Beijing: 8th May 2014
Hutong, I am told, originally meant ‘a well’. But, the name has how been assigned to the maze of alleys and narrow lanes which make up a part of Beijing.
The story of the hutongs began back in 1215, when the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan invaded the city of Zhoungdu, as Beijing was then called, and razed it to the ground. The surviving citizens built the hutongs from the rubble, possibly reasoning that narrow alleys would slow down, if not completely deter any future invasions.
As late as the 1950s, there were some 6000 hutongs, but, in 1990, it was decided to demolish the area, to make room for high-rise development. About 40% fell to the bulldozer, before reason prevailed. Many Chinese wished to preserve this important part of their heritage, and some parts became highly desirable places to live or work.
Some homes, however, remained in the possession of their original owners, or, indeed, their descendants. Such a house was the courtyard home of Mrs Fan, where we went for lunch. Not a restaurant, it must be emphasised; this was her home, where four generations of her family had lived. Our tour operator had an arrangement with her that groups would be brought to meet her, and be fed and entertained.
Although two groups … nearly forty of us … arrived at that courtyard, there was still plenty of room for us, and we were still served in the traditional Chinese way; quickly and efficiently.
The courtyard was lavishly decorated with hangings and banners; mainly red, for Chinese people regard this as a lucky colour, and a caged bird hung in the shade of an awning.
After lunch, Mrs. Fan shyly introduced herself, and told us a little about the house and the hutongs, then played her zither for us, which we’d already noticed standing on a table but thought was just for decoration. We could have listened to her playing for the rest of the afternoon, but our operator had arranged a rickshaw ride around the hutongs for us.