Beijing today has the same hum of any other 21st century metropolis, with businesspeople chatting on cell phones and plotting their newest deal as they zip past the myriad cranes and building projects that dot this ever-growing city. But if you have a hankering to see a bit of old Beijing – that ancient city of narrow streets and courtyard houses where generations of families passed their lives –you can still catch a fleeting glimpse at one of the city’s hutongs.
The hutongs are the traditional neighborhoods of Beijing and they certainly qualify as an iconic Chinese cultural experience. Although many of the old homes and streets have disappeared beneath a relentless wave of development and construction, a few of the antique neighborhoods have been preserved. Some of these districts date back several centuries and are a link to the city’s architectural history and to a vanishing way of life.
The word hutong actually refers to a 9-meter wide lane, which in old Beijing stood in contrast to the 18-meter wide streets and 36-meter wide avenues of the city. The name is of Mongolian origin and the first of these streets are believed to date to the Yuan dynasty (founded by the Mongol leader Kublai Khan in the 13th century). Along these narrow lanes, Chinese families lived in distinctive courtyard houses known as siheyuan.
All of the hutongs were laid out on an east-west axis, so the homes were built with a south-facing entrance. This not only maximized the available sunlight, but was also considered good feng shui since the south is the yang side and faces heaven, while the north is the yin side and is connected to the forces of the earth. The imperial Forbidden City of Beijing is also laid out according to these principles.
For visitors who want to experience a hutong today there are only two ways to do so – by foot or bicycle. The streets are too narrow to be navigated by most vehicles, so the majority of tours are conducted by rickshaw drivers who pedal visitors through the ancient lanes. Some of the best preserved hutongs are near Tiananmen Square or Beihai Park.
If you’re lucky and you manage to befriend a rickshaw driver, you might even get a more personal glimpse of Chinese life within a hutong. That’s what happened to us when we were in Beijing a few years ago, although our luck was admittedly helped along by having a Chinese-speaking friend with us on that day. In any case, here is a peek at my experience with Beijing hutong residents. (This is excerpted from my travel memoir, Two Laps Around the World.)
We wandered the hutong streets at the leisurely pace of a bicycle ride – with a warm breeze in our face and dust kicking up under the tires – and enjoyed the scenes of daily life in this old section of the city. The small neighborhood shops and the sidewalk food stalls. The teahouses. The men sitting outside around a portable table, intently focused on a game of Chinese chess. The children coming home from school in their identical uniforms. The adults bicycling to the store or home from work. The elderly man fishing in the river with a bamboo pole. The way in which everyone seemed to know each other, as evidenced by the number of people who shouted “hello” to our drivers, who were themselves lifelong residents of this hutong.
Then one of our drivers, Zhou, said he would be happy to show us where he lived, if we were interested. “Yes,” we said, we’d love to visit his home. So he drove us to a ramshackle two-room apartment, with a tiny kitchen and a cluttered living room-bedroom area. There was a television in the corner, two sofas that doubled as beds for he and his wife and, strangely enough, a picture of Mel Gibson on the wall. There was also a small pull-out sofa for their son, who lived with his grandparents and visited on weekends. This is common in the Chinese culture, with many children raised mostly by their grandparents.
Zhou sat us down in his living room and made us a pot of green tea. Then, without asking, he brought me a can of Chinese beer. He told us that he used to be a taxi driver, but that it’s common for taxis to be fined by the police (a fact confirmed for us by another driver) and so it was difficult to make much money. As a rickshaw driver, though, he not only made more money but also had a more interesting time interacting with tourists.
As we were getting ready to end our visit, the second rickshaw driver, Chun, became caught up in the moment and asked if we also wanted to visit his home. Absolutely, we said. So we all climbed back into the rickshaws and drove to another small apartment, this one shared by Chun and his parents.
We completely surprised his mother, who was in the midst of cooking dinner and was somewhat shocked to see her son walk in the door with two Americans and a Chinese woman. But her personality quickly transformed into that of a welcoming grandmother. She served us moon cakes and almond juice, then sat down and talked to us nonstop in Chinese. Thankfully, we had Xiaoqing as a go-between.
The mother told us that she’d lived in this same apartment for 58 years and said we were the first Westerners who had visited her home. She showed us pictures of her grandchildren and said the next time we were in Beijing we should stay with her. At this point, her husband, who had just come in from the other room, reminded his wife that they already lived in a small and crowded apartment that barely had room for their family.
But she laughed and waved him off. She was just thrilled by the experience of having Americans sitting there in her kitchen.
“Next time, our home is your home,” she told us.
The hutongs are well worth a visit. It’s difficult to top the wonder of walking along the Great Wall or viewing the stunning immensity of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, but the hutongs are even more interesting from a cultural perspective. It’s a glimpse of daily life as it’s been lived in Beijing for centuries.
Photo credits: Hutong photo by Kwz via Wikimedia Commons/Second photo provided by Bob Riel.