Beijing’s Hutongs

Beijing's Hutongs

One day after class, I was feeling compulsive and decided to go explore Beijing.  I walked out the east gate of Peking University and over to the nearby bus station and got on the first bus that showed up.  After riding on it for about 25 minutes, I got off where fruit vendors lined a busy street, bantering with potential customers.  After walking away from the bustle of the main road, I found myself in the back alleys of Beijing, the lifeblood of the real city—the hutongs.

Hutongs refer to the narrow streets, alleys, and neighborhoods originally created from lines of traditional courtyard residences most notably in the city of Beijing.  Many courtyard homes of ancient China were built by affluent families and housed only one family.  As China’s dynastic era came to an end and national economic conditions faltered, aged hutongs housed many families and declined in social and economic stature.  Today, hutongs represent the historic roots of Beijing and are the heart of local Chinese culture.  Since the founding of the PRC and their push for industrialization, many hutong communities in Beijing have since been razed to make way for highways and highrises, a trend which has only recently been halted as the government moved to protect them and the Chinese cultural history and flavor which they embody.

That day, I aimlessly explored the back streets of Beijing and although many of the hutongs seemed old and run-down,  I frequently ran into new residential developments which are noticeably increasing the standard of living while revitalizing many rough back alley’s of Beijing.

One of the busier Hutong streets, where the dynamic city life of many Beijingers’ unfolds.

Some of the older, more charismatic hutong alleys

A new development in a Hutong Neighborhood

New Residence in a Hutong neighborhood

While walking through the hutongs, I bought pancake-esque bread form this man (pictured below), encountered some construction workers moving buckets of cement, and even a Chinese chess club.

Street Vendor in the Hutongs

I could hear the room long before I reached it—cries erupted from a small room in which 20 people were huddled around a table as two of their members faced off.  My interest caught attention of one of the members who was resting on the periphery, seemingly exhausted from the relentless duels which animated the ravenous onlookers.  She approached me and we started talking; I answered the usual questions such as why I was here, how long I was here for, what I am doing, and what I think of China.  I quickly realized she could speak English very well—a rarity on the street even in Beijing—and she told me it was because she was a middle school teacher.  Our conversation quickly grew as her passing friends stopped to see why a foreigner would be in their neighborhood.  An elderly woman introduced herself as Old Woman Wu, and introduced her small dog, Diu Diu, who was standing attentively by her side.  We all spoke generally about family and Beijing and how they thought it was great and suprising that I was walking through their street; after 25 minutes or so, I exhausted all the conversation my Chinese level allowed me and I told them that when I could speak better, I would return.  We exchanged goodbyes, and I started back down the hutong alley, looking back to see Old Woman Wu holding Diu Diu and waving after me.  On my way back towards the main road, I found a hole-in-the-wall of a barbershop where I got a haircut for 8 yuan (about $1.25) before taking a cab back to Peking University.

Men working on renovation/construction

Walking through the Hutongs

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