Hidden Hutongs: A Peek Into Old Beijing by Pedicab (VIDEO)
Compelling and complex, Beijing, China is a city of contrasts, where modern skyscrapers tower over ancient imperial monuments, and where evidence of China’s dramatic and ever-evolving history can be found at every turn. With over 3,000 years of history to its name, Beijing boasts numerous cultural landmarks, from the UNESCO-listed Forbidden City and the Great Wall to Tiananmen Square and the mausoleum of Mao Zedong, each illustrating the many empires and individuals that made an impact on this multi-faceted capital.
But there’s far more to Beijing than the remnants of its grand imperial past or Chairman Mao’s legacy. Tucked away beneath the city’s most impressive attractions, one can still find a slice of real Chinese life in the hutongs, or narrow alleyways, that make up the heart of old Beijing.
Here’s a glimpse of some of the sights and sounds you might find in Beijing’s vibrant hutong neighborhoods, seen from the backseat of a pedicab.
A maze of winding streets and centuries-old courtyard homes, these traditional neighborhoods are full of unique character from an era before highways and high-rises. Bicycles and rickshaws squeak past crowds on foot; performers and peddlers call out to passersby; the scent of steamed dumplings, savory noodles and fried snacks waft from food stalls; and the older generations still gather in the streets to play mahjong and gossip over the day’s events.
Under Kublai Khan’s direction, Beijing was laid out into a chessboard-like grid, with rows of interconnecting siheyuan, or courtyard homes, forming the building blocks of the city. The wider avenues, or jie, in between were reserved for horses and larger modes of transportation, while the narrower alleys, the hutongs, were for pedestrian use only.
This system made it easier for Beijing to be divided into organized administrative precincts, but the more compact city design also allowed for easier management of the city’s water wells and sewage systems, greater security within the city districts, and more convenient ways of passage for both residents and trading caravans.
Hutong neighborhoods during this time became an emblem of Chinese social order: aristocrats and high-ranking officials were housed closest to the emperor, while commoners and laymen were diverted to the outskirts of the city.
Hutongs were also relegated special functions that had a significant impact on the city’s development: Chaoyangmen, for instance, became a major factory and warehouse zone, while Qianmen, the old gated street once used by traders entering the inner city, developed into a popular pedestrian shopping district lined with lively storefronts, street markets, theaters and tea houses.
At the beginning of the Ming dynasty in 1368, there were an estimated 110-500 hutongs in Beijing; by the beginning of the 20th century, that number had skyrocketed to almost 4,000.
The economic reforms of the late 1980s and early 1990s sparked a massive real estate development boom in Beijing. As a result, many of the hutongs were demolished to make way for new apartments and shopping centers, as well as the city’s subway system. After Beijing won the bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games, the city went on a headlong rush to tear down what remained of the old neighborhoods. It’s estimated that only a third of Beijing’s original hutongs are still standing today.
In recent years, the Chinese government has set aside 25 city center areas as protected cultural and historical zones, which has saved dozens of hutongs from demolition. Many hutong dwellers wanting to keep a piece of Beijing’s backstreet communal culture alive have begun restoring their courtyard homes, which has inspired others to do the same.
Younger generations have also fallen in love with the quiet, laid-back lifestyle of the hutongs. A growing wave of Beijing residents are seeking out homes here as an alternative to the drab modern high-rises cropping up all over the city. These newcomers have transformed the hutongs into a funky blend of traditional mom-and-pop stores and trendy hangouts, with dozens of art galleries, cafes, restaurants and even craft breweries added to the mix.
Despite new developments, life in the hutongs still unfolds as it has for centuries. Today, the people that live here, both old and young, are learning how to find a balance to ensure that this historic piece of Beijing’s history stays alive for generations to come.
Discover Old Beijing & China with MIR
MIR has more than two decades of experience planning personalized tours to China. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise has twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
You can take a tour of China’s fascinating hutongs on a custom private journey, handcrafted to your preferred dates of travel and interests. MIR specializes in personalized, private journeys, and we’d love to take your ideas and weave them into a trip tailored especially for you. Travel wherever, however, and with whomever you like, relying on our expert assistance.
Top photo: A ride through a vibrant hutong neighborhood in Beijing, China. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta
PUBLISHED: January 25, 2017