not only the very essence of Beijing, but also the abodes of its ordinary citizens. It is “tranquillity found amid noise.” Each of these many hutong is like a museum of folk custom and habit, that have been left with the marks of the livelihood of the marketplace, fresh and active. The harmonious and joyful relationships amid neighbours are fully embodied in the hutong of Beijing.
Most of the main hutong buildings are “siheyuan courtyards,” though many have since become “mixed courtyards.” A siheyuan courtyard is a kind of enclosed residence which consists of four buildings symmetrically opposed in the cardinal directions. The architectural style, scale and décor of a quadrangle courtyard follow strict hierarchy restrictions. Complexity and size is also based on the social status of the owner. High-ranking officials and wealthy merchants mostly live in large siheyuan courtyards with fastidious buildings, finely painted columns and beams, and gardens. Famous courtyards, such as Prince Gong's Mansion and First- Order Prince Rui's Mansion, are representative of the large siheyuan courtyards for nobility. Quadrangle courtyards for more common people are relatively simple and decidedly smaller structures. Generally, the courtyards usually face south, having multiple rows of houses.
The ideal courtyard life was said to involve “a shed, a fish tank and a pomegranate tree; a master, a fat dog and a fat maidservant.” “The courtyard must be very large, with several small fruit trees planted near the walls. Except for a track of long and square land, the courtyard should be flat and free of grass, offering enough room to practice Shadow Boxing.” Lao She wrote in his prose, “Plant flowers and grasses in other places, none precious or cumbersome, but giving exuberant foliage and flowers. There should be at least one speckled cat in the house and one or two pots of goldfish in the courtyard. Hang a small cage from a small tree, where two or three green crickets sing as they may.”
”One can enjoy flowers in spring, stay cool in summer, taste fresh fruits in autumn and enjoy precious stores in winter.” In a siheyuan courtyard, one sees the four seasons alternate. Just like the assortment of auspicious patterns engraved in the quadrangle courtyards, the presence of “fu” (blessings) in bianfu (bats) and the Chinese character “shou” (longevity), alongside a vase of Chinese roses representing “safety in all four seasons” and other symbols reflect a yearning for a better life.
With the passage of time witnessing both triumph and challenge, the hutong, whether in the past or the present, have been where many people have lived their lives, closely associating with each other. They still glow with the multifarious colours of life. Truly, Beijingers have indelible feelings about hutong.
Within these street blocks, lanes and courtyards, resides the soul of old Beijing. Inside that soul is Beijing's most authentic historical culture and marketplace living. Even the most detailed oral or written account is no substitute for a trip to Beijing's hutong in person. Only by wandering down these streets and alleys can one trace the history that courses through these streets. You may just discover ever greater wonder.
Liulichang Cultural Street
A bicycle shop on Wudaoying Hutong
Nanluoguxiang, a traditional residential area that preserves the lane layout of the Yuan Dynasty
A western-style restaurant at Dongjiaominxiang
Tower of Elder Wansong on Zhuanta Hutong
Siheyuan, a kind of traditional dwellings in Beijing