Touring Beijing's Hutongs

The heart of China’s capital can be found in these neighborhoods while they still exist

By: Kenneth Shapiro

BEIJING Shuxiean Zuo, also know as Madame Zuo, has lived in the same home in central Beijing for 45 years. She raised two kids in her tiny one-bedroom house. She has shared her central courtyard with the same neighbors for most of those years, and she likes the sense of community and continuity in her neighborhood. She pays $10 a month in rent.

To say that Madame Zuo has witnessed dramatic changes in the Chinese capital in the last half a century would be a great understatement. However, one of the biggest changes to Madame Zuo personally is yet to come.

Zuo lives in one of Beijing’s hutong districts. For hundreds of years, these hutong neighborhoods with their distinctive narrow, winding streets lined with walls that hide small houses with inner courtyards have been the heart of China’s capital.

Despite their vast cultural and historical importance, in the next three to four years a significant number of these neighborhoods will be demolished to make way for modern high-rise apartment buildings.

Fortunately for tourists, there is still time to visit the hutongs, and there are several organized day tours to give clients firsthand experience of the hutong way of life.

One such tour is organized by Hello Beijing, which offers walking and pedi-cab tours of the Xuanwu hutong district. Most of Xuanwu was built during the Liao and Jin dynasties, and some streets go back 1,000 years. A visit to the area feels like stepping back in time.

On a recent hosted visit with Hello Beijing, our group whizzed along in pedi-cabs through the labyrinth of narrow alleyways, snaking through crowds of pedestrians and bicycles. Each turn revealed a tableau of daily Chinese life straight out of a postcard. Everywhere we went the hutong seemed to be humming with activity. This is the China your clients always imagined.

The emphasis of Hello Beijing’s tours is as much on these daily routines of the hutong’s residents as on the historical importance of the neighborhood. As the company’s brochure puts it, this tour “is the most informative way of getting to know the local culture and history.”

After sailing along snapping photos for a while, our tour stopped at a local market street, where we left the pedi-cabs behind and strolled through the crowd of shoppers.

There were stands loaded with exotic fruits and vegetables where locals seemed to linger and gossip. But the main attraction was the “Longevity Market,” where in a scene that has probably been repeated here for generations, residents purchased live chickens and picked out cuts from hanging slabs of bright red meat.

From there, we reboarded the pedi-cabs and stopped next at the Da An Lan Ying Kindergarten. Here we looked in on classrooms full of children singing and playing, and even received drawings by some of the kids. The children seemed as curious about us as we were about them.

Along with these stops, Hello Beijing takes clients to historically significant sites in the hutong, such as a 500-year-old mosque and a Ming Dynasty temple, and Dazhalan Street, described in the company’s brochure as the “Fifth Avenue of ancient Peking.”

As we pedaled through the hutong, several houses we saw were marked with small blue signs. According to our guides (who were very knowledgeable and spoke excellent English), these are the houses that will be left standing when the hutong is demolished in the next few years as the city prepares for the Olympics in 2008. Over 4 million people live in Beijing’s hutongs, or roughly a third of the city’s residents, which makes the destruction of the hutongs all the more staggering.

It also makes the highlight of the tour a home visit with actual residents such as Madame Zuo more meaningful, as these residents are witnesses to an way of life on the brink of extinction.

With graciousness and good humor, Madame Zuo welcomed our group behind the walls of the alleyway and into her courtyard and home. Zuo answered questions and told stories of her time in the hutong with our guide as a translator.

We were all happy to note that Madame Zuo’s home was marked with a blue sign meaning it will be spared from the bulldozers; however many of her neighbors will be forced to move.

“The young people like the new high apartment buildings,” Zuo told us. “But for older people like me, it is considered wrong to be living so far from the ground. It is better to be like a tree, and keep your roots near the earth.”