People say that the real culture of Beijing is “the culture of hutong” and “the culture of siheyuan”. Hutongs are unique ancient alleys in Beijing formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences. Many neighbourhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another.
Beijing, as a whole, is like a complete and harmonious piece of art, featuring an orderly structure and layout, a well-balanced design and arrangement. Beijing considers the Forbidden City as its center, and all the streets around it are arranged by latitude and longitude. The chessboard-like blocks are of primitive simplicity, complete and harmonious. Numerous hutongs are still found in Beijing despite modernization, though at one time there were several thousand more. Most of them were created during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.
Hutongs in Beijing, as conveyors of the ancient culture, beautifully embody ancient history and exude an everlasting charm quietly. Regular hutongs were built around the eastern and western sides of the imperial palace, stretching neatly down the street. Most of the residents here were nobles. More humble hutongs were mostly found far away from the palace, in northern and southern parts of the city. Most residents were merchants and ordinary people. Therefore, the hutongs in the inner city of Beijing were generally of east-west orientation, straight and regular, while most of the hutongs in the outer city faced a southeast direction and were irregular.
If the city is compared to a piece of music, every structure in the city represents a throbbing note. Among the hutongs, whether large or small, the most famous dwellings were the siheyuan or quadrangle courtyard residences of Beijing. When saying “sihe”, “si” literally means “four” in Chinese, in this case it refers to the four directions of the east, west, north and south. The literal meaning of “he” refers to the shape of the dwelling, which forms the shape of “口” with the four sides being joined. After several hundred years of construction, the Beijing quadrangle courtyard has formed its own features in its layout, internal structure and the detailed decoration. For example, the doors should face the south, in response to the position of “xun”, one part of the Eight Diagrams, in a bid for good luck.
The courtyards usually are of three different specifications: large, medium and small, according to the social status of their residents. The large courtyards used by senior officials and wealthy merchants were elegantly built, with yards, colonnades, carved corridors and painted buildings, and side yards in the front and back parts. However, the small courtyards used by ordinary people were simply built, with narrow facades and low walls.
A variety of plants were likely to be found in a courtyard, such as crab apples, pomegranate, jujubes and Beijing mock oranges. People living in the siheyuan can say proudly: “Here we can have blossoms in the spring, shade in the summer and fruit in autumn”. Saying “enjoying flowers in spring and reap fruit in autumn” accurately infers the types of trees and plants that would likely be encountered in a Beijing courtyard residence.
Patterns painted or carved into wood in the courtyards may have auspicious connotations; for example, the pattern of “enjoying both felicity and longevity” usually consists of bianfu (referring to bats in Chinese, as Fu means felicity in Chinese) and the Chinese character shou, which means longevity. Yueji, or the Chinese rose, is arranged in a vase, indicating “peace in four seasons”, because ji, literally means season, and the vase called ping in Chinese shares the same pronunciation with “peace” in Chinese. In addition, there are patterns symbolizing “three durable plants of winter: pine, bamboo and plum blossoms”, “wealthy and elegant halls”, “fortune and longevity” and so on, all of which represent Beijingers’ desire for a better life.
While traveling in Beijing, you also have the opportunity to experience the life in a Beijing quadrangle courtyard. There are several courtyard hotels to choose from, ensuring good environments, services and pleasant memories.