Beijing’s grandeur does not lie in its opulence or in its refinement, but in its scale. The sheer scope of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City have been described as pharaonic, while the newfangled imperial architecture of a city on its latest meteoric rise inspire awe in the original, terrifying sense of the term. From the Ming emperor Yongle to the pioneers of China’s new economic horizons, Beijing’s most prominent citizens have turned it into nothing short of an epic.
The peculiar obsession with size is synonymous with another obsession, might. As China’s political capital increases, as its military stature grows, the country’s ruling elites and nouveau riche alike are losing their appetite for the small and the old. The rise of the new Beijing has meant the destruction of the old. With it go the cityscapes and the lifeways that have defined China’s capital for hundreds of years.
Immediately upon landing, I mistake the late summer haze for Beijing’s infamous pollution. Choking and grey, humid and impenetrable, it blankets the city this time of year, causing men to roll up their shirts to form the eponymous “Beijing bikini” and sending everyone with half a mind running for the nearest air-conditioned relief. For the millions of Chinese who are seeing their capital for the first time and me, however, the heat is no excuse for keeping indoors. There’s far too much to be seen here, in one of the world’s most populated and dynamic cities.
My lungs quickly tell me that the air I am breathing is far less sinister than the acrid smoke warned of in the Western newspapers, but the relief of that realization doesn’t stop the sweat from pouring off my body. I dressed for a cold San Francisco morning when I boarded my flight, not the stifling heat of the late Beijing summer, and as I stew in the taxi on the way to my hotel, I say a silent prayer to whomever gods may hear that I not be drenched before I even set foot on Chinese soil.
The entrance to a hutong courtyard house. ©Snowyowls/Wikimedia
Despite the oppressive heat, it was unbeknownst to me when I booked this trip was that I would land on the tail end of China’s summer holiday. The month of August is the busiest stretch of time for China’s heritage sites save for the New Year’s Celebration, when hundreds of millions of people descend on the roads, trains, and airways to go home, emptying the country’s prosperous industrial cities like blood from a wound. Whether at the Summer Palace of the Qing emperors, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, Mao’s Mausoleum, or any other site large or small, Beijing sees the largest influx of people in the dog days of summer. And, mainly, this ingress of human souls is composed of the people over whom this grand city rules.
It all has to do with economics. China may not have the world’s largest economy yet, but its middle class dwarfs that of any other nation. 54 percent of urban households were considered part of the “mass middle” in 2012, but by 2022, 54% of those same households will be considered “upper middle,” representing a tectonic shift in the quality of life for many Chinese people. With more money to spare than ever before, China’s exploding middle class is taking to the sky and seeing all that its bountiful country has to offer: in 2016, domestic tourism accounted for over half a trillion dollars in spending over 4.44 billion trips. By comparison, inbound tourists from foreign countries made 138 million trips, a ratio of 31:1.
This translates to a lot of people, and a lot of Chinese. They all have to be accommodated somewhere, a fact that has led to one of the biggest development projects ever undertaken. Whole neighborhoods have been razed and replaced almost instantly, making way for soaring skyscrapers of fantastically imperious design that announce with relish the death of the old and the birth of the new. Families that have lived in one neighborhood, or even one home, for generations have suddenly found themselves robbed of this golden thread of tradition. The city seems in a tumult. You can smell it in the air, see it in the sky, and hear it in the chattering voices of the over 20 million souls that call this roiling cauldron of the new home.
A Beijing hutong. ©Geoff McKim/Wikimedia
Flexing their newfound economic might has come at a cost for the people of Beijing and of China, too. To make way for the grandest architectural designs seen in decades, Beijing’s city planners have turned to some of its most prime real estate: the historic core of the city surrounding Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Indeed, since the turn of the 20th century, Beijing’s most famous architectural features, the hutong, has been rapidly disappearing.
Hutongs are traditional streetscapes defined by lines of interlocking courtyard houses, called siheyuan, which are built one after the other down the length of the street. Although many of the hutong districts are more modern incarnations, the tradition of hutong building derives from the 14th-century Yuan dynasty and was popular up until the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1908. This basic schema had multiple variations, as the hutongs were not just homes but also physical manifestations of class privilege – or lack thereof.
Built in concentric rings from the Forbidden City, only those with the finest pedigree were permitted to live near the emperor in the closest inner circle to the palace. Stretching outwards, in the next layer of rings could be found the upper class of aristocrats, who built lavish siheyuan houses in accordance with the highest principles of fine style: carved and painted roof beams contended in opulence with perfectly manicured gardens to flaunt the wealth of this powerful, urbane elite. Finally, in the last circles and farthest away from the palace were hutongs occupied by the commoners, including merchants, artists, and laborers. Far less ornate and large than the homes of their neighbors closer to the city, these siheyuan houses reflected the classes to whom they belonged.
This system began to break down in the final days of the Qing Dynasty and was smashed in the resulting wars and upheaval that plagued China for decades thereafter. When the Communist Party emerged victorious in 1949 at the end of China’s civil war, many of Beijing’s exquisitely preserved hutongs had been riven by decay, neglected in the intervening turmoil or subdivided amongst multiple tenants, many of whom did not care for the living architectural heritage they inhabited. Indeed, there was little hope for the integrity of buildings when the prime motivating force was not to thrive but to survive.
A look inside one of Beijing’s hutongs. ©Tonkie/Wikimedia
But, survive they did. Today, Beijing’s remaining hutongs form a social fabric between present and past and between all the descendants of those who came before and their ancestors long since returned to the dust. Qing dynasty-era brickwork coexists with modern plumbing and appliances, Western restaurants are built in the ruins of Ming dynasty temples. The dense hutong streetscape is an atmosphere redolent of imperial splendor and incipient decay.
At lunchtime, the aroma of spiced food wafts out of every doorway, beckoning the intrepid visitor to enter and partake of the day’s meal. Birds twitter through the air, alighting from trees whose roots remain unseen in the courtyards of the siheyuan to the ancient oaks lining the street. Workmen lean on the seats of their parked motorbikes, tempting the sun with their bare stomachs while smoking the first, tenth, or thirtieth cigarette of the day. Children caper about in unvarnished happiness around old men drinking tea and playing Chinese chess on stone tables permanently affixed to the pavement for that purpose. Young couples promenade down the alleys, looking for a bit of quiet to enjoy themselves together.
The hutongs, once the province of the rich and the powerful, are now an inversion of their past – it is the poor and the destitute that compose the urban core of this city and the closest residents to the center of Chinese political power.
Tiles on the roofs of the hutongs often bear ornamental patterns, such as this ©Wikimedia
Perhaps that is why, after surviving for so long, they have fallen victim to the caprice of development.
Although many hutongs fell victim to war and neglect following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the mass extinction of the hutong as a living heritage space did not begin until China’s modernization in the 1980s. The economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping initiated a boom in China’s economy, with a GDP increasing in size from $202 billion in 1980 to $11,779 billion in 2016, or 5,700 percent. With this increase in growth came an increase in development, and naturally, China’s capital city received one of the most lavish – and destructive – makeovers.
Between 7,000 and 8,000 hutongs once existed in Beijing according to one report, but by the time their wide-scale destruction reached its apogee, only around 1,000 remained. A survey conducted by the Beijing Institute of Civil Engineering and Architecture in 2006 found that only one-third of Beijing’s hutongs remained intact. 52 percent retain some vestige of their historical past but are severely damaged. 15 percent of the total were completely gone. According to The Atlantic in 2012, in the 1990s, 600 hutongs were destroyed each year, displacing some 500,000 people. To get a sense for the scale of destruction of which the hutongs are only a part, the Economist wrote in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics that Beijing, “long Asia’s ecumenical Rome,” saw the removal of the majority of its 2,500-plus temples and a slew of other monuments – a leveling of the “medieval city built by the great Ming emperor, Yongle.”
The New Yorker best describes the city’s architectural state of affairs in the years before modernization:
The city planner Edmund Bacon once described Beijing as ‘possibly the greatest single work of man on the face of the earth.’ When he was there, in the nineteen-thirties, you could still see that the city, from the walls surrounding it to the emperor’s Forbidden City at its heart, was conceived as a totality—a work of monumental geometry, symmetrical and precise. Even the hutongs, the warrenlike neighborhoods of small courtyard houses set along alleyways, which made up the bulk of the city’s urban fabric, were as essential to Beijing as the temples and the imperial compound, which has the same intricate mixture of courtyards and lanes. Beijing was all of a piece.
Of course, the harmonious totality of Beijing’s architecture “couldn’t last forever, and it didn’t.” The city’s construction boom saw the wholesale destruction of hutong neighborhoods throughout the city to be replaced by a glittering array of avant-garde skyscrapers that exude an aura of power and attention-grabbing angst. “Beijing has arrived,” they seem to say. “And you better notice.”
Despite the disjunction between the past and the present in the visual plane, there is a strange continuity between Beijing’s disappearing history and its glorious future-yet-to-be. Ole Scheeren, the architect for Beijing’s monumental CCTV building, said to his interviewer, “I think Beijing is incredibly strong in its ability to completely override its own history and yet not surrender its identity.” The forms change, but the sentiment remains the same: Tiananmen Square has a vastness that cannot be experienced until, sweating through the Beijing heat, one drudges along its grounds from one end to the other, just as Beijing’s new financial center in the Chaoyang District exudes a grandness, different yet no less assertive, in its monumental race for the sky.
A Western restaurant in a hutong in Beijing. ©Wikimedia
Only recently have Beijing’s authorities woken up to the countervailing idea that heritage sites like hutongs are worth protecting. In 2010, heritage NGOs in China were able to save one of the hutong neighborhoods slated for destruction. Located around the iconic Drum and Bell Tower in Beijing’s Old City, the hutong would have been replaced with what authorities called the ‘Time Cultural City,’ a themed shopping plaza.
Dominic Johnson-Hill, a British business owner near the Drum and Bell Tower, believed it was a turning point for China. “I think this represents a turning-point, the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s are starting to appreciate that money and growth is not the only consideration, as it was in the past. It was local people, not foreigners, who led this protest, and that’s very encouraging.”
And yet, these small victories must be contrasted with the broader reality: even the most well-intentioned attempts at preserving Beijing’s hutongs cannot stop the inevitable onset of decay. The structures might remain, but it is increasingly clear that the people who gave them life will not. Since 2011, the Dashilar Project has come to the titular hutong to develop innovative new strategies to save it from decay, neglect, or the bulldozer’s steel treads. In its wake, there have been bohemian coffee shops, art galleries, and studios, which cater to the young, hip set that started the project in the first place. Seeing an economic opportunity fall right into their laps, many of the hutong’s residents are selling their property and packing up shop. Dashilar is
When I walk the streets of Beijing, I cannot help but feel that these twin impulses, dancing around each other in the ever-widening gyre that is Beijing’s modernization, cannot result in anything better than a bittersweet victory. Beijing’s fate was sealed the moment economic reforms began. In the rapid drive toward modernization and development that has engulfed the country since, the mantra is not to look backwards, but forwards. Old buildings must give way to new, old lifeways to new modes of being.
Beijing, as always, chooses its future on its own terms. Just as readily as it destroys the past to make way for the future, it casts itself forward with all the weight of its rich antiquity. The Middle Kingdom, as China has been styled for centuries, will no longer be denied its rightful place among the great nations of the world. Its history and its manifold achievements entitle it to grandeur, and its greatness will be expressed according to the standards of the age.