There’s an awful lot of rot talked about the Beijing hutongs – the capital’s network of old alleyways that used to make up the majority of the city. Most of it is retold by stupid foreigners who think that the Sanlitun area with its myriad bars and overpriced restaurants is the height of chic; and when they go to the touristy hutongs around the Drum and Bell towers, many a visitor will have come away with a totally warped idea of what the hutongs were really like.
And that’s why I’m glad I recently discovered a museum dedicated to hutong life and ‘siheyuan’ courtyard homes (that lie side by side and make up a hutong), located at 24 Shijia Hutong, just east of the Forbidden City.
Shijia Hutong itself is now protected for its entire length, about one kilometre in all. Thanks to help from the Prince Charles’ Charities Foundation (that’s the UK’s Prince of Wales, as opposed to any other you may know of), number 24 has been restored at a cost of 5.3 million yuan ($850k) with additional support from the city’s Dongcheng district municipal government, which owns the building.
The creators hope the museum will serve as a celebration of hutong life before it disappears completely; and in the main they have done a pretty good job.
No 24 is actually the former residence of two well-known writers, Chen Xiying and also Ling Shuhua – the daughter of a former Beijing mayor who is perhaps better known among westerners for her friendship with British novelist Virginia Woolf and her ‘special friendship’ with Wolf’s nephew, poet Julian Bell, in the 1930s.
What makes it different from the majority of hutong homes is that visitors enter through a north facing door, whereas most specifically face south to keep out the cold winter winds. From 1958 to 2002, the property was used as a children’s nursery.
Shijia Hutong is also home to the Beijing People's Art Theatre, which was founded in 1952.
The museum’s courtyard is full of crab apple trees and there are numerous chirruping birds in wire cages, which of course the Chinese, as a nation, absolutely love.
UNESCO estimates that 88% of the city’s courtyard homes have been destroyed, while the Global Heritage Fund estimates that only about four percent of Beijing’s more than 20 million residents live in hutongs today.
Beijing’s hutong-based city planning was on a north-south grid pattern that made navigation easy. It also had the benefit of allowing for efficient apportionment and sale of land, along with increased opportunities for commerce and employment within a limited area.
One of the displays is a scale model of Shijia Hutong in 1949.
Among the other galleries are displays highlighting many of the former residents, including Count Preben Ahlefeldt, who established the Danish legation in Shijia Hutong in 1920 and served as its “Envoy Extraordinaire and Minister Plenipotentiary.”
There are many other residents highlighted too, but it’s an awful lot to get through unless you have a passion for the finer details of such people…
There’s even a display of new and old house plates, which I guess might appeal to somebody, somewhere…
One of the most interesting displays is a model of a ‘typical hutong home’ in the 1950s and ’60s and another one showing typical family life in the 1970s and ’80s (replete with a Mao portrait in the centre of the room!).
You can see copies of labour contracts from the 1920s, and faded bus tickets. In the 1950s, there would have been a bed, a table, two chairs and two dressers, all very basic wooden furniture. In contrast, domestic furnishings for a family in the 1970s or 1980s would be more fashionable, with composite furniture.
You can also see some of the necessities of daily living such as food quota certificates and coupons. Most people used coal stoves to provide heating in the freezing winters, and often dressed up in green army uniforms.
Shijia Hutong is also well-known for its links to education. As early as 1724, a private tutoring school for Manchu Chinese only was set up at the western end of the hutong. In the first year of the Republic of China, ‘Zuoyizongxue’ was transformed into the Second Municipal Middle School, which in the 1930s was moved to Neiwubu Street which was one street away from Shijia Hutong. In the later years of the 1930s, Shijia Hutong Elementary School was established in place of the former Second Middle School.
And during the final years of the Qing Dynasty, Shijia Hutong became a place where all students had to go if they planned on studying overseas. In the early 20th century, the Bureau of Educational Missions to the United States, which held examinations to decide who could study abroad, was also headquartered there. It was ‘responsible for selecting, administrating, dispatching and contacting students, and other related affairs’.
Only three groups of students actually took their examinations there. The government had been planning to build Tsinghua Yuan, but while the school was still being built, they held three examinations in Shijia Hutong. After that, the government delegated the responsibility of selecting students to study in the United States to Tsinghua University.
Once you have finished with the inside of the museum, you can also wander through the courtyard to another, smaller courtyard. But don’t be fooled by the pink blossom. It’s fake… though whether that was typical of hutong life, I doubt very much. But who knows?