Getting to know the residents of Beijing
An ancient neighborhood opens its doors to foreign visitors
Hidden away among the chrome and glass of modern Beijing lie the hutongs, a neighborhood of ancient alleys and narrow lanes that have surrounded the Forbidden City for centuries.Skip to next paragraph
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The air is dusty and the sunlight slanted, but the lanes bustle with people - residents taking a stroll, pedicab drivers lurching under their load of overgrown Westerners, and street vendors stridently hawking their wares. "Just one buck," some cry. Others shout: "Three for a buck."
Although Chinese yuan are accepted, American dollars are eagerly grasped. The vendors hold out delicately embroidered purses, frail umbrellas, packs of highly colored postcards, and the ubiquitous baseball caps bearing the Olympic logo and the words "Beijing 2008."
In the hutongs (the word comes from Mongolian, meaning "well," which the early settlers dug to provide themselves with water), life is lived behind blank-faced walls and sturdy doors. Inside, communal courtyards are edged by small, single-level buildings, which sometimes house several families.
First created by Kubla Khan during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), many houses in the hutongs were rebuilt during the Ming (1368-1628) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. They were created by the emperors according to the prevailing class structure, and many of the elegantly carved and painted houses were given to high-ranking officials employed in the Imperial Palace. Small alleys between the courtyards provide access, and also allow light and air to circulate.
I first saw this ancient part of Beijing last October when I visited China with a group. For most of us, this trip was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. "Ni hao. Ni hao ma, (Hello. How are you?) we said to our guides as we milled around waiting for something to happen. We gazed at the brilliant red doors and admired the way flat roofs were used for gardens and patios.
Our first visit was to Mr. Wu, retired from his job at China's Archaeological Research Institute. As a young man, he had bought his house for his growing family. However, during the Cultural Revolution he was sent off to do manual labor in a distant part of China. Although his wife and children were permitted to remain in the house, they had to share with several other families, and Mr. Wu had to continue paying the taxes.
Today, intellectuals are respected again, and Mr. Wu's house is all his own. However, following ancient tradition, he and his wife have now given up some of their space to their daughter and son-in-law. The older couple live in four small rooms.
Both couples share the enclosed courtyard, where squashdangle in the late fall sunshine. Space is tight in the old neighborhood, and many people practice "air gardening," growing flowers and vegetables on metal or bamboo trellises.
In the alleys, which range from 12 feet wide to only 16 inches - forcing people to squeeze into doorways to allow others to pass - groups of elderly residents play cards or Chinese chess. They chat together over small street barrows where food is prepared, and sometimes engage in folk dancing, singing, and group exercise.