At the centre of Beijing, there are many hundreds of maze-like small lanes and alleyways. These are called hutongs. They were built in Yuan Dynasty in the 14th century. Imperial family members and high rank officials used to build their homes here. The number of hutongs in Beijing peaked in the 1950s at around 6,000, and has be diminishing today.
However, it is still possible to find and explore many fine hutongs.
Hutong and Siheyuan
Siheyuan is a typical old Beijing residential architectural structure. In Chinese, si = 4, he = together, yuan = house. Therefore the term siheyuan means a square or rectangular courtyard having four houses built on each side. The whole compound house shared one entrance and a common courtyard.
How to Explore Hutong and Siheyuan?
You might even join a biking tour. As far as I know, most hutong tours include a courtyard house visit. You would have a chance to take a look at these live cultural heritages.
Try not to explore any hutong without a guide. You might lose your way as they are criss crossing. Some of them are narrow and have tall walls on both sides.
Explore Hutong by staying at a
Three-in-One Old Beijing Tour
The Palace, covering 61,000 square meters, is tucked away in the Liuyinjie hutong beside the Sichahai Lake, known as Gongwangfu 恭王府 in Chinese.
Overview of Gongwangfu – Palace of Prince Gong
Gongwangfu is a compound of nine siheyuans with one lying behind another, same layout of the Forbidden City. It is the most exquisitely decorated and best preserved among the princes' palaces in Beijing.
Nowadays only the garden of the palace is opened to visitors. The main entrance of the garden is an arch-shape European style marble gate. It is very elegant and finely finished.
The garden is almost half the size of the whole palace. It is decorated with artificial rockeries, covered corridors and pavilions. It is said the Grand View Garden described in the best-know Chinese novel "A Dream of Red Mansions" was modeled after this garden.
There is an artificial lake surrounded by willows and poplars - a lovely scene. He Shen enjoyed boating on it in summer and skiing in winter. He Shen was the original owner of this place. I’ll talk more about him later in this chapter.
The largest hall, now a banquet room, offers summer Peking opera and afternoon tea to guests on guided hutong tours.
Open: Daily 08:30 - 16:30
Status Symbol and History of Gongwangfu
Roofs on the palace could only be covered with green glazed tiles, while golden glazed tiles shine in the Forbidden City.
Patterns of dragon are strictly forbidden. The number of guarding animal heads on the roof tiles was also limited.
Violation to any of these rules was subjected to death sentence.
Gongwangfu was originally the home of He Shen in Qing Dynasty. He was an extremely rich, however corrupted high rank official of Emperor Qianlong. After his death, it was vacant for some time until Empress Dowager Cixi gave it to Prince Gong as a gift.
Prince Gong was the 14th brother of Emperor Xianfeng. He was the one who backed up Empress Dowager Cixi in her power struggle with Su Shun. The palace was given to him in recognition of his accomplishments in the coup.
If you visit the Palace of Prince Gong, you must have to know He Shen, the original owner of the palace. He was extremely corrupted and was even richer than the national treasury. Everybody hated him except Emperor Qianlong. Qianlong spoiled He Shen to an extend that few people could understand.
There was a story (or legend) behind. When Qianlong was a teenager, he didn’t realize the importance of Qian Dynasty’s family rules. The young prince once had a joke with a young maid. The maid was accused of caressing the prince and got punished. She ended up hung herself as a protest.
Qianlong felt extremely guilty of killing someone indirectly. Many years later he became an emperor. It happened that He Shen looked exactly like the maid that Qianlong thought he had killed. Qianlong believed that He Shen was the maid’s second life and hence spoiled him out of compensation psychology.
When Qianlong abdicated his throne to his son Jiaqing, he begged Jiaqing to forgive He Shen. Jiaqing promised just to show respect to his father. The next day after Qianlong died, Jiaqing put He Shen and his family in jail and confiscated his fortune. It was believed that He Shen was triple as rich as the national treasury. One of He Shen’s charges was his house wasn’t conform to standard and had dragon patterns in his garden.
Don’t forget to enjoy a delicious lunch at Sichuan Restaurant at the exit of the Palace of Prince Gong.
Hutong tour is the best way to have an old Beijing feel. One of the most famous Beijing duck restaurant Li Qun is hided inside a hutong. This is the best place to combine a hutong tour and a Beijing duck feast with an old Beijing feel.