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Will Beijing's "Hutongs" Vanish?

The fast disappearance of Beijing's "hutongs", the traditional narrow lanes with houses in the form of quadrangles on both sides, is causing unexpected difficulties and problems for local residents.

For example, a reporter with a local newspaper wanted to write a story about a hutong named Beiwei in Beijing's Xicheng District, but couldn't find it after driving around for quite a while in the area where it used to be.

An old lady told him sadly that it had been torn down, and that the anonymous construction site he was standing next to was where it had once been.

Many Beijingers now often say that the city is no longer the one they were familiar with, for many of the hutongs, which housed communities of close-knit families for many generations have been flattened, and the sites used to build department stores, metro stations, and commercial and financial streets.

An official with the Beijing Municipal Place Name Office admitted that hutongs are disappearing, but added that if such old-fashioned buildings are not demolished there will be no space in the city for building new skyscrapers and modern facilities.

The word "hutong" has been widely used in Beijing ever since the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and another official said that its original meaning was a well for drawing water.

He explained that in ancient times Beijing was short of water, and people usually lived near wells where a source of water could be found. When building houses, a passage was often left between them for access to the wells, and hutongs gradually formed as more and more people came to live alongside them and the passageways became longer.

Zhang Qingchang, a linguist, said that "hutong" in Chinese originated from "huto" in Mongolian, which also means "well". But over a long period of time the word came to mean "streets and lanes."

Most of the hutongs, the typical urban lanes of Beijing, were built around the famous Forbidden City, and there were several thousand of them in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911). Statistics show that there were 3,200 hutongs in Beijing in 1944, but the figure has dropped to 990 today. In the Xicheng District, more than 260 hutongs have disappeared since the 1960s.

The existing hutongs still account for one-third of Beijing's urban area, where nearly half of the urban population lives.

A section chief with the Beijing Municipal Place Name Office said that the "disappearance" of the hutongs is a reflection of the way in which the ancient culture of Beijing is vanishing. Moreover, he revealed that the situation has created many difficulties for the postal services, as well affecting the existence of certain place names in the capital.

Xu Yong, general manager of the Beijing Hutong Tourist Agency, said that while Beijing can boast world-famous historic sites such as the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and the Temple of Heaven, it also has, although nowadays only to a certain extent, the magic of "hutongs" and "quadrangle houses", which he believes are a major part of the city's traditions and culture.

Xu launched a "hutong sight-seeing" tour in 1994, which has proved to be a great success.

Now the local government has drawn up a series of plans to protect and modernize the remaining hutongs and quadrangles.

However, some residents who have lived in them for a long time do not want to leave, for they say they will miss the happy life they enjoyed there, with great harmony and communal care. But there are others who want to move into new apartment buildings as soon as possible because they hate the poor living conditions and old-fashioned water supplies and heating facilities in hutongs.

Fan Yaobang, a senior planner at the Beijing Institute of City Planning and Design, disclosed that, with the approval of the State council, Beijing has listed 25 historic cultural protection zones, 19 of which are hutongs and quadrangles.

Fan said that protecting hutongs and quadrangles also helps to maintain the integrity and historical traditions of the city.

Materials are provided by "Travel China weekly newspaper"

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