The Vanishing City

The life and death of Beijing’s alleys.

Also in Slate, Andrew J. Nathan reviews The Man on Mao’s Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, My Life Inside China’s Foreign Ministry, Minxin Pei reviews Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, and Ann Hulbert takes on two novels by Xiaolu Guo, one of China’s young expatriate stars.

Once upon a time Beijing, like China, knew what it was. It was static, it was poor, but in the minds of its mandarins, it was a brilliant civilization, and it was the center of the world. Peasant revolutions, new emperors, nomadic invaders came and went, but the Celestial City remained the same, its order set in stone, as immovable as the walls of the city itself.

Beijing as we know it today—including its famous hutong, or alleyways—was initially built by Kublai Khan, the great Mongol emperor, in the 13th century. Then, between 1405 and 1421, the Yongle emperor of the Ming dynasty supervised the construction of the Forbidden City, where he and successive emperors would reside. This beautifully symmetrical edifice—formidable, impenetrable, ordered—symbolized the harmony of the capital, balancing Heaven and Earth.

But it was in those Mongol-built hutong outside the imperial city where real life went on. There were richer hutong neighborhoods and poorer ones, but most were made up of courtyard houses, walled and enclosed, the architecture mirroring the inward-looking nature of Chinese civilization. Many of the narrow lanes were arranged in grids, running from east to west, and, though the houses were enclosed, they formed close-knit communities. Children played out in the lanes, and the shouts of vendors selling their wares echoed off the crumbling brick walls along the alley. Life for centuries in Beijing was lived very close to the ground. 

Westerners, arriving in large numbers for the first time in the 19th century, were unimpressed. “There is not a more squalid collection of houses in an Arab village or in the old City of Limerick,” wrote a Western journalist in 1861. They set about trying to change Beijing, as they set about trying to prize China open to the outside world.

Slowly, reluctantly, the city, like the country, began to change as it searched for a new, modern identity. In the early 20th century, railroads, telegraph lines, tarmac roads, and street lighting began to appear. But the hutong remained, largely untouched even through the Japanese occupation of the 1930s. The Communist Party, after its conquest of China in 1949, launched an assault on everything old, as it pushed toward its new utopia—a modern, proletarian identity. It wrenched the Chinese from their obsession with the past, tearing down the ancient city walls, and turning the temples into barracks and workshops. New utilitarian apartment blocks were constructed around Beijing, and old hutong courtyards were divided up among the masses as land and property and housing were nationalized. But the hutong themselves remained, saved by the continuing poverty of a country that could not afford to destroy any form of livable housing.

It is only now, in the last 10 years, with Mao long dead and gone, that the Beijing government has set about destroying the city’s famous lanes. Their central location has made them prime real estate, and many have been demolished to make way for shiny new office buildings and apartment blocks for the emergent middle classes. The lanes that survived so much else could not survive the assault of the market.

Residents are compensated for their homes, but not enough to buy an apartment in the block that is then constructed on their land. So, most people are forced to relocate to the farthest outskirts of the city. Many have welcomed the upgrade—the offer of an apartment with heating and indoor plumbing—but some have resisted, holding out for more compensation. They hold residents’ meetings and attend public forums to discuss how some of the hutong can be saved. But the combined power of the Communist Party and the wealthy real-estate developers is always too great for the little people to resist, and everyone is forced out in the end.

There were 7,000 hutong in 1949; now there are fewer than 1,300. More than 1 million residents out of a population of some 17 million were evicted between 1990 and 2007, as the old parts of the city were razed. It has all been part of the $22 billion makeover to change Beijing’s identity forever and to make the 2008 Olympic capital a faster, higher, and stronger city.  

Michael Meyer records this orgy of destruction and the ongoing struggle for a new identity in his excellent book The Last Days of Old Beijing. Like Peter Hessler’s River Town, it is a haunting portrait of the interaction between change and changelessness in China. Meyer, like Hessler, was a Peace Corps volunteer in southwest China in the mid-1990s, and on arriving in Beijing a few years later, he says it was “love at first sight.” Indeed his book reads like a love letter to the hutongs and to Old Beijing itself, a snapshot snatched before the scene disappears for ever.

For two years, while he volunteered as a full-time English teacher in a local school, his home was two small rooms without a bathroom in a hutong in Dazhalan, one of Beijing’s oldest and poorest neighborhoods. This, writes Meyer, is one of the world’s densest urban environments, half a square mile made up of hundreds of alleyways housing “57,000 people, including one foreigner.”

In The Last Days of Old Beijing, you can smell the public latrines. You can taste the dust in the lanes and feel the claustrophobia. You can hear the shouts of the recyclers as they prowl the alleyways, collecting plastic bottles and cardboard. The locals have a name for the bearded American in their midst—Little Plumblossom—and adopt him as one of their own. In return, he details their lives as they deal with the change all around them.

Dazhalan is a world unto itself, partially insulated from the convulsions taking place in the wider city but aware that it lives on borrowed time. Change inevitably penetrates the maze of the hutong, but the inhabitants still cling on to their old ways, and the characters Meyer portrays reflect some of this confusion: his students, torn between the modernity they see around them and the traditions of their families; Meyer’s fellow teacher, Miss Zhu, who longs to have a baby but wonders whether she will bring it up in the neighborhood where she herself grew up; Soldier Liu, who considers Beijing a paradise compared with his home village in the countryside; Recycler Wang, for whom trash is a future, of sorts; and the ever-present Widow next door, who is constantly, affectionately, upbraiding Meyer for his wasteful ways (“Little Plumblossom, you dolt!”).

The main character, however, and Meyer’s cleverest device, is a figure who haunts every chapter just as it haunts the hutongs, a figure whom Meyer calls the Hand. Everyone fears the Hand, a symbol of the unseen governmental power that still exists and cannot be impeded. The Hand comes in the night and, like some demonic Chinese Zorro, slashes a character in white paint upon the walls of houses to be razed. The character, chai (destroy), is a silent cloud hanging over the hutongs and a silent theme running throughout the book. Every day, the residents wonder if today—tonight—they will be visited by the Hand. “The Hand didn’t have to listen to … residents at council meetings and public forums. The Hand just erased and drew, erased and drew.” The main characters are also the Dazhalan hutong themselves—the living, breathing communities that are disappearing. As the traditional courtyard houses are destroyed, the residents are forced to exchange their close-knit, horizontal existence for the vertical loneliness of a high-rise apartment on the outskirts of the city. Meyer beautifully dissects the tensions between tradition and modernity in the minds of the Chinese people and examines the identity crisis that still persists, for Beijing, and for China. A question lingers throughout the book: How much of your history should you hold onto, and how much should you leave behind? Perhaps it will all work out. You feel that, in the end, Michael Meyer thinks it will. Perhaps Beijingers will find the balance between the past and the present and the future, and the Chinese people will relax into their new identity, knowing who they are and what they are, as they move on.But that has not happened yet. As the last of the old hutong neighborhoods are destroyed, it seems that more time is needed for the dust to settle in the streets of Beijing, and in the Chinese mind.