Only a few kilometers from the Tiananmen Square in Central Beijing, time seems to have stood still. In the narrow gray alleyways of Beijing's Hutongs (traditional neighborhoods) people still live like they did centuries ago. Beijing's Hutongs are good places to see local life and explore the old Beijing. They should not be missed on your Beijing tour itinerary.
Hotong Culture is one of Beijing's quintessential cultures. In fact, hutongs are the passageways formed by lines of siheyuan (quadrangle--a compound with buildings surrounding a courtyard) where most Beijing residents lived in the old days. One hutong connects with another, and siheyuan connects with siheyuan, to form a block, and blocks join with blocks to form the whole city which centered on the royal palace -- the Forbidden City. Most of the remaining hutongs were formed in the Ming (AD1368-1644) and Qing (AD1644-1911) Dynasties, but some dating back to the Yuan Dynasty (AD1279-1368) can still be found.
There are two kinds of hutongs in Beijing, one is the so-called regular hutong where imperial kinsmen and aristocrats lived, they are near the palace and arranged in an orderly way along the streets. While another kind was for ordinary people and merchants, most of this kind are simple and crude and located far from the palace.
Large sections of the hutongs were bulldozed in the 1980s to make room for multi-storey apartment blocks. Some residents were happy to leave the communal washrooms and dilapidated houses, for some residents, whose families have lived there for generations, leaving their homes filled with memories stirs deep emotions. Beijing's Hutongs have more to do with spirit than structure. The government has started to realize that they are part of the city's cultural heritage, and it is not smart to destroy them all and replace them with high rise apartments and shopping malls. The Beijing government has issued plans to preserve the remaining old neighborhoods. Now many of these neighborhoods are protected and are being renovated. Living conditions have been improved, and it can be assumed that the Hutongs and their lifestyles will remain a part of Beijing for generations to come.
Most hutongs are lined by Siheyuan(quadrangles) - inward-facing, one-level family units centered on a shaded, secluded courtyard. From the size and design of the quadrangles, the social status of the residents can be told. Those big and luxury quadrangles built with roof beams and beautifully-carved pillars and equipped with a front yard and back yard were for high-ranking officials and wealthy merchants. On the other hand, quadrangles for common man were far more simple - small gates and low houses.
Life has remained little changed for the last 700 years in Beijing's Hutongs, which is unique, yet rapidly disappearing, in the bustle of Beijing. Stepping into one of them you can find clotheslines, bicycles and all manner of daily life. There are simple workshops that repair bicycles, cigarette shops, and old-fashioned stores selling household items.
People in hutongs, especially the elderly, enjoy like the old houses and lifestyle of the hutongs. Life here is placid, rich and real; the neighborhoods are safe and friendly. They like to hear the voices of the traveling peddlers in the narrow alleyways, and they like roaming the quiet hutongs in the morning and watching children playing happily on the steps in front of the houses. They are happy people who enjoy life to its fullest. During holidays and festivals, they decorate the doors and windows with paper-cuts, red couplets, and red lanterns. It has been a tradition for centuries and a part of daily life.
A day tour through Beijing hutongs will give you an insight into the most authentic Beijing's local life; if you like, it’s also possible to have a meal with a local family in their quadrangle. Are you ready?
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