Beijing: Hot Spots and Hutongs in a Multi-faceted City
by David Yeadon
There are two ways to enter Beijing's Forbidden City — that sprawling,
one-time bastion of centralized Chinese power under the great dynasties
that flourished here for hundreds of years. The first way is the "correct"
way via the huge Gate of Heavenly Peace on Tiananmen Square where Mao Zedong
formally proclaimed the "New China" on October 1, 1945. Here you jostle
in with the crowds across the ornate moat bridges, under the great red arch
beneath the gigantic airbrushed photo of Mao staring benignly with that
enigmatic Mona Lisa smile at the daily masses pouring into that first enormous
paved plaza to wander through seemingly endless sequence of temples and
palaces and reception areas and more vast white-stoned plazas . . . .
Or there's the other way. The way I always tend to prefer when exploring.
The way that custom-shapes your own itinerary and sense of individualized
discovery. I look for a back entrance and in this instance merely smiled
pleasantly at a cleaning lady emerging from a tiny side door way up along
the 20' high western wall of The Forbidden City, wished her a chirpy hello,
indicated that I'd like to have a little peep and . . . .
. . . I was in.
And the whole place was mine! No one else was about in the early morning silence except a swirl of swooping birds, a few cooing dove-couples, and the
musty ghosts of emperors and princes and courtesans and courtiers moving almost tangibly through the shadows between the ornate palaces. Somehow
this kind of mildly-illicit form of exploration coupled with tingles of schoolboy excitement, added frisson and flavor to the rich reality of this amazing
complex. Most tourist hot spots in China and even more so in the capital, Beijing, are inundated with tsunamis of visitors. Here, as soon as the main
gates open off Tiananmen Square and the coaches roll up by the score, it becomes difficult to appreciate the power and mystery of such a unique place
while being washed along in a tidal surge of chattering, nibbling, camera-wielding, guide book-waving tourists.
Far better to make friends with a cleaning lady and get a sense of the place solo-style — at least for a while. For then you can appreciate the fact that
barely an inch of this enormous 200 acre complex, home to 24 emperors from 1420 to 1924, is not adorned with some kind of carving or painting or other
form of ornate decoration. Even the white flagstones of the vast courtyards are often sculpted in delicate, swirling bas-reliefs. These spaces were
designed to hold huge pageants of over 600,000 bowing, scraping participants or grand assemblies of faithful worshipers — and to impress and diminish
outsiders by their inhuman scale. You know, you can sense immediately, that this was the true focal point of power, the fiercely-protected fulcrum of a
nation with the world's oldest continuous culture (writing was developed here around 1700 BC) which today boasts a population of over 1.2 billion,
almost a quarter of the population of our globe.
The tentacles of authority and decree sinewed throughout this huge land
from this single spot and, with the exception of occasional disturbances
caused by such ambitious would-be world-conquerors as Genghis Kahn and
his Mongol hoards in the 13th century, did so effectively and efficiently
almost right up to the present day. A present day of fascinating, if precarious,
unpredictability. But more on that later. For the moment it was enough
just to wander alone through the vastness of this place, cut off by towering
walls from the crackle and din of the city. This, I realized, must have
been what it was always like since the emergence of The Forbidden City
as it stands today during the Ming and Qing dynasties. This sense of an
heaven-like oasis of calm, centered in the certainty of its own power
and prestige, where the golden roof tiles of the palaces glow in the low
early sun and the lightness of the delicately curled rooflines contrast
sublimely with the huge column-and-beam construction of the halls with
their swathes and swirls of carved ornamentation and elaborate thrones
and brightly-painted ceilings and swooping dragons and fierce phoenixes
. . . .
The symbols of power and longevity are everywhere — fierce bronze lions, docile, doe-eyed tortoises and elegant lanky cranes. Wherever you look you
are reminded that this place was regarded as the center of everything — the nation, the world, the universe. Rich, certain, aloof — this was for the Chinese
the focal point of all life, commerce, earthly values and a key spirited touchstone — unchanging and unforgiving.
The writer Osbert Sitwell, captured its spirit perfectly: "Each court constitutes a world of its own, remote in feeling as the moon; a world wherein nothing
changes except the ceaseless, clock-like sweep of cold, golden light from east to west."
I left here strangely humbled by this bastion of utter certainty.
Maybe that's what makes Beijing such an intriguing capital. Founded over two
thousand years ago as Yanjing (City of Swallows), a strategic and frontier
outpost, the city's metropolitan population now exceeds 14 million and
you can sense that all national power still resides here — overtly
and covertly. All around you is a megalopolis of rampaging growth, and
all the colorful chaos of culture-shock as the nation grapples uneasily
(from a power-broker point of view) and enthusiastically (from the point
of view of most urban citizens and certain the hordes of foreign visitors)
with the expectations and actualities of glorious western-styled excess
— an almost promiscuous excess of venture — or more precisely
— vulture capitalism!
Look at the billboards and you'll see the quandary. On the fringe of the city's
main commercial retail strip, Qianmen Dajie, an Aladdin's cave of teeming
consumer abundance, there's an enormous one — bright communist red with
white text giving a terse synopsis of the current party line: "March Ahead
Along the Road of Building Socialism with Chinese Characteristics." And
then, barely fifty yards away is a second, not quite so large and authoritative,
but painted in the happy colors of domestic harmony (pastel pinks, soft
blues, and meadow-greens) suggesting "Your Credit Card will Bring You
Abundant Happiness — Today!" — followed by pictures of cars, TV sets,
stereos, air conditioners, washing machines, rice cookers, beepers, cell
phones — the lot!
Despite the treasured monuments and symbols of earlier ages here and the sumptuous sprawl of its great royal parks and palaces, it`s usually the brash
modernity of the city that amazes most first time visitors. Freeways, particularly the giant east-west Chang'an Jie, are edged by endless concrete blocks
and glass-spiked with new towers and high-rise complexes all bristling with satellite dishes. Time-encrusted city walls have long gone and even the
fascinating old hutong neighborhoods, cobwebbed with alleys and little markets and redolent with traditional lifeways, are ripe for the wreckers balls and
instant Lego erector-set development. Another huge billboard I saw proclaimed a little daringly — "New Homes for A New People!" while chimney
smoke curled slowly skyward from hundreds of nearby hutong siheyuan (courtyard homes). Scores of bicyclists trickled out on their way to work
through the thickening morning-rush fumes and sneak-into-everything palls of dust (irritating dregs of sandstorms from the Gobi and other deserts that
have always plagued the city). Domestic coal-fires and general industrial and other pollution increasingly generated in this place of seemingly
unstoppable growth and frantic dot com-mania commerce, thickened by the minute as the traffic became chaotically gridlocked.
"Now is frighten times," an elderly man with enormous, tobacco-yellowed
teeth whispered to me in fragmented — but surprisingly coherent English
— as I purchased some freshly-steamed baozi (spongy rolls stuffed with
chopped meat and vegetables) for breakfast from his tiny street stall
in a hutong neighborhood just off the eastern side of Tiananmen Square.
"Money, money — too much, too fast." He shook his streaky-haired head
and waved skinny fingers, knobby as fledgling bamboo stalks, seemingly
bewildered by the rapid decline in the ancient Confucian ideals of close
family ties and firm values, and by the surge of countless thousands of
migrants from the provinces — all signs of a new and, for him, dangerously
rootless mobility verging on spiritual, and political, anarchy. He seemed
confused too by the pace of the capital's transformation and nervous that
the still-powerful centralized government may institute yet one more of
its sudden purges against progress. He obviously had vivid memories of
Mao's shattering "Cultural Revolution" (1966-76) and other Tiananmen Square-type
"corrections" that have alarmed the western world with their sudden and
often enduring ferocity.
I sat down on a doorstep and watched the little neighborhood go about
its business in a timeless, almost time-warp, manner. A sidewalk barber
was meticulously clipping the black, hedgerow-thick eyebrows of an old
man lolling back on a rickety bamboo chair; a small boy dressed in a traditional
blue shirt and red kerchief school uniform was squatting on a tiny stool
outside his home carefully crafting ornate Chinese characters in his homework
book with a long bamboo pen, oblivious to all the scurried activity around
him; a store on the corner sold nothing but live ducks and chickens, crammed
and trussed up in wicker baskets and protesting loudly about their imminent
demise; six men sat splay-legged on the sidewalk immersed in a dice game
and drinking fiery mao-tai liquor from tiny chipped cups; a peddler standing
nearby displayed an extremely odd assortment of "health cures" on a rickety
folding table — deer antlers, dried anatomical accouterments, bottles
containing something blood-red in color (who knows — maybe actual
blood) and even the whole foot of a bear, claws and all; a bent woman
peddled a trishaw cart carrying enormous piles of coal briquettes for
neighborhood cooking stores and fires. There were huge clay vats of pickles
across the street exuding rich, vinegary aromas which mingled with the
pungent, lip-smacking smells of frying noodles being cooked lo-mein style
at a street stall with bean sprouts, shards of vegetables and meats, ginger
and soy sauce for delicious instant takeaway snacks . . . .
It's reassuring to see this kind of timeless "neighborhood" life still thriving in the city but, as I wandered hardly a couple of minutes away, around the
corner — there was the new Beijing once again with its garish billboards and glass and steel towers and clogged traffic (total gridlock in some central
sectors is an almost daily event here). And everywhere were those signs — neon-flickering extravaganzas for new discos and new bars (very in-scene
attractions at the moment and many are bundled up together in the foreign residents' area of Sanlitun), new stores, restaurants and "sing-song" karaoke
houses along Qianmen Dajie, Beijing's enduring "main street," and those two teeming, pedestrian-only shopping streets — Dazhalan, a wonderfully
traditional "film set" frenzy, and Liulichang, a gentrified strip of upmarket art and trinket shops, exotic new hotels and, of course, western-style junk food
outlets and snackeries sprouting up faster than they seem to do on commercial strips back in the USA. Of course, you can always seek refuge in the
traditional delights of the Donganmen Night Market with its plethora of cheap eating stalls (anyone for deep friend beetles?) or the beloved weekend
Panjiayuan Flea Market on the southern edge of the city.
There'll be no more purges here I thought. Just like my baozi-seller told me it's too late. Too hot. Too fast. Admittedly, an occasional crackdown on
some of the more nefarious and overt forms of political and financial corruption and the Mafia and Tong-styled underworld monopolies would be
desirable. While things are not yet quite so out of hand as they are in Moscow and in some of the onetime satellites of the old USSR, they're still a
definite nuisance and crime-rates are increasing. In fact things occasionally have boiled so obviously over-the-top that huge street protests by residents
have taken place — rather unfamiliar events in a nation renowned for strict population controls.
Fortunately, despite the reckless disregard of Beijing's ancient historical
heritage in many areas, the city still offers an abundance of delights
for visitors anxious to experience a little of the ambiance of the old
capital. So I decided to play tourist for a few days and let myself be
tour-grouped (yes, crowds and all. You can't always find compliant cleaning
ladies) around five of the key sites here, each one a "must-see" on most
travelers' itineraries. Don't be put off by the seemingly soulless sprawl
of this rapidly-changing metropolis. Even in the vastness of Tiananmen
Square, one of the world's largest urban gathering places and bound by
monumental, but utterly charmless, government buildings, you'll find scores
of kite-flyers, trinket and flower stalls, and youtiao (deep fried bread
sticks) sellers and people from every corner of China's enormous, multi-ethnic
melting pot. Some venture here in traditional dress, others in Mao-uniform
garb (a sort of militaristic leisure suit), and most in ill-fitting western-style
suits and dresses, but almost all eventually join the long lines outside
the great Chairman Mao Memorial Hall to pay homage to the embalmed corpse
of The Great Leader, and historic world figure. The interior is cold and
aloof and strangely unmoving despite the aura of obligatory reverence
that saturates the place. "I came only for my parents," whispered one
young man in his odd chequered and striped "best suit" and shrugged with
cool disdain, "It was a promise . . . ."
I enjoyed a far more promising touristic experience in little hilltop Jingshan Park at the northern tip of The Forbidden City and adjoining Beihai Park,
once home of Kublai Khan, and now an entrancing lake-setting for pavilions, temples and halls and a huge Tibetan stupa painted blinding white and built
to honor the visit here of the Dalai Lama in 1651. A couple of miles to the northeast near Dalai Park is a more active focal point for Tibetan teaching in
the form of the Lama Temple, once a palace, and still teeming with ornate carved creatures, stelae, huge bronze incense burners and Buddhas galore all
bathed in that unique glow of peace and spiritual enlightenment.
"Doesn't he look so happy and content," gushed one tourist lady from Texas.
"He should. He found nirvana didn't he. Didn't have to get reincarnated a thousand times like most of them other poor peasants!" replied her female
companion who'd obviously read her guide book carefully.
And guidebooks occasionally get it right. Most suggest that one of the peak
experiences in Beijing is a trip to the entrancing Summer Palace fifteen
miles or so northwest of downtown. But first I was taken on a brief sidetrack
to the Temple of Heaven park a mile or so south of Tiananmen Square to
view the exquisite circular Good Harvest Prayer House where for centuries
emperors conducted elaborate sacrificial rites to ensure food for their
needy, and occasionally restless, masses.
Then it was off to the sumptuous Summer Palace gardens and more ornate
palaces, pavilions and temples all around Kunming Lake which, until the
mid 1700's, were the private sanctuary of dynasty-dignitaries and Buddha
help any poor little serf who happened to stray into these hallowed grounds,
especially if the notoriously-ferocious Empress Dowager CiXi was in residence
with her foot-long fingernails and reputation for executing any uninspired
chef who failed to tantalize her taste buds at her frequent 120 course
But it was all a little too packed — like a pumped up Beijing-'passegiata'
— with over-popular picnic spots all around Longevity Hill and a shopping
madhouse among the traditional waterside shops of Suzhou Street. As usual
— pleasures in Beijing are invariably enjoyed en-masse, but here at least,
the dusty, fume-laden air of the city was far less noxious. White clouds
with flat underbellies drifted slowly above the crowds like giant mantra
rays and, higher still, wispy veils of cirrus lay like sparkling plankton
on the endless surface of a blue cobalt sky. Calm can be found in these
beautiful places — it's all a matter of attitude and seeking out the
secluded niches. Down the hill from where I sat, two lovers lay together
in the warm grass, reciting poetry to one another. Moods of sweet latency
enveloped me. And then a tour of shrieking French school kids appeared
out of nowhere and my solace-seeking self rebelled . . .enough of all this!
I was saturated in history, culture and the claustrophobia of conducted
tours. It was time for a gentling a disappearance once again into the
hutongs . . . .
And that's how I found myself in one of the most evocatively traditional neighborhoods
of all adjoining Houhai Lake, northwest of the great languorous spaces
of Beihai Park.
Peace, sanity, and the delights of solace returned as I wandered through
the narrow alleys losing myself intentionally in their tantalizing tangles.
I peeped wherever I could into those intimate domestic courtyards, the
siheyuan, and caught glimpses of family life still rolling gently along
behind high gray walls and "spirit doors" to keep out evil influences.
Which apparently they did because things seemed to go on much as they
have for generations, unperturbed by all the searing progress and pumping
adrenaline of this overheated metropolis.
Here I saw songbirds in their bamboo cages, heard pet crickets chirping,
and bamboo wind chimes wafting in cool breezes beneath vine-covered trellises
and roof awnings from which dangled strings of red chilies, green peppers,
and ginger. As I was sneaking a peep into one particularly delightful
siheyuan filled with potted flowers and redolent with the aromas of rich
sauces wafting out from the tiny windows of the kitchen, a man came quietly
from behind pushing his bicycle, nudged the door open wider with his front
wheel and, with an enormous toothy grin, invited me inside. I was a little
reluctant to accept. My knowledge of Chinese was negligible beyond the
usual ten or so touristic quickies ("where is the toilet please" and "I'd
like to pay a lot less for this . . ." and "excuse me, you've just hawked
on my shoe . . .") and I know how much the Chinese value their privacy
hence all the high walls and closed doors. However, as I knew I would,
I accepted, promising myself just a couple of minutes, tops . . . .
Three hours later, I waddled out of that siheyuan having somehow ingested
half a liter bottle of Mao-tai, most of a chicken cooked to mousse-like
tenderness in a ginger, chile, soy, sugar and rice vinegar sauce, mini-mountains
of soft fluffy rice, a couple of sliced oranges, cigars (mine — I handed
them round much to the amazement and delight of the assembled family who
handled them like little bars of gold), and endless cups of tea and more
Mao-tai and toasts to everything from Mao ("He was good. His ministers
no good!"), to my family back in England, to a nearby neighborhood McDonald's
which was apparently regarded as the prime repository of all things new
What had begun as a small gathering of father (my host with the bicycle),
mother, one child (the legal limit in China) and a grandmother who kept
wobbling behind us in the shadows on tiny slippered feet (once bound,
so I was told, in the traditional manner) eventually ended up as an impromptu
party with half the neighborhood wandering in bringing gifts of more food
and, of course, more Mao-tai
The remainder of the day seemed to pass in slow, somewhat blurred, motion.
Which actually is not a bad way to spend your time in the hutong to the
west of the old Drum and Bell Towers across Silver Ingot Bridge and close
to the willow-graced Houtai and Qianhai lakes where statue-still elderly
men were fishing with long bowed bamboo rods. Strolling at a pace that
can euphemistically be described as "contemplative," I explored Old Pipe
Lane, packed with cluttered stores, peddlers, carts and street food stalls;
watched the old men proudly "walking" their caged songbirds and eyeing
the competition for "best canary-Caruso" status or something of the kind;
enviously admired the energy and discipline of a group of elderly ladies
practicing tai qi near the lake; smiled as huddles of men played furious
forays of mah-jong or more sedate games of chess under the willow trees
while nibbling on pizza-like flatbreads known as da bing, still warm from
the nearby bakery, and crepe-styled xiao bing bursting with stir-fried
meat and vegetables. The intense mix of sights, sounds and smells here
was utterly entrancing — the shrill calls of crickets and the cries
of the men selling pet-cricket cages gouged from small gourds with meticulously
carved lids and delicate wooden grasshopper "houses," the goldfish sellers,
purveyors of buns, youtiao and dimum of every description, kite-makers,
and the serious, stern looks on the little faces of boys in school uniform
returning to their siheyuans with homework assignments neatly packed away
in identical black plastic backpacks . . . .
I ended my explorations atop the nearby Drum Tower, on Gulou Daji, one worn 15th century relic of the old city that thankfully has not been eradicated
in the name of progress. I lost count of the steps but finally sat breathless and happy looking over this strange place of contrasts and wondering how —
or if — it will somehow keep the balance between progress, prosperity and the preservation of a heritage that has endured for over two thousand years.
I guess we'll just have to wait and see. But meanwhile . . . it's time for
tea again, somewhere under those willow trees by Houhai Lake . . . .
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