The mere mention of the word hutong can conjure up many different images – from the humdrum and somewhat innocuous alleyways to the more flashy and gentrified areas lined with restaurants, cafes, bars and quaint gift shops.
Whether you love them or loathe them, there’s no denying that hutong are an integral part of Beijing’s character. There’s also no denying that they’ve been home to some well known figures from both China and abroad in recent history.
Hutong, narrow lanes or alleyways lined with traditional courtyard residences on either side, date back to the Ming (1368 1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties and represent a form of architecture you’ll struggle to find outside of Beijing.
Scottish photographer Bruce Connolly, a long-time resident of Beijing and a familiar name to That’s readers, has been fortunate enough to witness changes to Beijing’s hutong during his time in the city.
“I first came to Beijing in 1987. At that time, the grand imperial era ‘must-see’ buildings and structures were on the schedule. Sadly, I was not introduced to the older hutong alleys of Beijing,” Connolly tells That’s.
“In 1994, I arrived back in Beijing; the city would be the starting point of some great travels. My hotel was in a hutong south of Yonghegong – Beixinqiao Santiao. It was an amazing experience. I love it and regularly returned to the same hotel during my regular visits throughout the 1990s.”
Connolly describes how he witnessed a “hutong life” in his early days in Beijing. “Their world was the alley. So much happened there – a world so different from the few departments stores and large hotels at Wangfujing or Jianguomen.”
Expat hutong residents have been the subject of British author Paul French’s book Destination Peking. The book details 18 tales of expats living in Beijing during the first half of the 20th century – from writers to actors and actresses to intellectuals and everyone else in between.
In an article for That’s, French emphasizes the importance of the hutong in understanding Peking.
“One running theme throughout the stories (of expats in Beijing) is the presence of the unique hutong alleyways, which – depending on who you were – provided sumptuous homes, somewhere to hide, places to reinvent yourself or places to turn into temples to the Peking aesthetic,” French writes.
“Perhaps the best way to understand Peking and its history is to explore the city’s hutong.”
Another of French’s books, 2011 bestseller Midnight in Peking, also features a number of Beijing’s hutong. The book is based on the true story of murdered British schoolgirl Pamela Werner, a crime that occurred in 1937 and remains unsolved to this day. Werner’s mutilated body was found nearby Kuijiachang Hutong where she lived with her father Edward Werner, a retired British diplomat and sinologist.
The story follows British detective Dennis and Chinese detective Han who are tasked with solving the case. Their investigation takes them to the Badlands hutong, including Hougou and Chuanban Hutong, where a number of Beijing’s foreign residents were engaged in opium use and prostitution.
In addition to the city’s many expats, Beijing’s vast hutong network also includes the former residences of the man who wrote the Chinese national anthem, a prominent early 20th-century warlord, the wife of the last emperor and many more fascinating figures.
Many of these former residences are somewhat unassuming and, in some cases, have been demolished and transformed into more modern residential buildings. Moreover, these places are not always found on the conventional Beijing tourist trail.
But then again, perhaps that’s what makes them even more intriguing.
The Marxist Intellectuals
Tian Han can be seen on the right. Image via Wikipedia
Born in Changsha county, Hunan province in 1898, Tian Han’s support for communism was evident early on in his life. As an author and playwright, he joined the left-wing Dramatists League in 1930, and eventually the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1932. His politics were very much reflected in his numerous plays with many combining revolutionary communism with proletarianism, feminism and patriotism.
Tian Han is most well-known for writing the lyrics to the song ‘March of the Volunteers’ which would become none other than the Chinese national anthem. For his contribution, Tian Han was rewarded with a courtyard home in Xiguan Hutong in 1953.
Unfortunately for Tian Han, he was later deemed not revolutionary enough during the cultural revolution. After imprisonment, he passed away in 1968.
Xiguan Hutong. Image via That's/Alistair Baker-Brian
Tian Han’s former residence can be found in the quiet and fairly unassuming Xiguan Hutong, Dongcheng district. A small and worndown sign can be seen next to the door at the residence, indicating Tian Han once lived there. Tian Han was gifted the residence in 1953. He lived there until his imprisonment in 1966. Today, the residence is not open to the public.
Li Dazhao. Image via Wikipedia
Born in 1889 in Hebei province, Li Dazhao played a key role in founding the CPC.
As a leader of China’s New Culture Movement, he was fiercely opposed to China’s traditional feudal rule. During his time as a professor at Peking University, Li influenced many students of the anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement.
In addition to founding the CPC, Li also formed a close relationship with Sun Yatsen of the Kuomintang. They formed what would become a united front between the two parties in 1924.
Li was later executed in 1927 on the orders of warlord Zhang Zuolin. The order came after tensions following anti-government protests organized by Li.
Wenhua Hutong. Image via That's/Alistair Baker-Brian
Unlike many other hutong, Li Dazhao’s former residence is very much open to the public. Located in Wenhua Hutong, Xicheng district, the site is used to educate people about the life of Li himself.
Pay a visit and it will immediately be clear that the hutong has undergone a refurbishment in recent years.
Yang Jiang. Image via Wikipedia
Born in 1911, the author had an enviable talent for foreign languages. She passed away in 2016 in a China unrecognizable from the one she was born into 105 years before.
Through all the turbulent changes to the Chinese nation Yang witnessed over the years, one thing remained a constant – her passion and exceptional talent for writing and translation.
Even at 48 years old, she wasn’t beyond acquiring new skills; it was at this age Yang started learning Spanish.
Arguably her greatest achievement was becoming the first person to translate the classic Spanish novel Don Quixote into Chinese. In 1978, during a visit to China by the Spanish royals, the Chinese version of the novel was given as a gift by Deng Xiaoping, then Chinese Vice Chairman of the CPC central committee.
At the age of 94, Yang started writing Walking onto the Edge of Life (走到人生边上) which won China’s top book award in 2007.
Dongluojuan Hutong. Image via That's/Alistair Baker-Brian
Yang lived in the hutong, located in Dongcheng district, from 1962 until 1969.
However, her former Beijing residence was apparently not considered valuable enough to be preserved in its original state. If you look for it now, you’ll only find some 4-storey blocks of gray and yellow apartment buildings.
Not that you need a hutong to remember the amazing work of Yang Jiang, anyway.
Liang Shiqiu can be seen on the left. Image via Wikipedia
As a literary expert and translator, Liang is credited as the man who first introduced Shakespeare to a Chinese audience.
His talent for writing and foreign languages was evident early on in his life. By 1923, he was studying for a master’s degree in literature at Harvard University in the US. After returning in 1926, Liang worked as a professor at a variety of higher education institutions across China.
In 1930, Liang started translating the works of Shakespeare at the age of 27. His first translation was published in 1936. It was after his death in Taipei in 1987 that his translations of Shakespeare really began to garner attention across China. The Complete Works of Shakespeare was published in Chinese by People’s Literary Publications in 1994.
Neiwubujie Hutong. Image via That's/Alistair Baker-Brian
Liang Shiqiu’s former residence lies in Dongcheng district.
It resembles most of the other non-touristy and ungentrified hutong. Liang’s former residence at no. 39 is indicated only by the small metal sign to the right of the door.
The former residence is not open to the public.
Edgar Snow can be seen on the left. Image via Paul French
The American journalist was one of the numerous expat residents in the Beijing hutong during the first half of the 20th century. He lived in Beijing with his wife, Helen Foster-Snow, who was also a journalist.
His most well-known publication is that of Red Star Over China, an account of the Chinese Communist movement from its foundation until the late 1930s.
Snow was the first western journalist to interview CPC leaders, including Mao Zedong.
Kuijiachang Hutong. Image via That's/Alistair Baker-Brian
The hutong lies beside Beijing Railway Station in Dongcheng district and is a location that has come up “again and again” during Paul French’s research.
Snow and his wife lived in Beijing during the mid to late 1930s; they held legendary Sunday afternoon soirees which attracted revolutionaries, sinologists, visiting movie stars and others.
Today a commemoration to Edgar Snow and Helen Foster-Snow can be seen on the courtyard where they used to live next to the Zhong’an hotel.
Wu Peifu. Image via Wikipedia
Educated at the Baoding Military Academy, Wu Peifu was recognized early on in his life as a strong military leader. He joined the Beiyang Army led by general Yuan Shikai and quickly rose up the ranks following Yuan’s death in 1916.
He consolidated power over much of North and Central China, something which did not happen without brutality. However, Wu was later defeated by Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang forces and forced to flee to Sichuan in 1927.
Wu lived in Beijing during his retirement years from 1932 until his death in 1939. The circumstances surrounding his death are something of a mystery. Shortly before passing away, he suffered from septicemia, prompting a visit from a German doctor. The doctor told Wu to go to the German hospital located in the foreign concession area; Wu refused as he would not, out of principle, enter any of the foreign concession areas.
Wu was later treated by a Japanese military doctor. He died shortly after the doctor’s visit. Some speculate that the doctor was sent to murder Wu because, years earlier, he had refused to serve as the leader of a puppet government in part of Japanese-occupied China. But the truth about his death remains unclear.
Shijin Huayuan Hutong
Image via That's/Alistair Baker-Brian
Another hutong which has avoided both destruction and gentrification – Wu Peifu’s former residence lies in Shijin Huayuan Hutong, Dongcheng district nearby a boutique hotel and a handful of convenience stores.
The residence is the same place where Wu met his mysterious death in 1939. Unfortunately, it’s another of those which is not open to the public.
The Wife of the Last Emperor
Wan Rong. Image via Wikipedia
Born in 1906 during the Qing Dynasty, Wan Rong was raised by her father Rong Yuan and stepmother. Her biological mother tragically died during childbirth.
Her father Rong Yuan served as a minister of domestic affairs in the imperial court, a position which helped ensure Wan Rong’s privileged upbringing.
What was perhaps most surprising about Rong Yuan was his somewhat progressive attitude towards gender equality. Unlike many during that time, Rong Yuan was adamant that his daughter should have the same opportunities as her male counterparts. He later matched his words with actions when, in 1913, the whole family moved to Tianjin and Wan Rong was sent to the American Missionary School in the city.
Wan Rong was later deemed a suitable match for China’s last emperor Puyi. It turned out to be a marriage marred by misery, the most distressing part of which was the death of her illegitimate child that she had with one of Puyi’s aides. Puyi ordered the child to be killed, despite Wan Rong’s pleas.
It was her opium addiction that would ultimately lead to her death. After being captured by Communist forces, she suffered withdrawal symptoms and died in 1946.
Mao'er Hutong. Image via That's/Alistair Baker-Brian
Wan Rong’s former residence lies at no. 37 Mao’er Hutong. The relatively mundane-looking courtyard residence is contrasted by nearby Shichahai lake and Nanluoguxiang Hutong, areas which are usually abuzz with tourists.
On the wall next to the door of the residence, you’ll find a sign with a brief description of Wan Rong’s life.
Edward Werner. Image via Wikipedia
The former British consul and sinologist lived in Beijing right up until the end of the city’s colonial era.
Unfortunately, his time in Beijing was overshadowed by the murder of his daughter Pamela on January 8, 1937. Her mutilated body was found at the bottom of the Fox Tower nearby Kuijiachang Hutong.
Pamela’s father never gave up in the pursuit of justice. British and Chinese detectives worked on the case. However, the murder was later forgotten amid the carnage of the Japanese invasion that would ensue. The case remains unsolved until this day.
Kuijiachang Hutong. Image via That's/Alistair Baker-Brian
The same hutong in which Edgar Snow and Helen Foster-Snow once resided – Edward and Pamela Werner lived at no. 1 before Pamela’s murder in 1937.
Kuijiachang is nearby the Fox Tower – the site of the murder – and also nearby the Badlands hutong which was a key part of the police investigation.
[Cover image via Bruce Connolly]