First Beijing hutong museum preserves city's history

Source:Xinhua Published: 2013-10-18 14:41:37

If a city has its soul, it could be found in its architecture. And Beijing's soul exists along each hutong.

Although the number of these traditional Chinese alleyways is decreasing as the wrecking ball swings with different excuses of transformation, hutongs still stand in the downtown. Now the city's first public hutong museum has opened on Shijia Hutong, one of the most historic of the hutongs.

From Friday, the museum will give visitors the lowdown on how hutongs and the traditional siheyuan courtyard homes that line them have changed over the years.

Shijia Hutong Museum is dedicated to promoting Beijing hutong culture, enriching the intellectual life of local residents, and sustaining a site that evolves constantly with time and presents the living history of hutongs, according to Chen Dapeng, secretary of Chaoyangmen sub-district.

"The exhibition is a footnote to chapters of beauty and the essence of Shijia Hutong, and hutongs in general in Beijing, as well as the traditional Beijing hutong lifestyle," added Wang Lanshun, who came up with the idea for Shijia Hutong Museum.

"The most precious thing is that the museum is embedded in a living hutong and quadrangle courtyards in downtown Beijing," Wang said. "So when visitors step out of the museum, they will feel they are in another museum."

Shijia Hutong Museum is in a renovated siheyuan that was the former home of celebrated Chinese writer Ling Shuhua. The reconstruction work applied old bricks and tiles, "all of them collected from hutongs around Beijing and the city's heritage sectors," Chen explained.

The origin of the name "Shijia" cannot be verified but it is said that it was named for the prominent Ming Dynasty "Shi" family, while others claim that it is a reference to Ming Dynasty Chancellor Shi Kefa.

Fittingly for a site now dedicated to imparting knowledge, the alley has a close relation to education.

In 1908, the US Congress passed an act allowing Chinese students to study in the United States via a scholarship program. Under an agreement between both sides, "Tsinghua College" was then founded. From 1909, China began sending 100 students to study in the United States each year.

The same year, the Qing-Dynasty Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked the Emperor for permission to establish an administrative office to settle all affairs concerning overseas students in the United States. The office was located in Shijia Hutong.

In 1909, 1910 and 1911, three selectional exams took place on the alleyway, on the spot where today's Shijia Hutong Elementary School is located.

Hu Shi, a noted Chinese academic, was among the second group of exchange students who won the right to study in America.

Shijia Hutong Museum also charts the turbulent history of the street on which it stands and Beijing's hutong network overall.

"Capital City Hutong Collection" written by Zhang Jue in the Ming Dynasty documented how there were over 900 hutongs in Beijing's inner city during the reign of Ming emperor Jia Jing (1507-1567).

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the rulers were of Manchu ethnicity originating from north-east China. Beijing was chosen as their capital, with little alteration to its layout. But the residential pattern fundamentally shifted. The "Eight Banners," administrative divisions that formed the basic organizational framework of the Manchu military, lived in the urban heart of Beijing to defend the imperial city. At that time, Shijia Hutong was in the area of Bordered White Banner.

After the Boxer Protocol was signed in 1901, Beijing Dongjiaominxiang was designated as the foreign legation quarter.

Shijia Hutong was affected and some yards were assigned to the Danish legation and the Christian Church.

From 1919 to 1949, large numbers of people flooded into Beijing. Influential officials chose to live in the thriving Dongcheng area, where Shijia Hutong is found. During that time, there was massive new construction in Beijing to meet the needs of the city, especially in terms of the road system. But the overall layout again did not change.

However, along with the post-1949 modernization and population boom, many old bungalows were torn down and multi-story buildings constructed in their place.

Streets and hutongs were combined to form new communities. Shijia Hutong was among them, and it now holds 15 multi-story buildings and 82 bungalows or courtyards.

The "Protection of Beijing Traditional Hutong-Siheyuan Architecture" concept was included in the "General Plan of Beijing City (2004-2020)." And efficient protection of the original hutong layout and style was the key component for ensuring the city's historical structures were not lost.

Hutongs underline the historical considerations for those planning urban development in China and become an important carrier of domestic culture. Still growing and evolving through time, hutongs are home to generations of people born and raised in Beijing.

Hutongs in inner-city Beijing during the Ming and Qing dynasties were mostly constructed in the 13th Century when the Yuan Dynasty emperor took Beijing as the capital of the Chinese Nation. At that time, even Italian traveler Marco Polo marveled in his notes, "The layout of the city is so well structured, making other cities pale in comparison."

Shu Yi, former curator of the National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature and also the son of famous Chinese writer Lao She, urged that Beijing should always contain old architectural forms.

"If there were only modern buildings, the city would lose its charm and manner as an ancient capital," he said. "So it's fortunate that we still reserve some precious heritage like hutongs and siheyuans no matter what development we conduct."

"We take pride in this museum being a venue where local residents from this neighborhood can gather and partake in various public activities," Wang Lanshun noted. "The museum conveys our commemoration of the past and hopes for the future."

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