Surviving alleyways evoke lifestyle of old Beijing
Chinese writer Lao She (1899-1966) is best-known for his lively descriptions of ordinary life in Beijing’s hutongs, or back alleys, where he lived most of his life.
“I don’t know what paradise looks like,” he once wrote. “From my experience, it must be just like autumn in Beijing.”
Indeed, autumn is still considered to be Beijing’s stellar season, when the Chinese capital brims with fresh fruits, seasonal crab, prime lamb, roasting chestnuts, lingering lotus leaves and crimson maple foliage. Even smoggy skies seem to manage some rare bright blue days.
In the hutongs that remain, older Beijing natives still gather to play chess and chat outside in weather that is neither too hot nor too cold.
The hutongs hark back to traditional life in old Beijing. The disappearance of so many because of urban development has made those that remain something of a tourist attraction. The famous Nanluoguxiang area of alleyways is packed with crowds day and night all year around.
For a less hectic look at life as it was, head for the 600-meter-long Wudaoying alleyway that has managed to retain a cozy, quiet atmosphere.
The alleyway runs along an inner city wall, connecting the Yonghe Palace to the east and Andingmennei Street to the west. Dozens of other alleys fan out from Wudaoying.
The area is just minutes from the Confucian Temple, the Imperial College and Gui Jie, a street famous for its eateries.
Most of these back lanes haven’t changed much over the years, providing a rare glimpse into a bygone era. Though some have become a bit touristy, a day spent strolling the hutongs is a special treat, especially during the refreshing days of autumn.
Wudaoying and other alleyways
The origin of the character for hutong has different versions. Many scholars agree that it derives from the Mongolian character for “water well.”
The alleyways of Beijing first appeared in Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), when the emperor declared the city as the capital and embarked on a plan to build north-south pathways for horses and carts, and east-west lanes for pedestrians.
Locals depended on wells for water, and the wells later became a symbol of residential areas.
Today, there are still more than 1,000 hutongs left in Beijing. Their widths range from a narrow 40 centimeters to about 30 meters. Many are named after their original uses. For example, Qianshi Hutong, meaning “money market lane,” was once an area of early banks in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Wudaoying literally means “five battalions.” The area was a military base in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
For years, it was just one of the thousands of residential alleys in Beijing, but the scene began to change somewhat when the first cafe opened there in 2006.
Within six years, dozens of shops and cafes opened in Wudaoying. Unlike chain brands that began to pop up in other back lanes, the ones in Wudaoying were unique. Many coffee fans still travel from all over the city to the alleyway, which is said to have some of the best food and coffee in Beijing. Eateries are usually tiny, with only five to six seats, and little shops have their own specialties.
The success of Wudaoying has spilled over into nearby alleys, with shops and bars squeezing in beside old courtyard houses where a few families share the same compound.
Fangjia Hutong, or Fang’s Alley, is one of the latest favorites of those who explore the back lanes.
The connected No. 13 and No. 15 buildings in the lane once belonged to Prince Xun, the third son of Emperor Qianlong (1711-99). Now a residential courtyard, it has been rebuilt over the years, but one can still get a glimpse of its past glory from the structure, the pattern and size of the main gate, and the screen wall and the stone stand.
Building No. 46 in the alley was once a large machinery factory that was recently converted into a cultural zone containing a hostel, some shops and a few bars and restaurants. It is right next to the Fangjia Hutong Elementary School, founded more than 100 years ago, where writer Lao She served as headmaster at age 19.
Confucian Temple and Imperial College
Guozijian was the top institution of higher education in China through three dynasties. Also known as the Imperial College, it was not only a school for the best and brightest students from China and abroad, but it also served as the administrative center of the nation’s education.
Built more than 700 years ago, it sits right alongside the Confucian Temple, another significant symbol of Chinese intellectualism since the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220). There, Confucian ideas and texts flourished and enjoyed superior status.
Today, almost every city in China has a Confucian temple, where students still go to pray for good grades before important exams.
The college and the temple have now been combined into a museum tracing the history of the imperial education and exam system and its roots in Confucianism.
Bi Yong Hall in the Imperial College is a unique room surrounded by water. New emperors followed the tradition of holding lectures there for royal officials shortly after assuming power.