Bulldozers march on Peking's old courtyards

A unique feature of the city is under threat, writes Teresa Poole

Peking - As one of the Empress dowager Cixi's favourite eunuchs, Li Lianying lived in comparative style in his traditional courtyard residence near Houhai lake, north of Peking's Forbidden City. The quadrangle was laid out according to established form: a single doorway led off the hutong, or alleyway, and through to a rectangular courtyard overlooked by single-storey rooms.

Then, as now, the distinctively shaped roofs had grey tiles and the pillars and window-frames were painted red. At that time, Li and his relatives would have had the quadrangle to themselves; now, 14 families are crammed in. "Everybody knows each other," said one resident, Mrs Yan.

Away from the city's new office blocks and shopping centres, the reality of everyday life for many Pekingers is still focused on the hutongs. But not, perhaps, for much longer. Old Peking is fast disappearing as bulldozers move in. Conservationists are alarmed at the apparent lack of concern about which hutong districts should be protected and residents are often dismayed at the prospect of being forcibly moved to more expensive apartment blocks in distant suburbs. Nor is the redevelopment going to solve the housing shortage: although a construction boom has created a glut of property, it is far too pricey for the average family.

In many hutongs, conditions are spartan and even squalid. Old Mrs Liu has lived in her traditional courtyard in the west of the city for 47 years. There is no heating apart from a coal stove, the only water is from a tap in the yard shared with several families, and it is a five- minute walk to the nearest (public) toilet. Yet as bulldozers from the nearby development of Peking's "Financial Street" work their way in her direction, Mrs Liu is unenthusiastic about being rehoused. "I have spent most of my life here. Everything seems so familiar to me. I simply don't know what life will be like for me when I can't see the red wooden window frames and the clay bricks and the trees here." There are practical objections as well: Mrs Liu's son works at the Capital Iron and Steel Works, west of the city, but the government plans to rehouse them two hours' drive away on the other side of town.

A hundred years ago Mrs Liu's hutong probably housed merchants and tradesmen. The area is of less historic interest than the courtyard houses in the Yan family neighbourhood, once the residences of imperial retainers and aristocrats. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the style of a courtyard's gate indicated the rank and social status of the owner, and beautiful stone and brick carvings can be found along the hutongs. Life was regimented: the household head lived in the rooms along the north side of his quadrangle, to benefit from the sun. His wife's bedroom was at the east end of his quarters; his concubine slept to the west.

A few of the most attractive courtyards have been renovated by mainland developers and are on the market at sky-high prices. A Hong Kong property agent said he had been quoted asking prices of pounds 450,000 to pounds 2.5m. But many quadrangles are too run-down to be worth restoring, or sit on land which now has prime high-rise development potential.

Xu Yong, who has produced a photographic record of some of Peking's historic hutongs, estimates a quarter of the city's courtyard housing has been demolished. "Even now the city has no clear measures to preserve the hutongs." Some 24 preservation areas were in theory designated in 1990, but the Cultural Relics Bureau has in practice been unable to stop development projects approved by more powerful departments.

Everyone accepts that many hutongs will not survive, because an upwardly mobile population demands facilities such as bathrooms and central heating. So Mr Xu is lobbying for effective preservation orders on selected neighbourhoods. These could be renovated and some used as tourist sites and hotels, he suggests, to give future generations a glimpse of traditional Peking life.

The Yan family, who pay only pounds 1.40 a month in rent to the city government, just want to stay put. Mrs Yan, her husband, who works in a radio-components factory, and their two adult daughters share one large room and an annexe. The hutong has been their home for 26 years and, as far as Mrs Yan is concerned, she has few wants. "We have installed a cold- water tap and already have a 1,700 yuan [pounds 130] washing machine," she said. "We would like a large colour television and also a bigger refrigerator. But since we've been told this area may be pulled down, we will wait a few years before buying anything, in case we have to move."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution