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Ancient Hutongs, New Lifestyles

By Kuang Sisi Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2022-07-12

"Where does Beijing's culture lie? It lies in the hutongs. If all the alleyways along with their traditional houses, known as hutongs, in the city disappear to make way for highrise buildings, residents will have no way to connect with their cultural roots." 

President Xi Jinping made this statement when he toured the eastern section of Qianmen neighborhood in Beijing on February 1, 2019. Walking down Caochangsitiao Hutong, as he surveyed the features of the old alleyway, President Xi stressed that the hutongs were a distinguishing feature of old Beijing. "When promoting modernization," he noted, "we need to both ensure that this culture is preserved and that hutong residents can enjoy a modern lifestyle. The old and the modern should be combined." 

Qianmen east has a total of 46 hutongs, which form a vital part of Beijing's old city and are an important embodiment of the culture of Beijing, China's capital for almost a millennium. In this part of the city, the features of the ancient capital have been protected to the greatest extent possible, and the original flavor of the hutongs has been retained. At the same time, efforts to enhance the living environment and living standards have enabled residents of the old alleyways to embrace new lives in which they are truly thriving. 

Renovations create a well-ordered and beautiful living environment. 

In Caochangsitiao Hutong, grey brick and tile buildings line the alleyway, which is bathed in warm sunlight on one side. The hustle and bustle of the main street gently fades, as old-style grey flagstones wind their way forward. In here, time seems to move half a step slower. 

"I have rediscovered the hutongs of my childhood," marvels 75-year-old Zhu Maojin, "except that the hutongs now are even better than they were back in those days." "If I have to use one word to describe the atmosphere in here, I would simply say it's pleasant." 

In recent years, Caochang Hutong has undergone continuous change, as municipal authorities have carried out a renovation program targeted to rundown areas of the city. Based on the original design of the hutong, builders carried out restoration work and undertook repairs to recreate the original look of the old alleyways. They demolished illegal structures, buried overhead electricity and telecommunication lines underground, and planted greenery wherever possible. Gradually, the narrow and dilapidated laneways became more spacious, more refined, and brighter. Courtyards that still retained an air of antiquity were fitted with modern kitchen and bathroom facilities that are both convenient and safe. Clean and bright public toilets were equipped with all modern necessities, including ventilation systems, equipment for eliminating flies and mosquitoes, and heaters. 

Extra details add a touch of elegance to the street here. External air conditioner units have been hidden behind grey latticework panels. Pet litter bins disguised as flower pots have been installed for the convenience of pet owners. To ensure the safety and comfort of elderly residents, more than 100 handrails have been fitted on steps, and inductive solar lights have been placed in almost 300 courtyards. Caochang Hutong is now working to create even more beautiful courtyards based on tailor-made policies. This approach will help satisfy the individual needs of residents in terms of storage, kitchen, and bathroom facilities, natural and artificial light, and parking and greenery. 

This meticulous attention and effort has brought a new and bright look to the hutongs and has, more importantly, created a clean and comfortable living environment for residents. 

"Courtyard meeting halls" enable residents to discuss their own affairs. 

At the meeting hall in No. 44 Caochangsitiao Hutong, representatives of the sub-district, neighborhood, and local residents are engaged in a lively discussion about further improvements for the hutong living environment. 

"At the meeting hall, all kinds of neighborhood issues, both big and small, that concern the immediate interests of local residents are put up for discussion. This includes what kind of material we should use to pave the alleyway, what types of plants we should use on each side of the lane, how we can improve the public toilets, how we can encourage waste sorting, and how we should celebrate traditional festivals," explained Li Caixian who is head of the courtyard meeting hall. 

Under the impetus of the meeting hall, more and more residents are getting involved in community work, freely discussing problems, explaining their demands, and working with one another to come up with solutions and take decisions. This has created a vibrant dynamic under which residents are making proposals, holding discussions, making decisions, taking action, and then evaluating the progress for matters that directly affect them. 

Shows at the old guildhalls add to local cultural life. 

In the past, Qianmen east served as a gathering place for merchants, influential families, and famous theatrical performers and was home to many regional guildhalls from all over China. The Pigments Guildhall at No. 22 Qingyun Hutong was built during the Ming Dynasty, and is one of the few former Shanxi Chambers of Commerce buildings still standing today. After remaining empty for many years, the hall is once again resounding with the melodious tones of traditional Chinese opera, bringing new brio to this 400-year-old building. 

To promote cultural development, Beijing has taken the innovative step of having theatrical troupes and performing arts academies take the stage at former sites of guildhalls. Through the introduction of small and elegant shows that fit its historical characteristics, the Pigments Guildhall is using the best blend of old and new to harness its resources and enrich people's lives. 

Since October 2021, the Pigments Guildhall, Linfen Guildhall, and Taiwan Guildhall in Qianmen east have hosted nearly 30 performances as part of the "Shows at the Guildhall" series. Vocal and instrumental performances, magic and variety shows, cross-talk and folk arts, and other performances have been staged. Productions have seen classic interpretations of traditional arts colliding wonderfully with modern elements. As culture continues to nourish the soul of the local community, signs that people are living happy lives extend deep into the alleyways and across the faces of local residents. 

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 10, 2022)