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Man Shoots Beijing's History in Traditional Hutong

To 67-year-old Zhang Yunting, hutong, Beijing's traditional narrow lanes with siheyuan, or four-sided enclosed yards, on both sides, are something precious that are worthy of being remembered.

Holding 5,000 hutong pictures in his hands, Zhang said "it is the hutong that can really represent Beijing."

The hutong pictures were taken by Zhang from February 2001 to May 2003, and he regards them as the biggest sum of wealth he has attained in his life.

Zhang, a native of Zhaoyuan County, northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, began working at the Xingping Machinery Plant in Beijing in August 1954 after graduation from a technical school in Shenyang, capital of the northeastern province of Liaoning. He has lived in the national capital ever since.

Being interested in history, Zhang said he is especially interested in things with a long history.

Zhang fell in love with "hutongs" 20 years ago and was eager to do something to preserve the traditional narrow lanes, which housed communities of close-knit families for many generations, as their numbers are decreasing.

Many have been flattened and the sites are used to build department stores, metro stations, and commercial and financial streets, especially in recent years.

Beijing's "hutongs" boast a history of more than 700 years. hutong is a Mongolian expression meaning "well", which indicated people at that time lived together around a well and the "passages" they left formed today's "hutongs".

Historical records show Beijing had a total of 458 hutongs in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and 978 hutongs sometime in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). A total of 6,000 alleys had existed in Beijing when the New China was founded in 1949, and 1,330 of them were then named "hutongs".

With rapid urban development, a great number of "hutongs" have given way to modern architectures. According to the municipal construction committee, 250,000 square meters of old houses with 20,000 households will be demolished in 2004, which means a lot more "hutongs" will disappear.

"I love to tour through the 'hutongs' and I often dream of 'hutongs' in the night," said Zhang.

The idea of taking pictures of "hutongs" came to Zhang in 2001. Before that in 1993 when he retired from his machinery plant, Zhang had collected dozens of volumes of newspaper cuttings on "hutongs".

He began his hutong picture-taking journey in February 2001. Taking two cameras with him, Zhang set out at 7:00 a.m. every day in the spring, summer and autumn months and at 8:30 a.m. in winter months, and returned home at 5:00 p.m.

In more than two years, Zhang wore out five pairs of shoes and two hats, and his two cameras finally stopped working due to excessive use.

However, Zhang was happy with his pictures, which record 2,067 "hutongs" in the four downtown districts of Dongcheng, Xicheng, Chongwen and Xuanwu, covering Beijing's old city proper with the Forbidden City at the center.

Zhang has the pictures of Beijing's narrowest alleyway, the Qianshi hutong which is 44 cm at minimum, and the oldest hutong of Sanmiaojie, which was known as the Tanzhou Street in the Liao Dynasty (916-1125).

And Zhang's hutong pictures also provide a great help to local map drawing workers, who often ask Zhang to provide the names of "hutongs".

Relevant government departments of the Chinese capital are setting up files for "hutongs", as a substantial effort to preserve the unique Beijing culture and historical architectures.

The municipal government is compiling a book with detailed stories and vivid photos to record all the "hutongs" that have sunk into oblivion or still existed in the city, said Wang Chunzhu, deputy head of the Beijing Local Archives Compiling Committee.

"Besides the locations, lengths and widths of every hutong, we are also collecting and sorting out materials on their history, name changes and residential records of celebrities," said a principal compiler Xu Xuepeng. "We hope the archives tell the history and presence of these traditional Beijing alleys and show the cultural heart of this 3,000-year-old city."

Meanwhile, the municipal government has enhanced its efforts to protect siheyuan situated along both sides of "hutongs", which were the most common residences for Beijing people in the past, but are in danger of vanishing as modern buildings expand rapidly and require more space.

The courtyards feature typical classical roofs, decorated corridors and old pomegranate trees, often impress visitors with their grace, tranquillity and elegance and are regarded as an important part of traditional Beijing culture.

Currently, a total of 539 siheyuan courtyards are under local government protection.

Xu Yong, general manager of the Beijing hutong Tourist Agency, said that while Beijing can boast world-famous historic sites such as the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the Temple of Heaven, it also has, although nowadays only to a certain extent, the magic of hutong and "siheyuan", which he believes are a major part of the city's tradition and culture.

Fan Yaobang, a senior planner of the Beijing Institute of City Planning and Design, said that protecting hutong and siheyuan also maintains the integrity and historical tradition of Beijing.
(People's Daily June 24, 2004)

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