Home Sweet Hutong

Posted by Jenny Huang on 5/16/2018

            It is without a question that China is full of rich history and culture. There are hundreds of temples and traditional buildings to visit, but Beijing prides itself in having lots of hutongs. A hutong is a traditional street or alley that is common in northern China, especially Beijing. Hutongs are created by the sides of the siheyuan, which are the traditional style courtyard houses. With the rapid and constant growth of Beijing, it is easy for people to overlook the hutongs, especially because they are quite narrow and humble looking. If you take a walk down one, however, you will be engulfed by the rich culture that has been preserved.

            A couple weekends ago I was invited to the Shiijia Hutong Museum by my friend who was giving tours there. The museum, which was located right in the hutong itself, was small but gave the detailed history of the hutong village, the life of the people who used to live there, and the school that was home to great scholars, diplomats, and more. I learned a lot about hustings and hutong culture that afternoon.

            The little hutong neighborhoods are very quaint and relaxing, which is quite different than the other bustling streets of Beijing. The branches of many trees in bloom sway over the tops of the courtyard walls, vendors sell various items from their small bikes, people play chess outdoors on little tables, and happy dogs roam about the alleyway. The way that the city was built around the hustings reminded me a lot of Manhattan. The grid-like organization of buildings and streets make it easy to navigate. The courtyard of the hutong, which is the 24th hutong neighborhood in the city, used to be home to a famous Chinese painter and writer named Ling Shuhua, and another writer, Chen Xiying. The hutong was also home to several other famous people, including a popular theater group, military officers, Communist Party members, and diplomats! One interesting thing about the Shijia Hutong is that it has a north facing courtyard entrance, rather than the typical south facing entrance, which blocks the cold winds and allows better lighting inside the homes.

            The most unique experience that I had when learning about the hutongs was the “Sounds of the Hutong.” We entered a room that played audio of what one would hear if they were to be standing in a hutong in the past. Sounds of birds tweeting, street vendors calling out the goods they had to offer, and the tune of traditional songs all overlap. It really brings you to the hutong neighborhoods, and you can easily imagine yourself in that environment. Other sounds included someone calling out the time of day. It was explained that the time would be called out every two hours back then, which was very intriguing.

            Hutongs are an essential key to understanding Beijing culture and lifestyle. Many of them contain special memories, and are even linked to historical events. Hutongs really give us a glimpse of what life was like for people during China’s past. With the growth of Beijing, however, many hutong neighborhoods are being changed into high-rise buildings and apartments. It is important to protect hutongs to preserve the important historical significance of these areas.