Tag Archives: Hutong

Forbidden city

“Welcome to Beijing and the smog” greeted a cheeky driver at the airport. It was cold and I figured it was the cold air that created the ‘cloudy’ atmosphere. At 4.30 in the morning, I was unable to understand the magnitude of the driver’s claim. We arrived at our hotel in the Dongcheng district around 6.00 am. Fortunately, they checked us in without any charges or delays. That was great.

This area is close to not only a subway station but also the popular Wangfujing Street and walking distance to the iconic Forbidden City. We had not slept since departing Auckland (14 hour flight and transit) and the 17 hour transit in Kuala Lumpur. However, we were ready to explore the ancient, but rapidly urbanising and modernising, city of Beijing.

Beijing or formerly known as Peking, had existed since 1045BC during the Western Zhou period and was named Jin City. It was in 1644, during the Qing Dynasty, it became known as Beijing, Northern Capital. It is the last of the four ancient capitals of China. The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949 by Mao Zedong.

Construction began in 1406 under the auspice of Emperor Yongle, when he moved his capital to Beijing. The Imperial Palace was the centre of power for 24 emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties. It had survived for nearly 600 years.

The thick smog was evident as the day broke. The sun was completely blocked by the thick smog. The reading today was 220 (it was 400 the day before!). It was really bad. I had anticipated that in winter, air pollution would escalate due to burning of coal for heating. Part of the population had masks on. The weather was mildly cold, although at minus 6 degrees C.

As we approached one of China’s iconic structures, the Forbidden City, it began to snow. Temperature plummeted. I was inadequately dressed and felt cold, just manageable. Long lines of people queued along the road to be inspected and bags x-ray. Finally we arrived at the south entrance, the Tienanmen Tower (Gate of Heavenly Peace). All visitation to this ancient building began in the South and ended in the North (although quieter side entrances allowed for entrance and exits). The entrance is guarded by two stone lions and on the gate, with a large portrait of Mao Zedong above an archway. The plus side of travelling in winter is, less crowded. There was a heavy presence of uniformed and informal police. Across the busy boulevard, is the vast open concrete floored Tienanmen Square. In the hazy weather, Soviet styled building blocks scattered around the square was like a mirage.

We crossed over one of the several intricately carved white marble bridges to enter through Tienanmen Gate under the watchful eye of Mao.  Today with 40 yuan, anyone enter this ancient city. In its hay days, any outsider caught entering without permission will be executed, hence, the Forbidden City. We walked along the main axis towards Meridian Gate. This was a very imposing structure, maroon wall with pagoda-like roofs with glazed yellow tiles. Very impressive indeed. On the left is a park, Zhongsan Park.  We purchased our ticket and moved on through the Meridian Gate (Wumen).

The continuous light snowfall accumulated on the ground added some contrast against the black tiles on this huge square. A meandering river (partially frozen), the Inner Golden Water River cut through the square. Five marble bridges permitted movements across the river. Beyond that is the Gate of Supreme Harmony (Tàihémén). Two bronze lions guard the entrance. Although a dull day, the multitude of colours emanated from roof tiles, red columns and patchwork of colours of ceilings, beams and fascia were fascinating.  The intricate joinery and designs were intriguing. All made from timber. I can imagine the sights on a sunny and clear blue sky day. It would indeed be a spectacle.

Beyond that, through a large open space is the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian).  This is the ceremonial centre of imperial power. The wooden structure with two-tiered yellow roof tile is elevated above the ground set onto a marble foundation. The centre marble steps with dragon motif engraving leading to the hall is reserved for Emperor. The golden throne, on raised platform, is adorned with a variety of furnishing. Engraved dragons, painted in gold, coiled around six columns.  The ceilings are wonderfully and richly painted with intricate designs. Everything here shouts authority, status and glamour. An impressive sight indeed, such opulence. This hall is also the largest wooden structure in China.

Workers continually maintained the grounds. Away from the main thoroughfare, it remained quiet and allowed for quiet contemplation. I was barely managing the cold. Walking through this city will certainly require a good part of the day. This would enable one to see many of the buildings that lie on both side of the main axis.  Varying doorways; sculptures; windows and doors; ceilings and wall; rooftops; all ornately carved and intricately designed. Then , there are the pavilions and courtyards to explore and reminiscent of the opulence days of the  Sons of Heaven. An interesting feature must be the gargoyles, designed to drain water away from the buildings. The engravings on stone and marble including the balustrades, all contributed to the grandeur of this city. There are numerous pathways, alleyways and buildings to negotiate.

Some of the side entry paths were closed. However, there are numerous buildings to discover and admire, especially the architecture and history. How can names like these not be intriguing – Arrow Pavilion, Imperial Medicine Room, Screen Wall of Nine Dragons, Hall of Imperial Supremacy, The Palace of Benevolent Tranquility, Hall of Pious Earnings, Palace of Earthly Tranquility, Hall of Abstinence and so on.

Now, we were really rubbing shoulders with the Ming and Qing. Back home, I am currently watching some ancient Chinese movies on early dynasties and life in early China. Roaming amongst these wonderful buildings, I can almost see the Emperor, the son of Haven, in his fine robes, army officers fully kitted with swords and amour and the red robed scholars with their fancy hats. All living within the confines of this outer city. The inner city, is reserved for the Emperor and his ‘family’ including the wives, concubines, eunuchs and helpers. The ladies, in fine silk and costumes, walking around the imperial gardens, in the south, gossiping and plotting their next moves. We exited the city through Gate of Divine Prowess (Shénwǔmén), the northern gate. The moat was frozen and the corner turret look cold and alone. Beyond this gate, is an artificially created hill, Jingshan Park.  Great views of the Forbidden City, weather and smog permitting!

The inner and outer city, forming the grand Forbidden City is a city within a greater walled Imperial City which is within a greater outer wall. Built according the numerology, astrology and Feng Sui, an impressive sight indeed. More importantly, a museum of significant historical and cultural heritage to not only China but mankind. An era gone by.

Beijing Courtyard Experience

Our courtyard experience was Double Happiness Sihe Yuan (Bei Jing Yue Wei Zhuang Si He Yuan) on Dongsi 4th Alley. It is about 250 years old. This is a converted Siheyuan. Upon entering the entrance doorway, dark narrow pathways meandered through long corridors (with low lit lights and wall hangings), we reached an open courtyard. Rooms lined along all four sides of the courtyard. Looks like, the Siheyuan is miniature version of the Forbidden City and ancient walled cities – they are completely enclosed within the walls for safety and privacy. This courtyard residence used to be the house of an ancient scholar and dignitary, Mr. Ji Xiaolan during the Qing dynasty, it is built in the typical, old Beijing architectural style with a compound of quadrangle courtyards. Modern plumbing and heating had replaced the old. The rooms were fabulously decorated, inviting open courtyard and very comfortable. It is an essential hutong and courtyard residence experience.

Beijing Hutong

Hutongs around Beijing were believed to be built during the Yuan Dynasty around 1274 AD after Kublai Khan choose Beijing (then known as Dadu) the capital. The word Hutong was derived from the Mongolian word ‘hottog’ meaning ‘water well’. Subsequently, dwelling flourished around these water wells. These constructions continued through subsequent dynasties. Amongst these dwelling was the present day Siheyuan or commonly known as quadrangular courtyard residences.

Today, they are walled building blocks through a maze of tree lined lanes. They have survived for over 800 years and therefore is a cultural heritage of Beijing.  Having survived through these periods of uncertainty, after the founding of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949 and more recently in the last two decades, many of the old hutongs were demolished and replaced with modern high rise buildings and apartments. It is a rapid demise of history and sadly the displacement of its people. Demolishing the hutong means the desecration of history and civilization? The hutongs told stories of the past, from one dynasty to another.

Several families lived in close proximity. Thus, enhancing family bonding. The relationships amongst people living in hutongs is much more connected that those living in modern Beijing. Some buildings are dilapidated yet gave comfort to the tenants. With policies, governing renovations and rebuilding, not all tenants are getting a good deal. For instance, proper plumbing and sanitation, there are several shared public toilets. Another is heating systems. They are still unavailable in certain residences. Hence, I could smell and see the burning of coal for heating this winter. This contributed to the already polluted Beijing air.  I can see the people’s reluctance to leave the hutongs, although needing renovations and upgrades, they feel at home and a sense of community prevailed amongst the residences. It is a slow-paced lifestyle. A contrast from the din of the modern metropolis just a few hundred meters away. Men gathered to play cards and board games; kids played without a care in the world and the treacherous motor vehicles; doors half opened with goods for sale. The seller is nowhere to be seen. There is trust; vegetable stalls are spread out onto the narrow roads; meat sausages and corn cobs hung from window sills to dry in the cold air.

At some hutongs, a complete transformation, made for tourist! Bright lights and busy shops sold from handicrafts, bars, ornaments to eateries and fast food outlets. Foreign chain stores names had already been embraced here. These hutong streets were crowded with both local and foreign tourist. This included hutongs streets of Nanluogu Xiang (南锣鼓巷) (South Lugou Alley), Yandai  Xiejie (烟袋斜街),(Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street), hutongs surrounding the Drum and Bell Towers and Sichahai and Behai Lake. Any side road off the modern main street like Wangfujing, would lead to several hutongs. However, the street activity of these not-so- touristy hutongs in winter is limited. Coming off Wanning Bridge in Sichahai, Mao’er Hutong (帽儿胡同) is an interesting alley. Several famous people came from here including Wan Rong, the last empress of China, wife of Emperor, Puyi. There is also a cat filled cafe of sorts. It was a little weird for me. All roads seemed to lead to Nanluogu Xiang. Doncheng district is a great area to discover hutongs either by walking or cycling. Alternatively, there are many willing pedicab tour operators. There is a great free walking tour operated by Beijing Walking. We unfortunately missed the tour.

Another great place is the area surrounding the Drum and Bell Towers. There will be pedicabs waiting for you. Climb up the towers to get a perceptive of the hutongs nearby and the not-so-distant skyscrapers on the horizon. It is a maze of narrow roads with bicycles and motorized bike wheezing past. Little open areas allow people to gather, meet and play games. There was even some exercise equipment at one outside the Bell Tower wall.

After visiting the Forbidden City, we walked along the near empty street along the moats, Beichizi Street. There are many side roads that led to hutongs, perhaps and interesting walk of discovery. However, during winter, many activities are subdued. Generally, the closer the buildings, the higher the status of the occupant, in relation to the palace, the Forbidden City. Another area we explored is just outside the west gate of Temple of Haven. As Chinese New Year was approaching, sales of mainly local produce were brisk. Generally, all areas along the perimeter of the Forbidden City is a good choice. Getting lost is great and is completely safe to wander.

Generally, doors are painted red with lion door knockers. Entrance door is guarded by carved stone, generally rounded or rectangular. They are intricately carved with different features, mainly animal figurines and symbols. These features told the story of its occupant.  These ‘mendun’ are basically mounts to secure the door frames onto the buildings. Merely passing through, I did notice differences between doorways – the steps, roof tiles, varying width, characters on the ‘mendun’ and rooftops, amongst others. However, what it meant, I have no idea. I suppose in the old days, the better or bigger looking; more ornately designed perhaps meant higher up the political and social hierarchy. Size mattered!

New China has no place for Hutongs as the occupy prime real estate. With an expanding population and increased demand for accommodation, forced demolition of buildings and relocation of its residents are all to common even with regulations to keep these iconic hutongs. Hence, old Beijing is disappearing. Almost three quarter had been converted in modern and characterless buildings. It is unfortunate that tourism is keeping these historic dwellings from destruction. Historic relics in the form of structures or inscriptions may be lost forever.

At the Dongsi hutongs in the Dongcheng area, walking from the 14th alley to the fourth alley, a policeman stood at each entrance. Is it for safety or just keeping “trouble makers” subdued? On fourth Alley, nearby my courtyard hotel, one large building was almost abandoned except for a few residents. Posters on the wall seemed like eviction notice. Maybe, a renovation notice. I can’t be sure, but why a few residents had remained and police presence? Whether, in the name of preservation or retention of cultural values, I hope that these old-world charms of Beijing remained for all to experience and witness the layers of history written within the fabrics of the old buildings and its residences. The future however is, at least, murky.