The destruction and demolition of China’s hutong communities is a complex cultural travesty. There is, however, time left to see these amazing holdovers from ancient times before they disappear forever.
A hutong is a large community of traditional Chinese courtyard homes. Since the end of the last Dynasty, they have been partitioned into smaller plots, so that eight or more families often dwell in one courtyard home. The traditional hutongs are a center of culture and commerce, and a focal point of Beijing’s historical sights.
In Beijing, you’ll find cultural heritage sites that include large areas of hutong homes. Preservation movements exist throughout the city, with residents as well as international conservation organizations working together to save the hutongs, but only a small fraction of these are likely to be saved. Demolition crews abound.
Hutong residents have mixed feelings about their homes: the standard of living in many of them is below that which they could have if they sold their hutongs to the government in exchange for property in high rises, where they would have access to running water, a toilet, and heating.
Many hutongs are not demolished against residents’ wills, but bought up by the government for larger projects. It is an increasingly sensitive issue in Beijing, but unless these communities are protected by the government there are no guarantees for their survival.
While many of the older and more traditional hutong communities in Shanghai have disappeared, Beijing has managed to preserve large sections of hutongs. Today there are four large, famous hutong communities left in the center of the city — prime real estate in the most populated country in the world. Long term, however, only a small fraction of these are likely to be saved. Demolition crews abound.
The hutong commonly called Nanluoguxiang, or South Luogu Alley, is a state-protected site directly north of the Forbidden City. With over 700 years of history between its walls, this community dates to the Yuan Dynasty of the 13th and 14th centuries.
Traditional home of the city’s wealthier elites like merchants and politicians (even the Emperor’s son had a mansion in the Nanluoguxiang hutong), these single-level courtyard homes were the height of Chinese construction, culture, and style in their day.
Today, Nanluoguxiang hutong is trying to rebuild itself into an elegant showcase of hutong life. Chic boutiques, fancy restaurants, and speakeasy bars line Nanluoguxiang and give weight to the argument for reinventing the hutong community to fit Beijing’s modern needs.
Part of a NileGuide Special Report: 25 Destinations to See Before They Change Forever.