Cixi and the Hutongs


Before leaving for China, I had read a memoir written in the early 20th century by one of the Dowager Empress’s ladies in waiting.  Much of the book was set in the Sea Palace (near the Forbidden City, and now a government building off limits to visitors) and the Summer Palace.  The Summer Palace had been largely destroyed in the Boxer Rebellion, but Cixi rebuilt it to her opulent specifications when she reclaimed Beijing for the Qing dynasty.  I wanted to visit there (and the Sea Palace and the Forbidden City) to acquire some context for the book I had read.

We were able to convince our guide that we should visit the newly restored theater where many days of the book took place.  Sorry that I could not photo Cixi’s seat and resting bed, covered in the brilliant yellow embroidered silk she loved so well, nor the two young women dressed in the period who kept guard over the lushness.

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We even got part of a Peking Opera performance.


Cixi was unquestionably a mean, arrogant and probably amoral person, but she had a marvelous sense of aesthetics and her rebuilt palace reflects this in many ways.  The 700 meter long covered promenade is graced with hundreds of paintings, all different, all beautiful.




The palace lake is designed almost exactly after West Lake in Hangzhou.


It even has its own marble boat:


And my favorite gate in all Beijing:


I cannot imagine living this way. . .

At the other end of the spectrum are the hutongs.  There is no translation for this term, but after seeing them and listening to our guide’s description of these places, they have a name: ghetto.  They are rabbit warrens of tiny streets, bordered by tiny houses.  Many were built 1000 years ago, and reflect the early Mongol culture of the region.  The Communists destroyed many of them in the process of upgrading the city of Beijing until various groups convinced the government of their historical significance.

The hutongs sport many, many government subsidized “houses,” living spaces of may 100 square feet, wherein live whole families.  Available houses are advertised with wall posts.


The traditional courtyards around which hutong houses were originally built have been filled in with more houses for more poor people.


Most of the hutong houses do not have plumbing so people must walk a certain distance down the street for a toilet, and a certain longer distance to a community shower.  In the 21st century.

We were forced to ride in a rickshaw pedaled by a local man, and had our pictures taken by the insistent local guide.


It was very embarassing.  And became more so.  We visited the home of a local middle class person, a kung fu master who is quite well-to-do.  His family have lived in the hutong for generations, and he and his wife occupy a fancy house that might be 300 square feet in total.  He apparently has money: a 50+ inch flat screen TV in the living/dining/meeting/training/sitting room; and a small fortune in ancient kung fu weapons displayed in the other room.  (I thought I took a photo of is weapons collection, but can’t find it. . .)  And his house is in a very prestigious location in the shadow of the bell tower built in 1272, and the slightly newer drum tower.

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I cannot imagine living this way. . .


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  1. Structural revolution – Beijing- « Dr Alf's Blog - April 28, 2013

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