In the nineteenth century, George Eliot wrote that Rome is a city that makes ‘the mind flexible by constant comparison’, a place that ‘saved you from seeing the world’s ages as a set of box-like partitions without vital connection’. Contemporary Beijing has this same wonderful quality. From the Temple of Heaven to the Bird’s Nest Stadium, the Forbidden City to the CCTV Tower, Beijing is both ancient and modern. It is undoubtedly my favourite Chinese city.
I stayed in a hotel nestled in an old hutong. Hutongs are sprawling areas of traditional courtyard residences, laced with narrow streets and alleys. Some date from as many as three thousand years ago, and they are good places to get a feel for the ambiguous, enduring quality which Eliot describes and Beijing certainly has. The word ‘hutong’ is actually a Mongol word, the entomology of which hints at China’s often tumultuous history and the influence of the Mongol hordes on the capital, more of which in a couple of weeks when I write about the Great Wall.
The hutong I stayed in lay to the south-west of the Forbidden City, with the hotel about fifteen minutes walk from Tiananmen Square. It was interesting to wander through the hutong, noting how things became more and more commercial as the hutong neared the Archer Gate, at the southern end of Tiananmen.
The narrow alleys where I stayed were bordered by traditional dumpling houses, numerous ‘Chinese General Stores’ (as I call them – think ‘Open all Hours’, but the food is generally even more out of date), and many other impossibly cramped shops so inscrutable they could conceivably have dealt in anything from scrap metal to pets, hair-cuts to traditional Chinese medicine, or indeed any possible combination of each or all. The traditional cobbles had mostly been replaced by asphalt to cater for the array of vehicles which careen through the narrow alleys.
After a few minutes of walking towards the Archer Gate the asphalt was replaced by slabs of slate paving – definitely an improvement – but as the alleys widened and the tourists increased, so the shops lost their enigmatic charm. Increasingly fast food joints replaced the traditional dumpling houses and it became far easier to tell exactly what shops were selling. This is not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose, and there were still many traditional restaurants selling Beijing duck and other delicacies, but it was hard not to feel like something had been lost.
I was lucky enough to see many wonderful sights in Beijing, besides the hutongs. As well as the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, I was also able to check out the Yonghegong Lama Temple and the Summer Palace, not to mention the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the CCTV Tower. All of these stand in a city which has endured, through various incarnations, for three millennia. This is what made me think of Eliot’s words and how history should not be seen as ages, separated in ‘box-like partitions’. When it is possible on the same day to visit a temple built as the seat of an emperor and his dynasty nearly 600 years ago, and then marvel at a state-of-the-art athletics stadium, itself constructed to stage a sporting event initiated in ancient Greece (which was in turn restored to prominence by a Frenchman at the end of the nineteenth century), it is hard not to have sympathy with Eliot’s words.
Today, writing about Beijing, three months after my visit and in the light of Eliot’s thoughts, it has made me see the hutongs differently. My thoughts are certainly not as profound as hers, nevertheless, I like them. Yes, things had been lost in the hutongs, but things are always lost with the passage of time. This ‘losing of things’ is inevitable and fundamental to the formation of history. Saying ‘history has been lost’ is to utter one of the most commonplace truisms of them all; history is lost the second it happens, but is then constructed and inflected by future peoples over and over. History is ultimately a palimpsest, both on the ground and in our minds. As such, to mourn what has been lost of ‘traditional’ Beijing is a futile exercise, far better to revel in what the city offers today – for it will surely be different tomorrow!
Those were my impressions of the Chinese Capital. I haven’t mentioned the smog, sadly I could never think of living permanently in the city because of it. Tragic though that is, don’t let it put you off visiting what is a remarkable city!
I should finally apologise for the lateness of this blog, the internet has been down since last Friday, my phone has also died, plus the shower has broken! One of those weeks, although they do seem to be more frequent in China… Tomorrow I’ll be writing about ‘The Very Forbidden City’.