Dear Shaded Viewers,
I was leafing through my Beijing photos from my trip in May and realized I had one more post I wanted to share with you before I return there in September. The hutongs (literally, “alleyways”) are the courtyard houses in Beijing, situated mainly in the Dongcheng district. Some of them date back as far as the 12th century, and they’re the best way to experience ancient Beijing. The low, grey brick buildings are all centered around a courtyard, which is hidden from the street. Behind the red gates of the hutong exist private communities, hidden worlds. Dwellers range from the city’s poorer residents (who share communal toilets) to renovated hutong inhabited by rich Communist Party members. Some hutongs have been turned into fun bars and charming restaurants.
There used to be around 6000 hutong throughout the entire city (not just Dongcheng), with the chicest ones located near The Forbidden City–ones that belonged to the Beijing elite. But when Beijing starting modernizing in the ’80s, many hutong were torn down to make room for new apartment buildings and skyscrapers. Fortunately, Beijing’s government has come around in recent years and have realized that the historical hutong are part of the city’s “brand” and now some are protected by law.
Around the Dongcheng hutong district are many important ancient sites, like the Lama Temple, the Confucius Temple, and the Bell and Drum Towers. On my first night in Beijing, my friend Aric, who moved to Beijing from New York two-and-a-half years ago, took me to the Drum Tower, one of his favorite neighborhood spots. Touristy during the day, at night the Drum Tower’s courtyard is full of children playing games and cavorting before the darkened formidable structure as elders listen to old Chinese songs. (Later, during dinner at a terrific Yunnan restaurant in a nearby hutong, Aric was making deliciously dictatorial pronouncements that asserted Beijing’s dominant position in the world and emphasized New York’s steady decline. I christened him the Empress Dowager Cixi of the Drum Tower, and we imagined him imperiously tapping his long painted talons against the ancient stones as he gazed out over his kingdom.)
Tea table in a hutong courtyard
The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was a brutal, shameful time in China’s history that many want to forget. And yet these posters with re-appropriated Cultural Revolution iconography have a branded presence all over Beijing.
Clearly, not all of the hutong are protected by law.
The ancient Bell Tower
View of the Drum Tower from the top of the Bell Tower.
Old and new Beijing: skyscrapers and hutong roofs
Drum performance at the top of the Drum Tower
View of the city’s central axis from the top of the Drum Tower. The axis, which is 7.8 kilometer long, starts at the former outer city wall, goes through Tiananmen Square and ends at the Drum and Bell Towers.
You can only imagine what the public toilets are like in the hutong….however, this “3-star” toilet in the courtyard of the Drum Tower was shockingly clean–something that almost never happens in China.
Qianhai Lake is nestled among hutong
This is a fake hutong wall printed on plastic canvas used in construction sites where they are tearing down or, optimistically, restoring hutong.
The hutong are austere from the outside, but you never know what you’re going to see on the inside until you start snooping around…this not very austere courtyard is probably a restaurant or a hotel.
Statue of Confucius at the Confucius Temple
The Lama Temple
Thanks for reading.