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Interview with Yu Meng July 17, 2008

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The facades of many courtyard houses along some of Beijing's oldest hutongs have recently been painted gray by local authorities to make them look more presentable. (Photos by Liu Bowen)

How did you go about gathering information for the Cultural Trail?

The people who live in these neighborhoods are all very warm. I think they have been waiting for their lifetimes to have someone to collect their life stories. That's a good thing. One day, for example, I was just riding my bicycle and I passed an interesting courtyard. I wanted to learn more about it. The building used to be a horse god temple. I happened to run into the former Lama who lived there and he was really willing to talk.


Recent renovations in many hutongs have been carried out in different styles at different points in time. Although they are intended to beautify these neighborhoods, such repairs often look awkward side-by-side. Here, gray and red bricks were used on the facades of buildings on the left-hand side of the street, while gray paint was applied to the buildings on the right-hand side. (Photo by Liu Bowen)

What is the most interesting story you've heard?

I think the most touching story I heard on this Cultural Trail was when I first understood the so-called family of Lamas. Lamas are monks, they don't have--they're not supposed to have--families. They all leave their parents and they don't get married, but they actually do have families who are their apprentices. If a master owns his house, he can even give it to his disciple, like when a father gives his house to his son after he dies.

The man I met was not a Lama anymore, but he still cooked for his master who lives in the Lama Temple. Even though the temple provides meals for him for free, this man and his wife cook every day and bring him food to him three times a day.

I asked him why. He said, "You know, because I want him to eat home-cooking." So he used that word "home-cooking" and I thought, "Why? Why does he consider him as a son?" But he did , even though they would never use the word "father" or "son." And that's something I never would have understood unless I spoke with the people. Without time, hard work, and thinking about it for long enough, that idea would not have come to me. But all of a sudden I realized that's their social relationship with each other. That was the most touching moment for me.


A hutong resident prepares vegetables in her courtyard. (Photo by Liu Bowen)


Meats and fruit left outside to dry in a hutong on a cool November day (Photo by Liu Bowen)

He used to be a monk, then?

Yes, he used to be a monk. That's how he got to know his master.

Is that common, then, to leave the monkhood after a certain period of time?

It's not common, but it happens. I asked him why. He just laughed and said, "I was young, I wanted to get married. I was in my 20s."

So do people typically live along hutongs for many generations or are any younger people moving in?

I think younger people these days prefer living in high-rise apartments and older people are more comfortable with courtyards because it's easier for them to go out. In a one-floor courtyard house, older people don't have to worry about things like taking the steps, you know? And they have a lot of friends there. They're just more comfortable. But there are younger people who also want to live in the hutong neighborhoods. I would like to live in one if I could afford something comfortable enough. It's so much quieter, isn't it? It's always quiet. And you slow down in doing things. It's just more enjoyable living along a hutong.

Is it possible to buy a courtyard house or would you rent one?

Most people can not afford whole courtyards. They're too expensive.

About how much would one cost?

Wow, they can run in the millions!

Well, the hutongs are centrally located, right?

Yes, because they're all in the center of the city--that's why the land is so expensive. But you don't buy the land, you only buy what's on the land.


Colorful "playgrounds" were installed in neighborhoods throughout Beijing when it was announced that the city would host the 2008 summer Games. Residents are encouraged to work out in these areas to show their Olympic spirit. (Photo by Liu Bowen)


A hutong resident puts his bicycle away in a courtyard. (Photo by Liu Bowen)

So you don't have a couple of million yet?

Me? Of course not! [laughs] Well, I could afford to rent a small section of a courtyard, say, one or two rooms. A lot of people are doing that. I plan to do that. A friend of mine is doing that--she just rented two rooms in a courtyard, which is exciting. We're all going to have parties there!

On average, how much would the rent cost?

It can range from about $1,500 to $3,000 per month. The more expensive ones are much more comfortable.

So what's it like to live along a hutong today?

You mean for an older person who has been there all his life or for a younger person like my friend who just moved in?

Could you describe both?

For older people, the hutong is their home: it's where their friends are, it's where they get their daily necessities, it's where they play chess, it's where they chat with their old buddies. For older people, it's everything for them, I think.

But for younger people who--like for my friend and me--want to move to a hutong neighborhood, it's because we want to get closer to tradition. We want to have a quiet living environment because living along a hutong is so much quieter than living in a high-rise apartment. Usually, the high rises are right next to a highway or busy street--they're conveniently located, but it's so noisy. So, having a very quiet living environment...and also your view is not blocked [because all the surrounding buildings are low, too]. And the well-protected neighborhoods in the Old Town are also in the most fun parts of Beijing. There are a lot of bars and clubs. If you live in the Old Town and if you go home late, you don't have to worry about it! That's another reason.

Are the courtyard houses modern inside? Do they have heat or running water?

Yes, some do. There are also some that don't, where you still have to burn coal for heat. It all depends on how much you are willing to pay and how lucky you are if you can find the kind you want.

Does everybody share a kitchen, or does each unit have a kitchen?

Every family has their own kitchen. It all depends on what kind of kitchen you get, you know? Some of them are makeshift kitchens, but they're still kitchens. The families don't cook together...

Besides the building boom that began in the mid-1990s, what are some of the other threats that hutongs face?

Widening the streets is another major reason for hutongs' disappearance. That's the same in the States--you lose things because you want to build a highway. And in Beijing, because there are so many cars, they have to widen the streets.

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The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center's Cultural Trail highlights lesser-known places of interest, such as a former Japanese prison from World War II (left) and a Soviet-era apartment complex (right). (Photos by Liu Bowen)

I don't think there are enough streets for as many cars as there are in Beijing!

I know, so exactly! Beijing is a big parking lot! See, it's hard to believe neighborhoods like this still exist unless you live there.

The automobiles are really another threat to hutong life--because you can't have kids and older people doing whatever they want to do in the hutongs. The streets are so dangerous now with all the traffic. But in the past, when there were no cars, children played in the hutongs and older people walked around.

What are some traditions or some special parts of life that are unique to living in a hutong neighborhood?

There are a lot of veggies in hutongs--for example, gourds. When they're young, you can eat them. And when they get old, you can use them to wash dishes. It's organic!

Traditionally, Beijing folk really enjoyed planting flowers and they had all sorts of them in their yards. They also had persimmon and Chinese date trees. They really knew how to enjoy life, just enjoy the lifestyle, you know?


Hutong residents use gourds in two ways. When the vegetables are young and ripe, they eat them. When they're old and hard, they use them to scrub dirty dishes. (Photo by Liu Bowen)


Leafy green vegetables are stacked up outside this courtyard house so they keep cool in the winter. (Photo by Liu Bowen)

What else is special to these neighborhoods?

Pigeons used to be an important part of the folklore and the folk culture in Beijing. There are many different breeds and some of them are really, really expensive. And they have different whistles on them.

Like their voices?

No, no, no. You attach a whistle to the pigeon, so when it flies, you can hear the pigeon whistling. There's a whole culture surrounding pigeons. In the past, it was a big thing for a lot of people in Beijing. They used to compete with each other, to show what kind of pigeon they had, and that kind of thing. Especially a lot of noble people. That's something that's still preserved here.

People still have their traditions. I mean, traditions actually die hard, you know? In a good way and in a bad way, too. Sometimes you think a tradition is dead, but then you see it come back when the seasons change.

What else?

Besides pigeons? You know, the birds, they's called "walking the birds." You see a lot of older guys, they have their birds and when they go to a park, they all hang their birds in a tree and they chat and do all those things. You can still see old people with a cage and a bird in it. That was also part of the old hutong culture--and it still is today.

And I think cats are important culturally in hutongs. You always see cats on the roofs of courtyard houses. You can't miss them.

Do they have any symbolic meaning?

Cats? I think they're just pets and they like to stay on the roofs. But that's true everywhere, right? Or only in Beijing? Here, they like to stay on roofs so they can look down!


A decorative sculpture was once set in the now-empty rectangular space above the entrance to this hutong. It was ordered to be removed and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. (Photo by Liu Bowen)


Neighbors shop and get their daily necessities along this commercial hutong. (Photo by Liu Bowen)

I think the roof part may be specific to Beijing...

Yes, I mean, this kind of [pitched, terracotta-tiled gray] roof is specific, too. And there are certain kinds of cats that are very common in Beijing. They're orange and white. You see a lot of such cats here, a lot...

And bicycles. You know, because they're so narrow, hutongs are ideal places for riding a bicycle, not really an automobile.

I think another thing in most hutong neighborhoods is that in the winter, people still use coal as for heat. They don't use coal to cook, but they still use coal to heat. But in some neighborhoods where they did renovations, they now use electricity for heat. In most neighborhoods, they have coal yards where people buy coal in the shape of honeycomb briquettes. There is a whole "coal culture" surrounding them.

What about the roads? Many are paved over now, but were they originally stone or mud?

Originally, they were mud, I think. There used to be a saying--when it was windy, Beijing was like an incense burner because of all the dust in the air. And when it rained, it was so muddy that you couldn't even walk.

Is there electricity in the hutongs?

Yes. And there are many electricity and cable lines. In some hutongs, they bury them underground, but in most neighborhoods, they're still high up there. They're buried to make the hutong look better.

Did the hutong style develop over time, did it change very much?

During the Yuan Dynasty [1279-1368], they had city planning, which you can still see in some parts of Beijing. But during the Ming and Qing dynasties, they did some alterations--from old maps, you can tell how the city changed but still kept some of the original things from the Yuan Dynasty. The Yuan emperor really had a grand idea for how Beijing should look and it was a well-designed city.

Where does the word hutong come from?

Some people believe that "hutong" sounds like a Mongolian word, but there are arguments over that. And the design of hutongs is completely classical Beijing design. Kublai Khan actually used the idea of a typical perfect Chinese city to legitimize his ruling of the Han people because he was a conqueror. As a conqueror, if you want to legitimize your ruling, you have to use means other than killing people, right? So the city planning of Beijing was one of the methods he used to legitimize it. As a result, Beijing was more a Han Chinese city than other cities were--even though he was a Mongolian ruler.


Hutongs are famous for being narrow. Some of them allow only a single person to walk through. (Photo by Liu Bowen)


This flat-topped building used to be a rehearsal hall for Wang Yuhua, a famous Peking Opera singer in the 1930s and '40s. (Photo by Liu Bowen)

So what does the word hutong literally mean?

Some people say it means "well" in Mongolian.

"Well" like a water well?

Yes, exactly. There are a lot of arguments about things like where the word came from. No one can say it definitively.

What about the Chinese word for courtyard?

It's siheyuan --si means four, he means enclosed, yuan means yard, so it's a four-sided enclosed yard. That's actually what it means in Chinese. We translate it into courtyard.

Is there anything special about the architectural alignment of a courtyard house?

A good courtyard's door faces south. But you see, in hutongs, there are courtyards facing every which way. In certain areas to the south of Tiananmen Square, those hutongs are not straight lines because they were formed gradually. Also, their layout was affected by all the surrounding rivers, so the alleyways look like fish bones [herringbone shape]. In different parts of Beijing, it's a different story. But traditionally, if a courtyard faces south, it's supposed to be a good location. I think it has to do with feng shui. And you get better sunlight.

So what inspired you personally to be so interested in the hutongs?

When I was in grad school, my major was folk studies and my concentration was historic preservation. I studied a lot about vernacular architecture and folk art, so it was kind of natural for me to be interested in these neighborhoods. The hutongs are so beautiful, you know? I've always been interested in folklore and folk life, and this is where you find folk life in Beijing.

If someone came to Beijing, what would be the best way to visit a hutong?

There are a lot of ways, like a hutong tour on a [rickshaw]. I would think riding a bicycle is also a good way. That way, you don't have to walk and get tired. And do some research before you come over. That way, you better understand what you see.

For me, I think if you want to understand something, there's only one way: look at it long enough. I'm not saying literally look at it. Just pay long enough attention. That's the only way to understand it.

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America