The Last of Beijing’s Hutongs

My first experience in China was for a two-month internship with the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing. Knowing that I would be somewhat overwhelmed as a nineteen-year old, on my own in China, with a second-grader’s proficiency in Chinese, I chose to live in an Airbnb in an expat area called Sanlitun. It had all of the comforts I’d feared would be missing from my summer in China—H&M, an English-language bookstore, pizza. It was unexpectedly easy-living. But after two weeks in what was essentially New York, I decided it was time to graduate and experience what I thought was the real China.

Using Airbnb once again, I found a heavily-refurbished lofted hutong 胡同 apartment. I chose to stay hutong after reading about the historic courtyard residences in a book about an American-born Chinese woman coming to China for the first time and staying with her Beijing relatives in their vast courtyard property. I would soon learn from curiously peering into neighbors’ windows and from reading a very different book about hutongs, Michael Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing, that hutongs had lost their luster. My Airbnb hutong was nothing like the homes of most Beijing hutong-dwellers.

Flash forward to last week, when our Davidson in China group traveled to Beijing, and one of our activities was a tour of a hutong neighborhood. Our tour guide prefaced this tour by saying that hutongs were once a symbol of grassroots Beijing upper-class lifestyle that existed outside of the imperial city, but are now seen as a symbol of national shame. Most hutongs today accommodate multiple families, and do not have modern heating or plumbing. According to our guide, most have been poorly maintained and expanded, often with whatever building scraps residents have found. Over the past decade, as China seeks to earn its reputation as an advanced and modern nation, the CCP sees hutongs as a stain on its image. Many have been torn down and what maintenance is performed is not done with preservation and restoration in mind.

Despite the party’s view of hutongs, they are still an object of fascination for many tourists. As Beijing begins to look more and more like the cities of the developed world, and wide roads and skyscrapers replace courtyard homes and alleyways, hutongs present tourists with the quintessence of China that they’ve read about in books and seen in movies.

Temple of Heaven

We arrived at the Temple of Heaven on a clear, crisp day in autumn. It was that perfect temperature where you could wear anything from short sleeves to a Burberry coat comfortably (as shown below in a photo). Tai chi Master Luo greeted us after we entered the park. After lining up in two horizontal lines, all facing the Master, we first learned how to properly greet your master with a bow. Afterwards, we all attempted to mimic her fluid movement. It did not seem like it was going to be that hard of a task; however, her years of practice trumped our youthfulness. I cannot speak for everyone, but even the parts I could follow, I felt like a baby deer struggling for footing. Overall, it was a fantastic experience that provided us with some insight into the martial art many elderly Chinese partake in every day.

Tai chi with Master Luo (looks like Dragon Ball Z)

After Tai chi, we walked  up and around the Temple of Heaven Park. For some background, the imperial complex was first built in the early 1400s. The intricately colored and crafted buildings cover just over one square mile. The circular temple in the middle is perched on a few layers of marble to give the illusion of it resting of clouds. All of us had time to explore the first grouping of buildings; but, given that most of the information was in Chinese, everything had to be processed visually.

The Main Temple

After looking around the main part of the Temple of Heaven Park, we walked down the very long path connecting the temple with another part of the complex. The path was perfectly smooth; however, there was about a 6 foot decline over the course of a few hundred meters. This spoke to me, as it was just another example of how technical Chinese architects could be hundreds of years ago. At the end of the path, there was a second temple. There was a a circular wall around this temple, so supposedly on a quiet day you can hear someone talking into the other side of it. It was pretty crowded when we were there, so Bradford and I just found ourselves yelling at separate sections of a the wall like madmen…

The long pathway between temples

The bottom temple










The park was beautiful and was complemented with amazing whether. We couldn’t have asked for a better day to see another historical site in Beijing!

Paper-Making in Houhai

There is probably nothing more study abroad-like than participating in unfamiliar traditional activities. In only our second day of our one-week stay in Beijing, our next stop after lunch was at a traditional-style residence in Houhai where we learned how to make Chinese paper cuts! Before the activity began, I was personally a little fatigued after quite the busy morning in Tiananmen Square and Jingshan Park. However, a nice surprise welcomed me on our way to the residence: we got to ride a carriage! Here’s a POV clip below:


He biked at the perfect pace, giving me enough time to enjoy the autumn breeze and a more traditional-looking part of China. It was a much-needed pleasant ride since I didn’t think my legs could support me any longer. Anyways, when we got there, we were greeted by a man named Mike, who spoke very fluent English with minimal accent. But because the residence was small and we came in a big group, we all split up into three groups, placed in three different rooms where Mike would spend time with each group one-by-one. My group went first while the other groups waited.

After we sat down at a felt-covered table, he first thing he told us was “these are very sharp scissors.” I didn’t think he was being serious, but he was. I poked myself, and it hurt. After sharing a few laughs with my fellow friend Mike, he taught us a brief history of paper-cutting (including its importance during the New Year: 窗花), common patterns of paper-cutting, and how to make one of the patterns, of which the name I sadly forgot.

I’m sure of one thing: paper-cutting is a very precise art. It not only requires cutting paper, but also requires folding paper. If you cut too much paper, you had to start over again. Making the wrong folds, meaning an inch off from what Mike demonstrated, frustrated me a lot more than I originally anticipated. However, Mike was very helpful and even satisfied that we were doing really well on our first ever try.

The end result? The most beautiful paper creation I made in my life, mostly because I haven’t done any paper work since my elementary school arts and crafts days. Let’s just say I made some pretty interesting things back in the day.

I really like these kinds of activities because I can study all the traditions of China I want on the Internet or in a textbook, but doing an actual activity in real life really adds a different depth to my overall personal impression. I find my mind to be a lot more engaged and excited when doing hands-on activities. Just like cooking Chinese food at the Linden Center in Dali, paper-cutting again made me more personally connected with Chinese culture simply because I actually participated in the activity. These kinds of activities aren’t easy, but the work is definitely worth the learning experience.

The Great Wall (of Pingyao?)

When you think of walls and you think of China, the Pingyao Ancient City Wall probably isn’t what comes to mind. Nevertheless, the ancient city of Pingyao, located about 600 kilometers from Beijing, remains one of China’s best hidden treasures – a place not many visitors to China have the opportunity to travel to, but one that we in the Davidson in China program are very grateful to have witnessed for ourselves.

The wonderfully preserved walls of Pingyao that we see today date all the way back to the Xizhou Dynasty, placing their construction at about 2,700 years ago. Originally built to shield the city from invaders from Eastern Mongolia, the ancient city walls have survived the test of time (and, most incredibly, evaded the destruction of the Cultural Revolution) to capture its current status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The wall encloses the city inside in a square, and measures 10 meters high (for reference, that is very high) and is over 6,000 meters long (likewise, that is very long).

The drive from the train station to one of the wall’s main gates (we stayed at an inn within the walls interior) feels like a drive through time. Outside the walls, you see western clothes stores, McDonalds, and newly constructed buildings lit up in different colors. But as you approach the wall, you walk through the main gate and it feels like you are walking into another century. No western clothes stores, no McDonalds, no towering buildings. Instead, small shops selling Shanxi Province specialty dishes and sweets line the cobblestone streets – the only reminder of the country’s rapid climb to modernization while perhaps leaving its thousands of years of history and traditions behind can be seen in a knock-off Starbucks coffeeshop, seemingly attuned to the tastes of the few foreigners who make it inside the city.

The next day, we walked along the top of the wall, overlooking the roofs of the houses and hundreds of years of history below. Later that night, we walked through the very bustling streets of Pingyao’s ancient city, trying the local snacks (fried cookies with brown sugar inside!!), looking through souvenir shops, watching what the people were doing to see what makes the city so popular with tourists from all around China.

All in all, if you happen to be in China, I think all of us Wildcats would definitely recommend getting off the beaten path and taking a trip to Pingyao!!

The Summer Palace

On Tuesday morning, we got up and headed to the Summer Palace (颐和园) in Beijing. This imperial garden is world-known, and has been incredibly well preserved over the centuries. It was first built in 1750, and in the early 20th century, the grounds became a public park, where people could buy entrance tickets and roam throughout the palace. Toward the end of the 20th century, the Summer Palace was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and is now visited by millions of people from all over the world. The main attractions of the Summer Palace include Longevity Hill (万寿山) and Kunming Lake. Our guide William also took us over to see the Marble Boat, which sits on the lake. It was destroyed in the mid-19th century during the Second Opium War, but later rebuilt in marble under the reign of Empress Dowager Cixi.


Many of us have studied abroad in China before, so we’d had the opportunity to visit the Summer Palace in the past, but never have I been on such a beautiful and sunny day. The weather was practically perfect every day of our trip, which was pretty remarkable for this time of year.

The air quality was at its absolute best and the weather was phenomenal; in the pictures above, it is possible to see the mountains in the background, something that is often impossible to see when the pollution is particularly bad. The colors of the buildings were incredibly vibrant, the lake was glimmering, and the gardens were spectacular. Even the trees had changed colors, making everything very colorful.


Our guide took us through the palace, and allowed us to wander about on our own. At the end of our visit, we ended up at Kunming Lake. The enormous lake had many boats, and lots of tourists and visitors were sitting near the lake’s edge, and strolling through The Long Corridor. We took a boat back to the entrance of the park, and were able to admire the palace from the water. The lake takes up nearly ¾ of the entire Summer Palace, and thus it seemed only fitting that we take a boat ride during our visit!



I thought that it was incredibly beneficial to go visit the Summer Palace with a guide. The beauty of the palace is definitely remarkable, but what makes it even more interesting is to know about the history and life within the Palace. This was one of the best days we had in Beijing!