Category Archives: Travelogue

Day 11: Fieldwork

A day of public engagement! The Cultural Preservation project team undertook several creative exercises to gather insights from members of the local hutong community.

Day 10: Guest Lecture from Zhang Jie and Marjtin De Geus, Tsinghua School of Architecture

Sailing the Streets

There is something truly wondrous about riding a bicycle through the streets of Beijing: the sense of motion, the air and freedom, the breeze rushing past as you balance and keep afloat. Even the sounds of angry car horns decrescendo into simple aural reminders: a way to keep track of one’s surroundings without craning your neck every which way. “Negotiated flow,” the bike nostalgic called it.

I join the throng of two-wheelers, feeling a sense of camaraderie as we cycle the boulevards like a school of fish—scooters or bikes, single riders or pairs—happily sailing through the land canals of what was once the northern bicycle Venice.

Afternoon, Perfectly Bright

Walking down the hutong lane,
I encounter a green-leafed archway
casting cool shade.

A small dog patters by,
passing a trio of wandering ducks.
Minnows flicker in a tub near splashing guppies.

Residents seated under an awning
fan themselves,
tracing the air with
broad, lazy strokes,
issuing a trail of leisure.

Nuts roasting in an outdoor pan
give rise to a powerful and inviting scent
that wafts along a darkened corridor,
drawing passers-by deeper into an unseen courtyard.

I pull away from the siren doorway
and plunge onward to encounter
sunlit patches
of warm, gray bricks.
Bicycles chatter along the road,
wheels turning, handlebar bells ringing.

The afternoon is
by the sound of small chimes.

I ride a light breeze to the end of the lane,
swallowed by air and time.
I alight onto solid ground,
then disappear into the thoroughfare beyond.

Historical Beijing

On Thursday, we visited the Shijia Hutong Museum, a site celebrating the culture and life of Old Beijing. Many of the city’s hutong—lanes or alleyways—date back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. They are composed of a series of traditional courtyard homes called siheyuan, which have for much of the city’s history have made up the vast majority of the urban fabric. (For example, in 1949, over 1.9 million residents coexisted in a city of largely one- or two-story buildings.)

After the Communists came to power, they began razing the city to accommodate Mao’s plans for urban industrialization, despite fierce opposition from planning experts, historians, and the famous architect Liang Sicheng. This is when Beijing lost its walls. However, many of the city’s traditional courtyards still survived the tumult of the Socialist era. It was actually the rapid construction of the go-go 1980s and 1990s that accelerated the destruction of Beijing’s architectural heritage, and to date, thousands of hutongs have been demolished.

[View of Shijia Hutong Museum Courtyard]

[View of Street Model]

See more pictures in our gallery of Shijia Hutong Museum after the jump.

What were once beautiful, meticulously-kept homes have fallen into disrepair, and the numbers of hutong neighborhoods are dwindling. The Shijia hutong is a restored courtyard home that once belonged to the Ling family. One of its most famous residents was Ling Shuhua, a painter and writer, and her husband Chen Xiying (Chen Yuan). In China in the early twentieth century, it was the literati—essayists, novelists, artists, poets—who were the country’s rockstars, and people eagerly followed their scholarly and personal lives, while celebrating their travels and exploits. The 1920s and 1930s are often deemed the “Golden Age of Intellectualism” as writing flourished, open debate took place in magazines and newspapers, and a sense of freedom and cultural evolution took hold as China broke from its strictly Confucian past to engage with the modern world.

Continue reading Historical Beijing

Day 5: Fieldwork