Hutongs and Homes in the Middle Kingdom

Whilst travelling towards the centre of Beijing I encountered a maze of narrow alleyways, all gray in color. The Forbidden City is in the centre and temples like the one built to honour Confucius are close by.

These narrow streets I found out are called hutongs. The term hutong, originally meaning waterwells, appeared first during 1279. In Beijing, hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan (traditional courtyard residences). Many neighbourhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. The word hutong is also used to refer to such neighbourhoods.

Hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan – traditional courtyard residences

Strolling through the hutongs, I was delighted to see ladies chatting in groups, gentleman playing board games and children practicing on musical instruments. Because of the interlacement of the lanes, every house is connected to the other, making it easy for local people to keep in touch with their neighbors.  There are public bathrooms and toilets. Shops sell all kinds of goods that satisfy the local and tourist needs. It is a community abuzz with stories and gossip.

Some hutongs have been made into tourist hotspots

Some hutongs have been gentrified and made into tourist hotspots, complete with cafes, bars, restaurants, curio shops and boutiques. Hutongs give small businesses a kind of intimate, cosy, hidden location, easy to miss as it blends in with the ancient architecture in the narrow alleyway. These touristy hutongs have become the signature characteristic of what makes Beijing a fascinating tourist destination – they bring visitors to the heart of the city’s ancient traditions, but with the added element of trendiness, cosmopolitan vibes, and modern art.

 A siheyuan, which means four harmonious courtyard, is a type of residence that was commonly found throughout Ancient China. The name literally means a courtyard surrounded by four buildings. In ancient times, a spacious siheyuan would be occupied by a single, usually large and extended family, signifying wealth and prosperity. Today, many remaining siheyuan are used as housing complexes. The layout of the Siheyuan, the origin of the Chinese home, was influenced by the philosophy of Feng Shui.

Feng shui (mandarin for wind water) is an ancient philosophy rooted in the appreciation of nature, and a belief that all things are connected. The belief is that the key to living successfully is to reflect the balance of nature in daily life, which involves the following concepts: yin and yang, qi, and the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Despite its long heritage, feng shui has been illegal in mainland China since the mid-20th century, mainly because of fraud within its practice. Feng shui promotes the search for places where chi (energy flow) forms or accumulates, as these places are perfect for promoting happy lives. In feng shui winds are bad because they scatter chi, so those looking for good feng shui typically avoid windswept land.

Siheyuan houses hold one of the oldest Chinese architectural styles. Nearly all had their main buildings and gates facing south for better lighting and to avoid the Northern cold wind. For this reason a majority of hutongs run from east to west – in fact, most roads in Beijing run either from east to west or north to south, making navigation easier!

Inside each of these houses are no open-air spaces except at the middle of all the residential houses, where an empty square area was completely exposed to the sky. This exposed area is normally used as a garden and the residents will come out to have family activities such as drinking tea or spending time with family.

Open spaces are carefully designed according to Feng Shui principles

The open space was carefully designed according to Feng Shui principles to allow rainwater to irrigate the plants and trees which radiated strong positive energy to the occupants. Rain that falls in the evenings had Yin properties that bring comfort and peace to the occupants. Open spaces enable sunlight to enter. The sunlight had yang chi properties that will bring good luck and signifies success as they shine into the residential houses – into the rooms of the occupants. This produces an extremely comfortable and peaceful environment with good feng shui features that will bring good luck, success, happiness, and peace to the occupants.

Today, typical feng shui forms include the use of fountains, curves rather than hard lines, alignment of entrances with the best views, and the use of natural materials. We’ve all gone into a room and had the feeling that something is not quite right. You can’t get comfortable or relax. According to the principles of feng shui, this would indicates there is something disrupting the flow of energy. If you have stepped into a room and it felt right and you wanted to hang out there, you’ve experienced the indication of good chi.

The apartment block I live in which on first sight I thought was social housing, now I can see has been planned with good feng shui in mind. There is a wonderful community space in the centre protected from the wind where the children play. The gardens are exquisite with fruit trees, wide varieties of flowers and vegetation, and a river feature. It feels good to live there as people seem genuinely content. Filtered water for drinking is available within the complex at R8 for 15 litres (I always enjoy fetching water as I get to say hello to my neighbors)..

Community spaces in social housing where children can play

During one of my hutong strolls I came across the Confucius Temple. The temple has many old trees, including one cypress tree called the touch-evil Cypress that has been made famous by folklore. Its name derives from a story that, when a notoriously corrupt official was passing by, the tree knocked off his hat! Afterwards people imagined this particular tree could distinguish between good and evil. I was most pleased to read that Beijing’s Greening Authority during late 2018, made a series of extra measures to protect the 40,000 ancient trees in the city, a triumph of good over evil.

Shopping centres have people dancing outside in the warmer weather

Autumn has officially started, with the cooler weather entering swiftly. In the evenings the dance parks are filled to capacity. I imagine everyone wanting to enjoy the last few warmer days. Even shopping centres have people dancing outside. As they say in Afrikaans, “Hulle kuier ‘n ding stukkend”! The Moon Festival is also upon China. It is a time to bless the following year’s harvest and is celebrated this year on the September 13th. I must find out more about this smart ancient ritual…

Beijing Greetings,

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