Since the beginning of 2001, Beijing Cultural Relics Bureau has launched a survey on Beijing’s traditional residences, siheyuan (courtyard with houses built on its four sides). According to Mei Ninghua, Director of the Beijing Cultural Relics Bureau, 539 among the more than 3,000 courtyards investigated will be listed as key cultural relics under the municipal government protection. The rest more than 2,000, Mei said, will also be well protected and not be demolished.
Siheyuan has existed in Beijing for more than 800 years. Another characteristic feature of old Beijing’s urban development is the numerous hutongs, or back lanes, that serve as communication channels of these residential compounds. The newly publicized “Plan for the Protection of the Historical and Cultural City of Beijing” states that 42 percent of Beijing’s old residential areas, most of them being siheyuan courtyards, will be protected as a whole set. When some old and unsafe houses are rebuilt, the original siheyuan-and-hutong layout should not be destructed.
These old residential areas represent the traditional lifestyle of the Beijingers. There you can learn about the vicissitudes of the ancient capital and its rich customs.
But nowadays these siheyuan houses face an embarrassment. Most of them, no matter how elegant they used to be, have lost their original shape, with many households sharing one courtyard which was originally designed for one family. In front of modern apartment buildings, they are losing their charms, especially for the younger generation.
Since the 1990s, Beijing municipal government launched a large-scale reconstruction project to rebuild old and unsafe houses in old residential areas. Many siheyuan houses were pulled down to give way to new, tall buildings.
(china.org.cn by Wang Zhiyong, November 2, 2002)