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Hutongs blend ancient era with modern-life

Editor: Li Kun 丨CCTV.com

07-31-2015 15:07 BJT

By Tom McGregor, freelancer based in Beijing

Beijing's cityscape has undergone a dramatic transformation with flashy new skyscrapers popping up all over the metropolis. Consequently, many traditional Chinese dwellings, known as hutongs, are vanishing into the dustbin of history.

Local officials are trying to reverse course and maintain ‘hutong life’ in certain parts of the city. The hutong is an "intimate single-story dwelling where several families live together in a compound sharing a communal kitchen and courtyard," according to the Sydney's Daily Telegraph.

Hutongs have originated from the 13th-14th Centuries of the Yuan Dynasty. Nevertheless, present-day hutongs usually have rooms filled with electric appliances, such as refrigerators, TVs, and computers that are set alongside sleek furniture.

Luring travelers with traditional surroundings

Hutongs have gained wider appeal from Westerners holding a deep appreciation for ancient architecture. However, many Chinese families, who formerly resided in such places, have mixed emotions.

Originally, hutongs were built to cram numerous families into one housing unit, because many Beijingers could not afford to purchase single-family homes. For them,‘hutong life' was a necessity, not a convenience.

However, many hutongs that exist today have been converted into tourist spots. Former hutong residents are now living in spacious apartments. For those who stayed, many have re-opened their homes as hotel rooms for paying guests.

At the moment, the most popular hutong haven is Nanluogo Xiang, located near Houhai Lake inside one of Beijing's busiest districts. The structures from outside convey a ‘traditional feel,’ but step inside and tourists will walk into either a hip clothing store, coffee shop, bar or restaurant.

Thousands of tourists from here and abroad visit the neighborhood daily, while many ride rickshaws to connect with an historical China.

Living the museum dream

The Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau is registering many hutongs to preserve them. One hutong residence in the Dongcheng District, which has stood tall for over 700 years, was remodeled into a museum.

The Shijia Histrory Museum was erected as a joint project between the Chaoyangmen sub-district government and the United Kingdom-based Prince's Charities Foundation China. The construction started in 2011 and completed in August last year. The museum is open to the public – free-of-charge – every Tuesday-Sunday.

Matthew Hu, Prince's Charities Foundation China Beijing representative, told Beijing News, "We follow two fundamental principles on the project:To restore the courtyard as authentically as possible by using traditional Chinese craftsmanship and local materials; and to incorporate as much green technology, geo-thermal for example into the buildings."

Painting to recall bygone days

More and more Chinese are beginning to appreciate traditional architecture all over again. Until recently, the Chinese viewed hutongs only as homes, not as tourism attractions.

Nonetheless, a retired married couple, both life-long Beijingers, - Wu Jinshen, wife; and Jia Yifan, husband – have dedicated their lives to painting hutongs. They published a collection of drawings, ‘Impression of Hutong.’

Before visiting a hutong, the couple conducts research, such as browsing the Internet, reading books, as well as reviewing related documents. Afterwards, they travel to the hutong, take photographs and spend an entire week painting on-site with pen and ink according to their artistic styles.

"I tend to draw according to my own feelings," Mrs. Wu told WomenofChina news. "But my husband is more careful about facts; he draws things based on what they look like."

Bringing hutongs to life in modern world

Many tourists consider hutongs as beautiful relics while wandering down its narrow alleyways they search for signs of the Yuan Dynasty Age. Yet in most cases when peeking inside the rooms, they discover rooms with modern interior designs; decorated as trendy shops to attract the younger generation.

Here's where the old mixes with the new, which could explain the mind-set of China. The Chinese respect ancient traditions, but also enjoy the comforts of today’s lifestyle. Hutongs are combining two different time periods into one setting, which adds to its mystique and charm.


( The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Panview or CCTV.com. )



Panview offers a new window of understanding the world as well as China through the views, opinions, and analysis of experts. We also welcome outside submissions, so feel free to send in your own editorials to "globalopinion@vip.cntv.cn" for consideration.

Panview offers an alternative angle on China and the rest of the world through the analyses and opinions of experts. We also welcome outside submissions, so feel free to send in your own editorials to "globalopinion@vip.cntv.cn" for consideration.


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