Beijing is a city that has incorporated Eastern and Western cultures during ancient and modern times. For native Beijingers, the most iconic symbol of the city is surely its Hutongs. These culturally rich alleyways have had a great influence on Wang Baoli, an amateur student of history who photographs Beijing's traditional heritage and makes miniatures of the Hutong way of life.
Caocao, American Actor "First of all, I want to ask you a question. What can best represent Beijing?"
Man 1: The Forbidden City. The Imperial Palace.
Caocao: What else can represent Beijing? Man 2: Tian'anmen Square.
Man 3: I think food culture best represents Beijing.
Woman 1: Sweet pea cakes and rice rolls.
Man 4: The Hutong alleyways came in the Yuan Dynasty.
Caocao: So, what best represents Beijing?
Man 5: Beijing snacks and the Hutongs.
Beijing is a city that has incorporated Eastern and Western cultures during ancient and modern times. It's impossible to summarize in just a single sentence. So what really represents Beijing? Everyone has his own answer.
For native Beijingers, among all its distinctive features, the Hutongs are synonymous with Beijing. These alleyways have existed for 700 years and seen the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, the Republic of China and today's nation. The word "hutong" originates from Mongolian, with the original meaning of "a well". It now refers to the neighborhoods of old Beijing.
Caocao: Sir, stop please. Let's have a look. What's that guy doing there? I saw you taking photos. What is it?
Wang Baoli, Miniature Maker "It is a door stone, at least a hundred years old, passed down from generation to generation. Look, the weather-beaten veins made it different from newer door stones. We can't see the shape of animal clearly. It's worn right down.
Caocao: I saw you carefully taking pictures of all the tiny details. Why? Mr. Wang: Because the details represent our heritage. I took photos to save it as a record.
His name is Wang Baoli, a real Beijinger I met in a Hutong. The door stones he was photographing are part of traditional Beijing residences, decorations for the doorways of a siheyuan. A siheyuan is a house with rooms for all four cardinal directions facing into a central, square courtyard. It has been a major example of residential vernacular architecture in Beijing for generations and reflects ancient Chinese philosophy on harmony between human and nature.
Inside the open courtyard surrounded by buildings, the entrance gate to the siheyuan is located at the southeast corner. On the north side, the room is set aside for the head of the family and receives the most sun. The east room is for the younger generations, the west room for other relatives, and the south room, known as the opposite house, is either a family gathering spot or used by the servants.
Mr. Wang: If some major family event takes place, the door will be opened so family members may enter directly. Usually, this door is not opened, however. So, what is it used for? It's like an extra layer for privacy.
Wang Baoli has a close connection with siheyuan that can't be severed by the passing of time. Although he moved away from the Hutongs years ago, he still keeps in touch with old friends, often over a meal. Look. He's brought an authentic Sichuan hot pot.
The memory of the Hutong way of life is very dear to Wang Baoli, so he resigned from his job and started taking photos of siheyuan as he passes through the Hutongs. He uses simple tools to give them a new lease of life. The old Beijing miniatures he makes by hand, allow us to catch a glimpse of traditional city life.
The miniatures Wang Baoli made to record the history of Beijing originates from the customs of the Hutongs. These old Beijing customs represent his childhood memories.
These memories are shared by all Beijing natives. The traditional old Beijing way of life has left its mark on every brick and tile of the Hutongs, as well as the communities of the old city. Though weathered by unrest, reform and each passing dynasty, the spirit remains.