At the Foot of the Palace Walls
Traversing Hutongs of Xidan
By Zhirui Guan
noun (plural same or hutongs)
a narrow lane or alleyway in a traditional residential area of a Chinese city, especially Beijing.
Chinese 胡同hútòng, probably from Mongolian gudum.
[Courtesy of New Oxford American Dictionary]
“[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he hutongs are quiet,” says Amy Cheng ‘19, referring to the narrow alleys of the Xidan and Xisi neighborhoods where each of us attended high school. “You notice the difference when you suddenly turn into one of them from the busy street.” Indeed, the hutongs that course through Xidan and Xisi are a respite from the city din, with tall Chinese scholar trees casting shadows that ripple in the summer breeze.
No tourist to Beijing leaves without visiting Xidan—the commercial hub and business center right off the northwestern end of Chang’an Avenue, the city’s central axis. Two subway stops to the east lies Tiananmen Square; hop on one of the many buses heading north, and an iconic postcard of “Old Beijing” unfolds—Park of the North Sea with its iconic white Buddhist tower, the Forbidden City and the Imperial Garden renowned for its peonies in late spring.
Xidan North Street offers a cityscape with glossy skyscrapers and slender overpasses. Shopping centers such as Joy City Mall assert their towering presence on either side of the avenue. Every morning around 10:00 am, a small crowd wells up in front of their gates awaiting entrance to the megastores.
The two major hutongs that connect the Experimental High to Joy City are Piku(皮库) and Damucang (大木仓). The Qing dynasty’s royal household used Piku (“leather storage”) to house leather goods. Throughout Beijing, names of streets and hutongs evoke their imperial Chinese functions and histories, and Xidan, a neighborhood literally “at the foot of the palace walls,” is no exception. Historical sources identify “Damucang” as the phonetic derivation of “Damochang”— “the polishing factory,” another facility employed by the late Qing regime.
Traversing from Damucang and Piku hutongs to Xidan shops transports the pedestrian from mostly single-story brick walls to neon-colored storefronts. Cars seem incongruous and move cumbersomely through the hutongs, stopping constantly to make way for people and bikes, but out here, on this busy thoroughfare saturated with fresh visual and sensual stimulus, one wishes to walk faster and see further—so as to feel, grasp and take in more of one’s surroundings. What was once designated as the royal storage area now provides space for thousands of microscopic proletarian projects per day—cosmetic stores, clothing boutiques, brightly-lit cafés and restaurants quench the modern consumer’s every desire.
Living and going to school in the Xidan area, I never have to go out of my way for anything—everything I could ever want is literally right before me: had I needed new clothes, I could go to Xidan; had I been sick, the prestigious Xiehe Hospital stood right outside my high school gate; had I wanted a new phone case—Xidan; KTV—Xidan; books—Xidan; cinema—Xidan; food—oh my, the food there!
Where tourists came to visit for a day or two, we got to know them like our backyard; where residents of the outer rings of Beijing came for a weekend shopping trip, we came and went imbued with authoritative possessiveness. As Xidan residents we felt like its delights and conveniences fell automatically under our jurisdiction and that if one day they were taken away—look what nonsense I’m speaking!
During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the average lay person in Beijing lived with their family in a siheyuan, a four-sided courtyard. The family, the fundamental social unit of feudal China, withdrew into a four-sided enclosure and became engrossed in its own affairs. The hutongs that lined these four-sided courtyards were therefore not only residential spaces, but unique cultural institutions.
Xu Chengbei, a scholar born and raised in Beijing, notes that hutong life at one point became so self-sustaining that one did not have to step outside to retrieve groceries, conduct business, or meet friends. Each hutong had its unofficial codes of honor and tales of chivalry that were passed on in adult interactions as well as children’s games. He argues that the parochial nature of the neighborhoods comprised by hutongs is connected to the inherent architectural features of the city.
“You never get lost in Hutongs,” Zishi Li ‘18 observes about the neighborhood around Fahua Temple, where she grew up. “They are built with turnings of 90 degrees between each other and go either east-west or north-south. Just take your time and you’ll get to where you’re going—without stepping foot onto the big street outside—even though it might be a different route from before.”
Apart from civilian abodes, imperial architecture also assigned great importance to the recognition and manipulation of the four cardinal directions. The ancient Chinese believed that four noble beasts guarded the Middle Kingdom from four directions to ensure peace and stability; the Ming emperor Zhu Di, under whose reign Beijing acquired its nickname “the square city,” ordered the construction of an imperial palace “seated in the north, facing south” in order to contain its northern “imperial air.” For centuries onward, colloquial Beijing developed a sense of social and familial security within the four walls of its homes and the straight alleys they make up. Emperors came and went, tore down old palace and city walls and built new ones, but the basic structure of Old Beijing remained the same.
I was able to find many photos of the system of city walls and gates that became the quintessential portrait of Old Beijing cityscape. Writers who lived through the establishment of modern China often wrote about those walls with nostalgia. Many, like Liang Sicheng, praised the walls’ architectural ingenuity and the expert craftsmanship of ancient engineers; others like Xu Fuxi expressed anxiety over the proximity of modernity to the ancient brick screens.
Immediately after the birth of The People’s Republic of China in 1949, architects and urban planners were commissioned by the central government to modernize Beijing. “I want to see puffing chimneys on the horizon from where I stand on Tiananmen tower,” Mao said in 1949. The industrialization he called for became a reality during the early years of the PRC, when the Liang-Chen Proposal was inaugurated. Designed by architects Liang Sicheng and Chen Zhanxiang, the policy supported the careful preservation of the city walls as cultural relics outside which the central government’s administrative facilities could be built. The city’s square walls collapsed with the proposal’s rejection. A walled Beijing, whose four sides pushed the architectural components of the city into straight hutongs and avenues, thus suffered major detraction.
Or did it?
In the subsequent decades Beijing open up, its ring roads surrounding an ancient core with concentric loops.
More space is claimed and a modern metropolis is born, but in the city’s center, in a neighborhood called Xidan, the notion of “Old Beijing” manages to persist, unbeknownst by those who live like they had never left the neighborhood’s history behind.
Those who possess the exclusive familiarity with Xidan start to sound like the previous generation that reminisces about hutong culture of a pre-modern Beijing—our lazy Beijing drawl fading into the bustle of another market day.
Zhirui Guan ‘19 is a sophomore in Hopper College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.