From Beijing with Love: Experiencing Hutong Culture

The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, they are just some of the tourist attractions in Beijing.

Beijing, capital of the People’s Republic of China, not only is where the highest political power lies, it is also a center of art and culture.

Hutongs, first established in the Yuan dynasty (1206-1341) and then expanded in the Ming (1368-1628) and Qing (1644-1908) dynasties, were very prominent in Beijing. They are alleys formed by lines of siheyuans, traditional courtyard residences. To make way for new city development, many hutongs in Beijing were demolished since the mid-20th century, while others are designated as protected.

Hutongs signify a part of the Beijing cultural history, particularly that of grassroots Beijingers.

You can find art, food, calligraphy, history and more in hutongs. There are organized tours when you can spend time with hutong residents to learn about their routines and dine at their homes. You may find different families living in different quarters of a courtyard and they take care of each other like families. Though some of the siheyuans are old and rundown, many of the slate, walls and windows are in fact antiques. Hutong is where that you can definitely find history.

One cold winter night a few years ago, I went with a friend to a restaurant in the famous Houhai, the restaurant was located in an old courtyard in the heart of some winding hutongs. We had a private room which merely fitted two – we figured that it might be a storage room in its originality. Even though the electric heater was switched to high in the little room, it was so cold that we rushed to finish with our dinner in 45 minutes so that we could get out of there. I am not remembering whether the food tasted good, but I definitely remembered how cold it was.

On a cold winter day recently, a friend took me to another restaurant in Beijing offering Hutong food. It was nicely decorated with items from the 1960’s and 1970’s, with Chinese string music played, and wonderful food served. We ordered many dishes including mustard duck feet, deep-fried meatballs, sweet black sticky-rice cake, and a lot more. Most importantly, the place was nice and warm, and its servers, nice and warm too.

Hutongs and siheyuans co-existed in Beijing with its high-rises and modern architectures. They are a part of the city’s history which are enjoyed by many.

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