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History’s Modern Society: Beyond the Walls of Ancient Dashilan Hutong

By Ashley Johnson , Add your comment Newsletter

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Dazhalan, then and now. Photo:

Venturing through a Chinese Hutong is an incredible experience, not only because it is completely different from western civilisation but because it is a piece of ancient history that is soon to be non-existent. There are very few traditional housing developments left within the city limits of Beijing and preserving them has become almost impossible, being that they are in the middle of a modern concrete metropolis.

One of Beijing's last and oldest hutongs is the Dashilan Hutong (Dazhalan 大栅栏), which is situated just south of Tiananmen Square. Today, you and I might venture through and be amazed at how the society operates in this village within a massive city as most everyone now lives in apartment-style housing. But if you can step away from the modern world and place yourself in the midst of imperial times, it is amazing to imagine a housing development that was so close to the Forbidden City. What must it have been like to live there? These streets witnessed it all and some of the store vendors are from the original families that have passed stories of living in ancient times, down the family tree.

Dating back to the latter years of the Yuan Dynasty, the Dashilan Hutong has seen many ups and downs. It thrived through the Ming and Qing Dynasty only to be partially destroyed by fires in the early 1900's, causing reconstruction of much of the area. Finally, in the 1960's Beijing's first paved road was built in this very hutong, scoring the title of the “first pedestrian walking street in Beijing”.

While it has been faced with much destruction, the commercial street has been well preserved throughout its 600 years of operation. Many of the shops even maintain their family heritage and pass ownership down the generations. Today, as you walk down the street, it is amazing to witness the sights and yet saddening at the same time that much of it has been destroyed. There are many shops from the Ming and Qing dynasty that still remain, however.

Ma Ju Yuan Hat Shop

Ma Ju Yuan Hat Shop马聚源帽子店                  
This famous shop made hats for government officials in the Qing Dynasty as well as for other foreign and western leaders. In times when the style of a hat defined your social status, this shop furnished everyone from peasants to highest public figures with fine quality material and craftsmanship. Still in business after almost 200 years, you can buy hats reminiscent of ancient China or you can have a modern-style, custom made hat, just for you.

Tongrentang Traditional Medicine    Shop同仁堂                        
China's most famous pharmacy for traditional Chinese medicine is located right in the heart of Dazhalan Hutong. The shop has been making pills, powders and ointments from herbs and other natural ingredients since 1669. Although Tongrentang now has many other branched in the city, this one in Dazhalan actually made the prescriptions for both Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi.

Chinese Tea                                                                                        
Of course China is famous for its diverse and excellent tea and there are a few tea markets in the Hutong with a selection that is almost endless. From floor to ceiling, these shops are filled with tea containers, from the finest quality to the cheapest. The shop owners are extremely knowledgeable and helpful about their products. If you are sleep deprived or suffering a cold, they will give you the perfect tea remedy to help cure your aliments, just tell them what you need. They have fantastic tea sets and accessories for hosting proper tea parties, for decoration or for adding a little tea enthusiasm to your life.

Chinese traditional dress has long been gone in everyday life, outside of restaurant waiting staff and traditional performances but it is still very famous and very much part of the ancestry. There are a few tailors on hand to make Qipao's for women, traditional Chinese, Mandarin collar shirts for men as well as modern clothes. Most of the tailor stores have a great selection of fabric and in addition to what is on display in the store, they have books filled with fabric, which they have quick and easy access to. The prices are reasonable compared to western, tailor-made clothes and the quality is much better than the already made clothes you find in the markets at rip-off tourist prices. Plus it's nice to support the local economy.

Silk dresses from Rui Fu Xiang

Rui Fu Xiang Silk Shop 瑞蚨祥
This shop is the single remaining silk store from the original eight in the hutong. There are a few small shops that also sell silk but in terms of ancient, traditional silk stores, Rui Fu Xiang is indeed a genuine piece of history that is still standing. Silk products range in style and quality and like most markets, you can negotiate but the people here are much more personable than in the modern-day knock-off markets, so it's a more pleasant experience.

Nei Lian Sheng 内联升                                                 
Nei, meaning to work in the royal court and Lian Sheng, meaning to be promoted, is an ancient shoe store that was recorded in the Cultural Heritage list in 2008. The shoes are made by hand and during imperial times, they only made shoes for the court. Today, anyone can buy shoes here and while many buy them as souvenirs, they are said to be extremely comfortable to wear and thus promote healthy feet. The shop custom makes men's, women's and children's shoes.

Traditional food and snacksView In Map                                                      
The streets have a few Chinese restaurants, with excellent food, but for those who want to live on the adventurous side of life, there are several tiny shops offering traditional Chinese snacks and foods. If you enjoy pickled cucumbers, try Chinese pickles from Liu Bi Ju (六必居), which has been around since the Ming Dynasty and serves up an assortment of pickles. Roasted corn on the cob isn't unusual but it is certainly as much Chinese culture as it is western and you can munch on a roasted cob as you browse the streets. Chinese pancakes, sweet buns, meat pies and tea-boiled eggs are just a few of the cultural foodie traditions. It's all safe to eat and it each snack contains its own unique flavor that will leave a memory of Dashilan Hutong with you, for years to come.

There are also modern shops scattered throughout, which don't fit at all with the historic tone of the village and architecture. However, it is at the end, near the Imperial Palace that is perhaps the most heart wrenching to witness. Destruction and construction took place between 2004 and 2008, which resulted in the complete demolition of several hutongs that neighbour Dashilan. Homes were destroyed, businesses were lost and families were ripped apart, all for the birth of a modern, old street, which houses international conglomerates like Rolex, Nike, UniQlo and Häagen-Dazs. What was intended to be a boost in tourism has created an empty, soulless area, which used to bring over 150,000 visitors each day to experience ancient China. Now, visitors are sparse because they can shop these stores in regular shopping malls or at home even. Almost complete emptiness fills the air in this new, old town. The majority of traffic is visitors passing through from Tiananmen Square or the Forbidden City to get to the Dashilan Hutong area. They may take notice of the buildings but there is little to no interest in what the area offers. It's actually a numbing sight, when you consider that very little of China's history remains due to urban development.

In another 50 years, this Hutong may very well face the same fate as its neighbours. So before history becomes a faint memory in a bleak modern society, take advantage of visiting Dashilan and the remaining old hutongs nearby, and learn of the true, ancient culture, the way it might have been during the days of the emperor.

Add:  Dashilan Street, Xuanwu District, Beijing    
Opening hours: Daily, 10:00-late afternoon. Some shops are closed on Monday
Getting there: take subway line 2 to Qianmen, leave from exit C. It's about a 10 minute walk from the subway station.

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Keywords: Dazhalan street Beijing Dazhalan hutong Beijing highlights of Dazhalan Beijing

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