Spring is slowly making its way to Beijing, a good excuse to put on your walking shoes grab the camera and go hutonging. The hutong is a trip through time to a village within the city; clusters of special places replete with history which lay at the heart of the Chinese capital.
Alas, the days of the hutong alleyways and siheyuan courtyard houses are nearly over. Nothing humans create lasts forever. Beijing's unique link to early urban organization is condemned to vanish as a way of life within our lifetime. Indeed, the process is taking place before our very eyes.
It is a huge mistake to obliterate the legacy of old Beijing in the name of the Olympics, or official justifications of more efficient land use. Development and preservation must go hand in hand. Otherwise this important world capital will soon lack a coherent sense of what it once was, a key component to appreciate and understand the meaning of its modern transformation. A city that eliminates the vestiges of its past has no sustainable future.
The warm weather periods of this year (and hopefully perhaps one or two more) will be the last opportunities to travel down ancient byways and poke around places once belonging to individuals both high and humble, often side by side, in their original context.
Around Town this week focuses on one place, Mao'er Hutong. It's an interesting place because of its location, hidden in plain sight and in close proximity to well-known places, plus the fact there are four spots on this one alleyway identified as cultural relics none of which are officially open to the public.
What you're looking for isn't necessarily what you're going to find on these treks. Some of the spots marked as important city landmarks are not accessible - they're occupied by people and organizations keen to keep interlopers out. Meanwhile, other places have an open door you're able to walk through and find stories waiting to be told.
This is one of the basic lessons of hutonging which is an adventure where the more you know the more you want to know, otherwise after a while one hutong starts to look like the next with a few subtle distinctions.
There are certain rules of engagement one should heed in order to maximize the hutong experience. First, keep your group small, no more than four people. A big group investigating the ruins or relics of a courtyard doesn't sit well with the laobaixing. Next, never open a closed door. Third, it's ok to check out what's inside an open door, provided you're polite and discreet. If a resident says "zou! (go!)" don't debate, just do it. The final rule of thumb concerns the issue of camera usage. Pictures of places are usually kosher, but many people hanging out in the hutong are at home, and frankly, if they say don't, then don't.
Mao'er Hutong is generally translated as Hat or Hat Maker Lane. The area dates from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when it was called the Wenchang Gong, a Taoist temple honouring the spirit belonging to the sixth of China's 28 constellations. The current name came into usage during the succeeding Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
The hutong runs west to east from Di'anmenwai Dajie to Nanluogu Xiang in the Jiaodaokou sub-district. The best way to find it is from Di'anmen; it's the first alleyway northeast of the old bridge to the east of Qianhai. Here's a partial list.
Wan Rong residence, No 35 & 37. This is the western section of what had been a much larger complex of connected courtyards. The resident making this place famous was Wan Rong (1906-46), the empress of the last Qing Emperor, Pu Yi.
In the winter of 1922 Mao'er Hutong was the final scene of imperial Manchu wedding rites as Pu Yi sent gifts to Wan Rong and her family on several different occasions before sending a palanquin for his bride to join him in the Forbidden City.
The remnants of this divided courtyard have seen better days. No 37 has a great chuihuamen (side gate) well worth saving. No 35 has a rock and bamboo garden worth a quick look. Eight times out of 10 you can sneak a peek.
Feng Guozhang residence, No 11, Mao'er Hutong. The last personality to inhabit No 11 was Feng Guozhang (1859-1919), one of the major participants in the nightmarish warlord period (1916-28) in 20th century Chinese history.
Feng was the head of the Zhili faction, one of two cliques formed after the split of the Beiyang army, China's first army trained and equipped in modern military methods starting in the late Qing. Zhili, roughly analogous to the area of Hebei Province, was the old imperial name for the territory surrounding Beijing.
Feng vied for control of the capital and country after the death of his one time patron, the would-be monarchist Yuan Shikai, in 1916 against Duan Qirui, head of the Anhui faction.
He was vice-president in 1916-17 and president of the Beijing government in 1917-18. Feng retired from politics in 1918 to live quietly on Mao'er Hutong. He died in the influenza pandemic of 1919.
It is almost impossible to explore this courtyard if anyone is present. There almost always is. On a good day, they'll let you take a photo from inside the main gate.
Traces of the Past
Ke Yuan Garden. This is the big prize of Mao'er Hutong. In eight years I have only been able to catch one very brief glimpse of this brilliant secret garden which once belonged to a Qing scholar. I suspect (but can't prove) buildings in the garden were part of the Ming Wenchang Gong.
The door is almost never open and when it is, there's a surly resident guarding the entry, impervious to charm or any of the limited wiles of a hutong addict.
Instead, check out the residences at Mao'er No 14 and 16. Both are usually open. No 14 has two slogans from the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) and apparently belongs to a pigeon fancier. No 16 has a cool chuihuamen.
Mao'er No 5
This is another mystery spot on Mao'er, near its eastern end. The door is never open. If it was, passages on the place say there's a plethora of wonderful architectural features. Next to it at No 3 there's some fine brickwork at the outside gate.
(Beijing Weekend March 24, 2003)