Běijīng’s arts scene has flourished in recent decades, fuelled by China opening up to the world and the subsequent influx of ideas from overseas. Lobotomised during the Cultural Revolution, the capital’s creative faculties have since sparked into life and found space. Visual arts have prospered. From humble beginnings in the 798 Art District, Chinese contemporary art has achieved global recognition. But Běijīng is also China's unofficial film-industry capital, the home of its finest bands and the best place to catch traditional Chinese performing arts. Whatever your tastes, you’ll find it in Běijīng.
A walk through the thought-provoking, sometimes controversial galleries of the 798 Art District, or its less-commercial counterpart at Cǎochǎngdì, might make any visitor wonder why the fuss about freedom of expression and censorship in China? On the surface at least, artists appear to be enjoying more freedom than they have since 1949 and the beginning of communist rule.
But appearances, like art itself, can be deceptive. Painters may be enjoying a relative lack of scrutiny, with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) having sensibly decided that no picture ever inspired a revolution (and it’s no coincidence that freedom has made the visual arts by far the most vibrant of China’s creative industries), but that isn’t the case for other mediums. Cinema, TV and literature in particular remain tightly controlled and there are serious limits to what can and can’t be said. To overstep them no longer results in a prison sentence, as it does for political dissidents, but it still leads to a ban on making movies or publishing books that can last for a number of years.
Even worse than official censorship is the way 60-plus years of being constrained by the knowledge that art needs to satisfy the CCP’s censors has created a culture of self-censorship. Many artists consciously, or unconsciously, hold back from doing anything that might antagonise the government.
This self-suppression is in part due to the fact that children are taught the CCP's vision of the world in school and that the Chinese education system remains dominated by rote-learning. That is not well suited to nurturing creativity, out-of-the-box thinking and inventive criticism. Until this changes, the artistic ceiling in China will remain far lower than it should.
In keeping with its well-read and creative reputation among ordinary and educated Chinese, Běijīng has been home to some of China’s towering modern writers. The literary landscapes of Lao She, Lu Xun, Mao Dun and Guo Moruo are all forever associated with the capital. Venue of the inspirational May Fourth Movement, the first stirrings of the Red Guards and the democracy protests of 1989, Běijīng’s revolutionary blood has naturally seeped into its literature. Over the past century, local writers have penned their stories of sorrow, fears and aspirations amid a context of ever-changing trends and political upheaval.
- Beijing Coma (Ma Jian; 2008) Novel revolving around protagonist Dai Wei’s involvement with the prodemocracy protests of 1989 and the political coma that ensues.
- Diary of a Madman and Other Stories (Lu Xun, translated by William Lyell; 1990) Classic tale of mental disintegration and paranoia, and a critique of Confucianism in prerevolutionary China from the father of modern Chinese literature. China’s first story published in báihuà (colloquial speech), save the first paragraph.
- Rickshaw Boy (Lao She, translated by Shi Xiaoqing; 1981) A masterpiece by one of Běijīng’s most beloved authors and playwrights about a rickshaw-puller living in early-20th-century China.
- Blades of Grass: The Stories of Lao She (translated by William Lyell; 2000) This collection contains 14 stories by Lao She – poignant descriptions of people living through times of political upheaval and uncertainty.
- Kinder than Solitude (Yiyun Li; 2014) Haunting novel in English by native Beijinger Yiyun Li that moves between 1990s Běijīng and the present-day US as it explores the complex relationship between three childhood friends.
- The Maker of Heavenly Trousers (Daniele Vare; 1935) Republished tale of old Běijīng with a splendid cast of dubious foreigners and plenty of insights into Chinese life in the capital in the chaotic pre-WWII days.
- The Noodle Maker (Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew; 2004) A collection of interconnected stories as told by a state-employed writer during the aftermath of the Tiān’ānmén Square protests. Bleak, comical and unforgettable.
- Midnight in Peking (Paul French; 2012) True-life mystery of a brutal murder of an English girl in the Legation era, with lots of juicy detail about the sinful underworld of pre-1949 Běijīng.
- Black Snow (Liu Heng, translated by Howard Goldblatt; 1993) Compelling novel about workers in Běijīng. Superbly written – a fine translation.
- Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China (David Kidd; 2003) A true story of a young man who marries the daughter of an aristocratic Chinese family in Běijīng two years before the 1949 Communist Revolution. The writing is simple, yet immersive.
- Empress Orchid (Anchee Min; 2004) Historical novel about Empress Cixi and her rise to Empress of China during the last days of the Qing dynasty. Good historical background of Běijīng and entertaining to read.
- Beijing: A Novel (Philip Gambone; 2003) A well-written account of an American working in a medical clinic in Běijīng who falls in love with a local artist. One of the few books out there to explore in-depth the intricacies of Běijīng gay subculture.
Chinese authors living overseas, either through choice or because of their political views, have been responsible for some of the most effective writing about China in recent years. London-based Ma Jian left China after the Tiān’ānmén Square protests. His novel Beijing Coma (2008), which recounts the events of June 1989 from the perspective of a student left in a coma after being shot during the crackdown on the protestors, is the finest piece of fiction dealing with that momentous time.
Ma’s masterpiece, though, is the remarkable Red Dust (2001), a memoir of the three years in the early 1980s Ma spent travelling around the remote edges of China, including Tibet, on the lam. Its opening chapters provide a fascinating snapshot of the then tiny community of bohemians in Běijīng and the suspicions they aroused among the authorities.
Native Beijinger Yiyun Li, who now lives in California, writes exquisite short stories. Both A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005) and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (2010) reveal the lives of ordinary Chinese caught up in the sweeping cultural changes of the past 20 years and are told in memorable prose.
Another US-based author who writes in English is Ha Jin. His novel Waiting (1999) is a love story that spans two decades as its hero hangs on 18 years for official permission to get divorced so he can remarry. The harsher, more satirical War Trash (2004) examines the complicated web of loyalties – to family, country and political party – many Chinese struggled to reconcile in the wake of the communist takeover of China in 1949.
The Birth of Modern Chinese Literature
The publication of Lu Xun’s short story 'Diary of a Madman' in 1918 had the same type of effect on Chinese literature as the leather-clad Elvis Presley had on the American music scene in the early 1950s. Until Lu Xun, novels had been composed in classical Chinese (gǔwén), a kind of Shakespearean language far removed from colloquial speech (báihuà). That maintained the huge gulf between educated and uneducated Chinese, putting literature beyond the reach of the common person and fashioning a cliquey lingua franca for officials and scholars.
The opening paragraph of Lu’s seminal story uses that classical language. The stultifying introduction – peppered with archaic character use and the excruciatingly pared-down grammar of classical Chinese – continues as one solid block of text, without any new paragraphs or indentation. Then suddenly the passage concludes and the reader is confronted with the appearance of fluent colloquial – spoken – Chinese.
For Lu Xun to write his short story – itself a radical fable of palpable terror – in the vernacular was dynamite. Chinese people were at last able to read language as it was spoken and the short story’s influence on creative expression was electric. Lu Xun’s tale records the diary entries of a man descending into paranoia and despair. Fearful that those around him are engaging in cannibalism, the man’s terrifying suspicions are seen as a critique of the self-consuming nature of feudal society. It is a haunting and powerful work, which instils doubts as to the madness of the narrator and concludes with lines that offer a glimmer of hope.
From this moment on, mainstream Chinese literature would be written as it was thought and spoken: Chinese writing had arrived in the modern age.
Contemporary Chinese literature is commonly grouped into two stages: pre-1989 and post-1989. The 1949 ascendancy saw literature gradually become a tool of state control and mere propaganda. Publishing was nationalised and most work in this period echoed the Communist Party line, with dull, formulaic language and cardboard characters in a socialist realist framework.
The Hundred Flowers Movement (1956–57) promised a period of open criticism and debate, but instead resulted in a widespread crackdown on intellectuals, including writers. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), writers either toed the line or were mercilessly purged. The much-loved Běijīng writer Lao She (1899–1966) was badly beaten and humiliated by Red Guards at the Confucius Temple in August 1966 and committed suicide the next day.
After Mao’s death in 1976, Chinese artists and writers threw off political constraints and began to explore new modes of literary expression. Western books began to appear in translation for the first time, exposing Chinese authors to a wide array of literary techniques and styles.
One important writer to emerge during this period was Zhang Jie, who first drew the attention of literary critics with the publication of her daring novella Love Must Not Be Forgotten (1979). With its intimate portrayal of a middle-aged woman and her love of a married man, the book challenged the traditional mores of marriage. The authorities disparaged the work, calling it morally corrupt, but the book was extremely popular with readers and won a national book award.
Zhang went on to write the novels Heavy Wings (1980) and The Ark (1981). The Ark, about three women separated from their husbands, established Zhang as China’s ‘first feminist author’. Shen Rong was another talented female author. Her novella At Middle Age (1980) tells the plight of a Chinese intellectual during the Cultural Revolution who must balance her family life with her career as a doctor.
The tragic events of 1989 inspired a more 'realist' style of literature pioneered by writers such as Wang Shuo and Yu Hua. Wang, a sailor-turned-fiction-writer, is famous for his satirical stories about China’s underworld and political corruption. Wang’s stories – dark, sometimes fantastic and taking jabs at just about every aspect of contemporary Chinese society – are notable for their inventive use of Běijīng slang; his style is similar to the way the Scottish author Irvine Welsh uses the Edinburgh vernacular in novels such as Trainspotting.
One of Wang’s most contentious novels is Please Don’t Call Me Human. Written after the Tiān’ānmén Square democracy protests, it provides a mocking look at the failures of China’s state security system. Wang’s works appeal to a broad spectrum of Chinese society, despite being banned. He has written more than 20 books as well as screenplays for TV and film. Books available in English include Playing for Thrills (2000) and Please Don’t Call Me Human (1998).
Like Wang, Yu Hua grew up during the Cultural Revolution and that experience is filtered through all his work. Yu, too, uses extreme situations and humour, and often violence, to illustrate his essentially absurd vision of modern-day China. But unlike Wang, Yu’s novels are vast, sweeping affairs that cover decades. To Live (1992) follows the tribulations of one family from the founding of the new China through the Cultural Revolution. Its impact overseas helped turn Yu into a global name. His subsequent novels – Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (1995), which moves from the 1950s to the 1980s; Brothers (2005), a vicious, dark satire on the rush for riches that has characterised the last two decades in China; and the more reflective The Seventh Day (2015) – are all available in English translation.
Mo Yan (real name Guan Moye: 'Mo Yan' is a pen-name that means 'don't speak' in Mandarin) has become a worldwide literary star since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012. His short stories and novels are less pitiless and abrasive than those of Yu Hua and Wang Shuo and, like the great Lu Xun, are essentially social commentary. Most of his work is available in English. The short story collection Shifu: You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh (2002) provides a great introduction to his writing.
By far the biggest literary hit of recent years has been Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem (2004), which received widespread exposure in the West after being published in English in 2008. Set in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, it’s a lyrical, semi-autobiographical tale of a young Běijīng student ‘sent down’ to live among Mongolian nomads during the Cultural Revolution and the contrasts between their lives and the one he has left behind.
The advent of the internet has spawned a whole new generation of young writers who have sprung to fame by first publishing their work online. Now, legions of wannabe authors are posting their short stories, novels and poetry on websites. At the same time, the first writers from the one-child generation (born post-1980) to attract national attention have emerged. The work of Han Han and Guo Jingming will never win any literary prizes (indeed, both authors have been accused of plagiarism, or of merely being the front for teams of ghost writers), but their tales of urban youth have made them media icons and the bestselling authors in China.
Sex & the City
Long a taboo subject in the arts, and Chinese society in general, sex has become one of the abiding themes of modern Chinese literature. The former poet Zhang Xianliang’s Half of Man is Woman (1985), translated into English by Martha Avery, was a hugely controversial exploration of sexuality and marriage in contemporary China that went on to become an international bestseller. Zhang followed that with the clearly autobiographical Getting Used to Dying (1989), about a writer’s new-found sexual freedom. The novel was banned in China until 1993.
In recent years, though, it has been female authors who have most successfully mined sexuality as a theme. The provocative Beijing Doll (2004) by Chun Shu is a semi-autobiographical account of a high-school dropout who lives a life of casual sex, drink and drugs. The novel reveals the emergence of a shopping-mall- and punk-music-obsessed teenage tribe unimaginable in Běijīng even a few years before.
Annie Wang’s The People’s Republic of Desire (2006) also holds nothing back with its candid exploration of sexuality in modern Běijīng, while Anni Baobei (real name Li Jie) writes hugely popular short stories and novels that feature alienated young women caught up in dysfunctional or abusive relationships. The Road of Others (2012) collects some of her short stories in English translation.
The founding of the new China in 1949 saw the individual artistic temperament suborned to the service of the state. Art was now for the masses and the socialist-realist style emerged dominant, with all human activity in paintings expressing the glory of the communist revolution.
Traditional precepts of Chinese classical painting were sidelined and foreign artistic techniques were imported wholesale. Washes on silk were replaced with oil on canvas while a realist attention to detail supplanted China’s traditional obsession with the mysterious and ineffable. Landscapes were replaced with harder-edged panoramas in which humans occupied a central, commanding position. The entire course of Chinese painting – which had evolved in glacial increments over the centuries – was redirected virtually overnight.
It was only with the death of Mao Zedong in September 1976 that the individual artistic temperament was once again allowed more freedom and painters such as Luo Zhongli employed the realist techniques they learned in China’s art academies to portray the harsh suffering etched in the faces of contemporary peasants. Others escaped the suffocating confines of socialist realism to explore new horizons, experimenting with a variety of contemporary forms.
A voracious appetite for Western art put further distance between traditional Chinese aesthetics and artistic endeavour. One group of artists, the Stars, found retrospective inspiration in Picasso and German expressionism. The ephemeral group had a lasting impact on the development of Chinese art in the 1980s and 1990s, leading the way for the New Wave movement that emerged in 1985.
New Wave artists were greatly influenced by Western art, especially the iconoclastic Marcel Duchamp, and further challenged traditional Chinese artistic norms. The New Wave artist Huang Yongping destroyed his works at exhibitions, in an effort to escape from the notion of ‘art’. Some New Wave artists adapted Chinese characters into abstract symbols, while others employed graphic images in a bid to shock viewers. Political realities became instant subject matter with performance artists wrapping themselves in plastic or tape to symbolise the repressive realities of modern-day China.
The disturbing events during and after June 1989 created artistic disillusionment with the political situation in China and hope soured into cynicism. This attitude was reflected through the 1990s in artworks permeated with feelings of loss, loneliness and social isolation. Two of the most important Běijīng artists during this period of ‘Cynical Realism’ were Yue Minjun and Fang Lijun.
Experiments with American-style pop art were another reaction to the events of 1989. Inspired by Warhol, some artists took symbols of socialist realism and transformed them into kitschy visual commentary. Images of Mao appeared against floral backgrounds and paintings of rosy-cheeked peasants and soldiers were interspersed with ads for Canon cameras and Coca-Cola. Artists were not only responding to the tragedies of the Tiān’ānmén protests but also to the rampant consumerism that was sweeping the country. Indeed, reaction to the rapid modernisation of China has been a consistent theme of much Běijīng art from the 1990s to the present day.
Throughout the 1990s, artists who felt marginalised from the cultural mainstream found escape from political scrutiny by living together in ad hoc communes and setting up their own exhibitions in nonofficial spaces outside state-run institutions. Most artists relied on the financial support of foreign buyers to continue working. Despite political pressure from authorities, some artists began to receive international attention for their art, sparking the beginning of a worldwide interest in and appetite for Chinese contemporary art. A defining moment for artists was in 1999, when 20 Chinese artists were invited to participate in the Venice Biennale for the first time.
Chinese art’s obsessive focus on contemporary socio-economic realities makes much creativity from this period parochial and predictable, but more universal themes have become apparent over recent years and the art climate in Běijīng has changed dramatically. Many artists who left China in the 1990s have returned, setting up private studios and galleries. Government censorship remains, but artists are branching out into other areas and moving away from overtly political content and China-specific concerns.
With scores of private and state-run galleries, Běijīng is a fantastic city to witness the changing face of contemporary Chinese art. While traditional Chinese art is still practised in the capital, Běijīng has fully surrendered to the artistic currents that sweep the international sphere. And whereas once it was foreign buyers who drove the booming art market, increasingly it is now the new local rich who are acquiring art.
Today, Běijīng is home to a vibrant community of artists practising a diverse mix of art forms, from performance art, photography, installations and video art to film, although painting remains the most popular visual-arts medium. Běijīng artists compete internationally in art events, and joint exhibitions with European and North American artists are frequent. At the same time, numerous Western artists have flocked to Běijīng in an aesthetic entente cordiale.
The capital hosts several art festivals, including the Dàshānzi International Arts Festival (every spring), SURGE Art Běijīng in May and the Běijīng Biennale, held every two years in September/October, which attract artists, dealers and critics from around the world.
China was a definite latecomer to pop and rock music. By the time Elvis and John Lennon were dead and punk had given way to floppy-fringed '80s new wave, Beijingers were still tapping their feet to ‘The East is Red’. Like all of the arts, music was tranquillised during the Cultural Revolution as China’s self-imposed isolation severed creative ties with the outside world.
It was a young, classically trained trumpet player named Cui Jian who changed all that. Cui swapped his horn for a guitar in the mid-'80s, founded a band, and by 1989 was already a name to be reckoned with. But it was when his song ‘Nothing to My Name’ (‘yī wú suŏ yŏu’), with its abrasive vocal style and lyrics describing feelings of loneliness and alienation, became the anthem of the 1989 Tiān’ānmén protests that he really kick-started the Chinese music scene.
Since those early days, Běijīng has always been China’s rock-music mecca. The masses may still prefer the saccharine confections of mainstream Cantopop and Mandopop, but the capital is home to a medley of different bands who take their sonic inspiration from punk and indie, to blues, heavy metal, jazz and electronica.
Mostly, they labour in the twilight. Few local bands have record deals, or are able to make any money by making music available for download. Indeed, the Chinese music industry in general suffers from widespread piracy – hardly any young Chinese would ever consider actually buying music. The upside for visitors is that bands have to rely on gigging to make a living, which means there’s someone playing somewhere in Běijīng almost every night of the week.
There’s an incestuous flavour to the scene, with frequent collaborations and musicians rotating between different groups. Some of the most popular and enduring bands are the postpunk/new wave–influenced Carsick Cars and Re-TROS, and the noise-pop trios Hedgehog and Snapline. Also worth checking out are the psychedelic-tinged Chui Wan, the New Order–inspired The Big Wave and indie kids Steely Heart. But there are also bands riffing on reggae, rockabilly, ska, '70s-style hard rock and any number of indigenous folk styles. Jazz, too, has always been popular in China, a legacy of the foreign influence on pre-1949 Shànghǎi.
Hip-hop is in its infancy, but China has embraced electronic music in all its different glories. Club-goers can get a groove on to house, drum and bass, techno and trance most weekends. The local DJ hero is Mickey Zhang; you’ll see his name on flyers all over town. Check the local listings magazines for details of upcoming gigs and club nights.
For classical-music and opera lovers, as well as fans of classical Chinese dance, the National Centre for the Performing Arts is the hub of all activity, but there are other venues around the city too. The Běijīng Music Festival (www.bmf.org.cn), held for around 30 days during October and November, features music performances by opera, jazz and classical artists from around the world, while an increasing number of orchestras and opera groups pass through town on a regular basis.
Best Films About Běijīng
- In the Heat of the Sun (1994) Adapted from a Wang Shuo novel, a fantastic, dreamlike, highly evocative tale of Běijīng youth running wild during the latter days of the Cultural Revolution.
- The Last Emperor (1987) Bernardo Bertolucci’s celebrated (seven Oscars including best director, best costume design and best cinematography) and extravagant epic charts the life of Puyi during his accession and the ensuing disintegration of dynastic China.
- Summer Palace (2006) Unusually explicit account of two students' intense love affair set against the backdrop of the Tiān’ānmén Square protests that got its director Lou Ye banned from making films for five years.
- Farewell My Concubine (1993) Charting a dramatic course through 20th-century Chinese history from the 1920s to the Cultural Revolution, Chen Kaige’s film is a sumptuous and stunning narrative of two friends from Peking opera school whose lives are framed against social and political turmoil.
- Cell Phone (2003) Feng Xiaogang’s funniest movie, a delicious satire of Běijīng’s emerging middle classes centred on two men’s extramarital affairs.
- Lost in Beijing (2007) Directed by Lu Yi, China’s leading female director, this banned production examines the ménage à trois between a young female worker in a massage parlour, her boss and his wife against the backdrop of a rapidly changing Běijīng.
- Beijing Bicycle (2001) Eschewing the lavish colour of Fifth Generation directors and viewing Běijīng through a Realist lens, Wang Xiaoshuai’s film follows young and hapless courier Guo on the trail of his stolen mountain bike.
- The Gate of Heavenly Peace (1995) Using original footage from the six weeks preceding the ending of the Tiān’ānmén Square protests, Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton’s moving three-hour tribute to the spirit of the student movement and its demise is a must-see.
- The World (2005) Jia Zhangke’s social commentary on the effects of globalisation is set in a Běijīng theme park called ‘World Park’, where workers and visitors play out their lives among replicas of the world’s monuments.
- Cala, My Dog! (2003) Sly and subtle comedy about a Běijīng factory worker and avid gambler trying to raise money for a licence for the beloved family dog, while coping with his jealous wife and wayward teenage son.
- Mr Six (2015) An ageing and ailing gangster discovers that the Běijīng underworld is changing just as fast as the rest of the city.
Cinema in China dates to 1896, when a Spaniard with a film projector blew the socks off a crowd in a Shànghǎi teahouse garden. Although Shànghǎi’s cosmopolitan gusto would help make the city the capital of China’s film industry pre-1949, China’s first movie – Conquering Jun Mountain (an excerpt from a piece of Peking opera) – was actually filmed in Běijīng in 1905.
Like all the arts, China’s film business went into a steep decline after 1949; the dark days of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) were particularly devoid of creative output. While Taiwan’s and Hong Kong’s movie industries flourished, China’s cinema business was satisfying political agendas with output focused on the glorification of the Communist Party. The film industry in China has yet to recover: taboo subjects still have directors walking on eggshells and criticism of the authorities remains hazardous. Contemporary Chinese TV shows are mostly wooden and artificial, and are often costume dramas set in far-off, and politically safe, dynasties.
Western audiences awoke to a new golden age of Chinese cinema in the 1980s and 1990s when the lush palettes and lavish tragedies of the Fifth Generation directors such as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou stimulated the right aesthetic nerves. Garlanded with praise and rewarded with several major film awards, rich works such as Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou; 1991) and Farewell My Concubine (Chen Kaige; 1993) redefined Chinese cinema, radiating a beauty that entranced Western cinema-goers and made their directors the darlings of Cannes and other film festivals. But with many of the early Fifth Generation films banned in their home country, few Chinese cinema-goers got to admire their artistry.
Sixth Generation film directors collectively shunned the exquisite beauty of the Fifth Generation, taking the opposite tack to render the angst and grimness of modern urban Chinese life. Their independent, low-budget works, often made without official permission, put an entirely different spin on mainland Chinese filmmaking. Zhang Yuan set the tone with Mama (1990), a beautiful but disturbing film about a mother and her autistic child. This low-key film, created without government sponsorship, had a huge influence on Zhang’s peers.
Other notable Sixth Generation directors include Wang Xiaoshuai, whose Beijing Bicycle (2001) is a tale of a Běijīng youth seeking to recover the stolen bike that he needs for his job, and Guan Hu, whose gritty Dirt (1994) chronicled the emerging Běijīng rock scene. In contrast, Lou Ye shoots his films, such as Suzhou River (2000), Summer Palace (2006) and Mystery (2012), in a dreamy, neo-noir style that marks him out from his contemporaries.
But it is Jia Zhangke who is the most talented of the filmmakers who emerged in the 1990s. His debut Pickpocket (1997) is a remarkable portrait of a small-time criminal in a bleak provincial town, while its follow-up Platform (2000) was a highly ambitious tale of a changing China told through the story of a musical group who transform from being a state-run troupe performing patriotic songs into a pop band. Subsequent movies such as Still Life (2006), 24 City (2008), A Touch of Sin (2013) and the futurist drama Mountains May Depart (2015) have shown an increasing maturity that bodes well for the future, although like many Sixth Generation filmmakers much of his work has never been seen in Chinese cinemas.
While the Sixth Generation were focusing on China’s underbelly, an increasing number of directors have gone in the opposite direction by making unashamedly commercial movies. Native Beijinger Feng Xiaogang is the best of them and his clever comedies such as Cell Phone (2003), If You Were the One (2008) and Personal Tailor (2013) have made him China’s most bankable director. Following in his footsteps is Ning Hao, who came to prominence with the fun crime capers Crazy Stone (2006) and Crazy Racer (2009). His most recent movies, the Chinese-style western No Man's Land (2013) and the romantic comedy Breakup Buddies (2014), both stormed the domestic box office.
An Uncertain Future
The optimism that accompanied the rise of the Fifth and Sixth Generations has begun to dissipate in the last couple of years. Cinema-going has always been a middle-class pastime in China, with ticket prices too high for many ordinary people and industrial-scale DVD piracy further reducing the potential audience. And with more and more Hollywood productions being shown in China now, the domestic film industry is discovering, as other film industries around the world have as well, that it is very hard to compete with star-driven blockbuster movies.
Today, only a few directors who are able to attract domestic and overseas investment, such as Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Jia Zhangke, or who are seen as surefire bets, like Feng Xiaogang and NIng Hao, can raise significant budgets to make movies in China. Increasingly, it is historical dramas or unchallenging romantic comedies that are dominating Chinese cinema screens. There is a real danger that the Chinese film industry will shrink into insignificance, in the face of Hollywood pressure and indifference from an audience no longer satisfied by the subject matter being approved by the CCP’s censors.
A good place to see Chinese films by established and emerging directors is at the Běijīng Student Film Festival, a 20-day event held every April. Films are shown at various venues around the city – check local listing magazines for screening times.
Peking opera (aka Běijīng opera) is still regarded as the crème de la crème of all the opera styles in China and has traditionally been the opera of the masses. Intrigues, disasters or rebellions are common themes, and many opera narratives have their source in the fairy tales, stock characters and legends of classical literature.
The style of music, singing and costumes in Peking opera are products of their origins. In the past opera was performed on open-air stages in markets, streets, teahouses or temple courtyards. The orchestra had to play loudly and the performers had to develop a piercing style of singing, which could be heard over the throng. The costumes were a garish collection of sharply contrasting colours because the stages were originally lit by oil lamps.
Dance styles as far back as the Tang dynasty (618–907) employed similar movements and techniques to those used in today’s opera. Provincial opera companies were characterised by their dialect and style of singing, but when these companies converged on Běijīng they started a style of musical drama called kunqu. This developed during the Ming dynasty, along with a more popular variety of play-acting pieces based on legends, historical events and popular novels. These styles gradually merged by the late 18th and early 19th centuries into the opera we see today.
Musicians usually sit on the stage in plain clothes and play without written scores. The èrhú, a two-stringed fiddle that is tuned to a low register and has a soft tone, generally supports the húqín, a two-stringed viola tuned to a high register. The yuèqín, a sort of moon-shaped four-stringed guitar, has a soft tone and is used to support the èrhú. Other instruments are the shēng (a reed flute) and the pípa (lute), as well as drums, bells and cymbals. Last but not least is the ban, a time-clapper that virtually directs the band, beats time for the actors and gives them their cues.
Apart from the singing and the music, the opera also incorporates acrobatics and mime. Language is often archaic Chinese, and the music is ear-splitting (bring some cotton wool), but the costumes and make-up are magnificent. Look out for a swift battle sequence – the female warriors especially are trained acrobats who leap, twirl, twist and somersault in attack.
If you get bored after the first hour or so, check out the audience antics – spitting, eating apples, plugging into a transistor radio (important sports match perhaps?) or loud tea slurping. It is lively audience entertainment fit for an emperor. Many theatres around town stage performances of Peking opera.
The eternal Běijīng versus Shànghǎi argument occurs in the arts too. The capital is grittier and edgier than its southern counterpart, and slightly less obsessed with making money. For those reasons, and despite its authoritarian reputation as the centre of power for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Běijīng attracts far more creative talent than Shànghǎi.
The text of 'Diary of a Madman' (aka 'A Madman's Diary') can be downloaded for free at www.marxists.org, as can many of Lu Xun’s other works. His novels can be picked up in translation at the Lu Xun Museum and are widely available in the West.
‘Scar Literature’ – novels exploring the traumatic impact of the Cultural Revolution on Chinese society – was the most significant of all the literary movements that flowered during the late 1970s and 1980s. It still flourishes today, with authors like Yu Hua, Jiang Rong and Ha Jin delving into those dark days.
In late February and March there are two literary festivals you can attend. The Bookworm stages the International Literary Festival, while the Capital M Literary Festival is held at the Capital M restaurant. Both attract local and international authors – another sign of Běijīng's emergence as a true world city.
China’s best-known director Zhang Yimou adapted Yu Hua's To Live for the screen in 1994. It is his masterpiece and confirmed Gong Li as China’s greatest actress. But the movie remains banned in China and angered the authorities so much that Zhang was prevented from making another film for two years.
Of all the writers to emerge via the internet, Anni Baobei is the undisputed star. Nicknamed ‘Flower in the Dark’ by her legions of young female fans, her intense stories about lovelorn, lonely women searching for meaning in their lives have struck a huge chord with the one-child generation.
Socialist realism has its roots in non-Chinese neoclassical art, the lifelike canvases of Jacques Louis David and, of course, the output of Soviet Union painters. Infused with political symbolism and dripping with propaganda, it was produced on an industrial scale, with mechanical rules governing content and style.
One of the most famous and most talented contemporary Chinese artists is Ai Wei Wei. A former member of the 1980s Stars group of avant-garde artists, he's now more known for his political activism than his multimedia art and has been detained by the authorities on a number of occasions.
Yue Minjun’s grotesque ‘laughing’ portraits of himself and friends, which are designed to convey a sense of boredom and mock joviality, have become perhaps the most recognisable images of Chinese contemporary art. Yue is now a globally known artist whose individual paintings sell for more than US$1 million.
Běijīng’s first artists' village was by the Old Summer Palace. When that was demolished, many moved to Factory 798, a disused industrial complex built in the 1950s. The former electronics factory was converted into studios and living spaces, then galleries and became known as the 798 Art District.
Běijīng’s Best Galleries & Art Neighbourhoods
- 798 Art District
- Red Gate Gallery
- National Art Museum
Music festivals are catching on in a big way in China, despite the authorities’ automatic suspicion of any large-scale gathering of young people. In and around Běijīng, the Midi Music Festival and Strawberry are two of the best organised events and showcase both local and international acts.
The first Western pop act to appear in China was Wham. George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley played in front of 15,000 people at Běijīng’s Workers Stadium in April 1985. There was no dancing; the audience, which included senior CCP officials, were told to stay in their seats during the show.
Traditional Chinese musical instruments include the two-stringed fiddle (èrhú), famed for its desolate wail; two-stringed viola (húqín); vertical flute (dòngxiāo); horizontal flute (dízi); four-stringed lute (pípa); and Chinese zither (zhēng). You can catch traditional music performances at the Lao She Teahouse, near Tiān’ānmén Sq in the south of Xīchéng.
China is a nation in thrall to hierarchies, a legacy of Confucianism, hence filmmakers are ranked by generation. The most famous of them all is the Fifth, the first generation to attend the Běijīng Film Academy after the end of the Cultural Revolution. The current generation is the Seventh.
Chinese actresses such as Joan Chen, Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi have made the jump to Hollywood, but China's male thespians are less lauded. The best of them is the charismatic Jiang Wen, also an accomplished director. Check out Devils on the Doorstep (2000) and Let the Bullets Fly (2010).
The undisputed king of Peking opera was Mei Lanfang. Mei, who died in 1961, made his name playing female roles and introduced the world to China’s most famous art form via overseas tours. Now, his name adorns one of Běijīng’s top theatres and his former courtyard home is a museum.
Few props are used in Peking opera; instead the performers substitute for them with each move, gesture or facial expression having a symbolic meaning. A whip with silk tassels indicates an actor riding a horse, while lifting a foot means going through a doorway.
Theatre in China was traditionally sung in the form of opera. Spoken drama is far more recent and remains an emerging art. But an increasing number of overseas companies are coming to Běijīng, and local troupes are staging more plays. Check the local listings magazines for details of upcoming productions.
Whether it’s the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at Temple of Heaven Park or the CCTV Building, Běijīng’s shape-shifting architecture wows. Amble from an ancient hútòng (narrow alleyway) past the classical Forbidden City, then alongside the Stalinist bulk of the Great Hall of the People to the sci-fi-style National Centre for the Performing Arts – you'll have seen an architectural narrative at least six centuries long. Běijīng’s buildings are as unique to the capital as the aroma of Peking duck.
Běijīng’s Most Notable Buildings
- CCTV Building Designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren, this fantastic continuous loop of a building appears to defy gravity.
- National Centre for the Performing Arts Běijīng’s most loved/hated building – Paul Andreu’s creation is either a masterpiece or a blot on the landscape. You decide.
- Forbidden City China’s incomparably majestic imperial palace.
- Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests The ne plus ultra of Ming dynasty design and a feast for the eyes.
- Capital Museum Cutting-edge example of modern Chinese museum design.
- Legation Quarter A too-rare example of thoughtful and tasteful restoration.
- Great Hall of the People This monster of Soviet-inspired socialist realist design, erected during the Great Leap Forward, would look right at home in Pyongyang.
- National Stadium The 2008 Olympics may be a distant memory, but this intricate mesh of steel, still known to Beijingers as the ‘Bird’s Nest’, remains iconic.
- Galaxy Soho Curvacious and controversial, this space-station-lookalike business and retail complex makes an incongruous neighbour to the next-door 15th-century Buddhist temple.
The oldest standing structure in the Běijīng municipality is the Great Wall. Although the wall dates from the 3rd century BC, most of what you will see is the work of Ming dynasty (1368–1644) engineers, while the tourist sections have largely been rebuilt over the past 30 years or so.
In fact, while Běijīng as we know it today dates to the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), nearly all traditional architecture in the capital is a legacy of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1911), although most Ming-era buildings were rebuilt during the Qing dynasty. A few fitful fragments have somehow struggled through from the Mongol era, but they are rare.
Standout structures from early dynasties include the magnificent Forbidden City (the largest architectural complex in China at 72 hectares), the Summer Palace, and the remaining hútòng and courtyard-style homes in the centre of the city. There are also fine examples of older temple architecture at places such as Temple of Heaven Park, Běihǎi Park and, further afield, at Tánzhè Temple.
Most historic buildings, however, date from the Qing dynasty (1664–1911) or later. Little survives from the Ming dynasty, although the conceptual plan of the city dates from Ming times. Old buildings were constructed with wood and paper, so fire was a perennial hazard (spot the huge bronze water vats dotted around the Forbidden City for extinguishing flames that could rapidly reduce halls to smoking mounds). Because buildings were not durable, even those that escaped fire were not expected to last long.
Home Sweet Home
Most residences in old Běijīng were once sìhéyuàn, houses situated on four sides of a courtyard. The houses were aligned exactly – the northern house was directly opposite the southern, the eastern directly across from the western. Sìhéyuàn can still be found within the 2nd Ring Rd, and although many have disappeared, an increasing number have been transformed into hotels.
Traditionally, the Chinese followed a basic ground plan when they built their homes. In upper-class homes as well as in palaces and temples, buildings were surrounded by an exterior wall and designed on a north–south axis, with an entrance gate and a gate to block spirits that might try to enter the building. Behind the entry gates in palaces and residential buildings was a public hall and behind this were private living quarters built around a central court with a garden. The garden area of upper-class gentry and imperial families spawned an entire subgenre of ‘recreational architecture’, which included gardens, pavilions, pagodas, ponds and bridges.
With today’s religious renaissance drawing more and more Chinese people to prayer, Běijīng’s temples and shrines are increasingly busy places of worship (although don't expect to be swept off your feet with religious fervour – atheism still rules over here). What isn't in doubt, though, is that temples are some of the finest structures in the city.
Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian temples may appear complex, but their layout and sequence of deities tend to follow quite strict schematic patterns. Temples are virtually all arranged on a north–south axis in a series of halls, with the main door of each hall facing south, as is done in courtyard houses and the halls of the Forbidden City.
Chinese temples are strikingly different from Christian churches because of their open plan and succession of halls; buildings follow a hierarchy and are interspersed with breezy open-air courtyards. This allows the weather to permeate the empty spaces, changing the mood of the temple depending on the climate. The open-air layout also allows the qì (flow of vital or universal energy) to circulate, dispersing stale air and allowing incense to be liberally burned.
Large numbers of Běijīng’s temples, such as the Big Buddha Temple, whose memory is commemorated in the street name Dafosi Dongjie, have vanished since the Qing dynasty. Others are in the process of disappearing, such as the small Guānyīn Temple just off Dazhalan Xijie, or remain shut, such as Guǎngfúguàn Taoist Temple.
Although there are notable exceptions, most Buddhist temples tend to follow a predictable layout. The first hall is frequently the Hall of Heavenly Kings (Tiānwáng Diàn), where a sedentary statue of the smiling and podgy Bodhisattva Maitreya (Mílèfó), also known as the Monk with the Bag or the Laughing Buddha, is flanked by the ferocious Four Heavenly Kings.
Behind is the first courtyard, where the drum and bell towers often stand, if the temple is large enough, and smoking braziers for the burning of incense may be positioned. The largest hall is usually named the Great Treasure Hall (Dàxióng Bǎodiàn), where you will often discover a golden trinity of statues, representing the historic, contemporary and future Buddhas. You can often find two rows of nine luóhàn (Buddhists, especially monks, who have achieved enlightenment and passed to nirvana at death) on either wall to the side. In other temples the luóhàn appear in a crowd of 500, housed in a separate hall; the Azure Clouds Temple in Fragrant Hills Park has an example.
A statue of Guanyin (the Goddess of Mercy) often stands at the rear of the main hall, facing north, atop a fish’s head or a rocky outcrop. The goddess may also be venerated in her own hall and often has a multitude of arms. The rear hall may house sutras (Buddhist scriptures) in a building called the Scripture Storing Hall (Cángjīnglóu).
Sometimes a pagoda (tǎ) may rise above the main halls or may be the last vestige of a vanished temple. These were originally built to house the remains of Buddha, and later other Buddhist relics, and were also used for storing sutras, religious artefacts and documents. Some pagodas can still be climbed for excellent views, but many are too fragile and are out of bounds. The most astonishing collection of pagodas in Běijīng can be found at Tánzhè Temple.
As Taoism predates Buddhism and connects to a more primitive and distant era, Taoist shrines are more netherworld-like and project more of an atmosphere of superstition and magic. Nonetheless, in the arrangement of their halls, Taoist temples appear very similar to Buddhist temples.
You will almost certainly see the shape of the circular bāguà (a circular figure made up of eight possible combinations of three parallel lines) reflected in eight-sided pavilions and diagrams. The yin–yang Taiji diagram is also a common motif. Effigies of Laotzu (the Jade Emperor), and other characters popularly associated with Taoist myths, such as the Eight Immortals and the God of Wealth, are customary.
Taoist temple entrances are often guarded by Taoist door gods, similar to those in Buddhist temples, and the main hall is usually called the Hall of the Three Clear Ones (Sānqīng Diàn) and devoted to a triumvirate of Taoist deities.
Běijīng’s Confucius Temple is China’s second largest after the temple in Qūfù in Shāndōng, the birthplace of the sage.
Confucian temples bristle with steles celebrating local scholars, some supported on the backs of bìxì (mythical tortoise-like dragons). A statue of Kongzi (Confucius) usually resides in the main hall, overseeing rows of musical instruments and flanked by disciples. A mythical animal, the qílín (a statue exists at the Summer Palace), is commonly seen. The qílín was a hybrid animal that appeared on earth only in times of harmony.
For first-time visitors to Běijīng, the city can be an energising and inspiring synthesis of East and West, old and new. Yet after 1949 the characteristics of the old city of Běijīng – formidable and dwarfing city walls, vast and intimidating gates, unbroken architectural narrative and commanding sense of symmetry – were flung out the window.
Many argue (such as author Wang Jun in Story of a City) that the historic soul of Běijīng has been extirpated, never to return. It’s a dismal irony that in its bid to resemble a Western city, Běijīng has lost a far larger proportion of historic architecture than have London, Paris or Rome.
Going, Going, Gone
Although Běijīng has been radically altered in every decade since 1949, the current building mania really picked up pace in the 1990s, with a housing renovation policy that resulted in thousands of old-style homes and Stalinist concrete structures from the 1950s being torn down and replaced by modern apartment buildings. In the following decade, office blocks began to mushroom across the city, prompting yet more demolition.
So much of Běijīng’s architectural heritage perished in the 1990s that the capital was denied a World Heritage listing in 2000 and 2001. That led the government to establish 40 protection zones throughout the older parts of the city to protect the remaining heritage buildings. But according to Unesco, more than a third of the 62 sq km area that made up the central part of the old city has been destroyed since 2003, displacing close to 580,000 people.
One of the hardest-hit areas was the central neighbourhood of Qiánmén, once the home of scholars and opera singers. Preservationists and residents have petitioned for government protection. However, a resolution passed in 2005 to protect Běijīng’s historic districts did not include many places, including Qiánmén, which had been approved for demolition before the order was passed. Road widening has bulldozed its way through the area; Qianmen Dajie itself has been restored in a mock historic style, and the Dashilar area next door is thought to be next in line for redevelopment.
In with the New
Since 1949, replacing what has gone and integrating new architecture seem to have been done without much thought. The vast Legendale Hotel on Jinbao Lu is a kitsch interpretation of a Parisian apartment block curiously plonked in central Běijīng, while the glass grill exterior of the hip Hotel Kapok on Donghuamen Dajie is a jab in the eye of the staid Jade Garden Hotel next door. But it is the futuristic, domelike National Centre for the Performing Arts that is perhaps Běijīng’s most controversial building, thanks to its location so close to the Forbidden City.
More recently, the spaceship-lookalike Galaxy Soho complex drew complaints from heritage-preservation campaigners when it 'touched down' in an old hútòng neighbourhood, one block north of the 15th-century Zhìhuà Temple.
In 1949 Mao Zedong declared that 'Forests of factory chimneys should mushroom in Běijīng'. He didn’t let ancient architecture stand in the way. When the mighty Xīzhí Mén was being levelled in 1969, the Yuan dynasty gate of Héyì Mén was discovered within the later brickwork; it disappeared too.
To see how the Ming and Qing dynasties built Běijīng, visit the Běijīng Ancient Architecture Museum, which has a great scale model of the old imperial city and shows how the courtyard houses of the hútòng were constructed.
Many temples have been restored to their original purpose, but others are still occupied by residents or, as with Dàgāoxuán Temple, by the military. Some have been converted to offices (Bǎilín Temple), while the ancient Sōngzhùyuàn Temple is now one of the city's trendiest restaurants.
China’s most legendary figure has endured a roller-coaster ride throughout Chinese history. These days, Confucius is enjoying an upswing with his ‘harmonious society’ vision now endorsed by the CCP. That’s in marked contrast to the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards savaged his teachings as one of the ‘Four Olds’.
While the pace of demolition has slowed, it still continues. The historic, hútòng-rich neighbourhood surrounding the Drum and Bell Towers was redeveloped in underwhelming fashion in 2014, while the historic Dashilar area is slated for the same treatment in the future.
Religion & Belief
Spiritual ideas have always possessed a certain volatility in China, and things have often come to a head in Běijīng: the Boxer Rebellion (1898–1900); the Tiān'ānmén Square protests (1989); the outlawing of the Falun Gong movement (1999). Nevertheless, today's Chinese are increasingly returning to religion after decades of state-orchestrated atheism.
Although not an indigenous faith, Buddhism (佛教; Fójiào) is the religion most associated with China. Many Chinese may not be regular temple-goers, but they possess an interest in Buddhism; some term them 'cultural Buddhists', with a fondness for Buddhist civilisation.
Chinese Buddhism is not the same as the Buddhism which arrived from India around AD 50. The individualist nature of the dominant Theravada school of Buddhism didn’t appeal to the group-oriented, ancestor-worshipping Chinese, so the relatively unimportant Mahayana School came to dominate in China. This school is partly characterised by worship of Bodhisattvas (菩萨; púsà; enlightened beings that postpone their entry into nirvana in order to help others), the most popular being Guanyin (观音).
Ethnic Tibetans and Mongols in China practise a unique form of Mahayana Buddhism, known as Tibetan Buddhism or Lamaism (喇嘛教; Lǎmajiào), where priests, called lamas, are believed to be reincarnations of highly evolved beings, the Dalai Lama being the supreme patriarch.
A home-grown philosophy-religion, Taoism (道教; Dàojiào) – perhaps the hardest of Chinese religions to grasp – is a natural counterpoint to Confucian order and correctness.
Taoism predates Buddhism in China and much of its religious culture connects to a distant animism and shamanism. In its earliest and simplest form, Taoism draws from the Tao Te Ching (道德经; Dàodé Jīng, The Classic of the Way and its Power), written in around 500 BC by the philosopher Laotzu (老子; Lǎozi). It's a work of astonishing insight and sublime beauty. Devoid of a godlike being or deity, Laotzu's writings instead endeavour to address the unknowable and ineffable principle of the universe, which he calls Tao (道; Dào), or 'the way'.
Confucianism (儒教; Rújiào) is based upon the teachings of Confucius (孔子; Kǒngzǐ), a 6th-century BC philosopher. The central emphasis is on five basic hierarchical relationships: father-son, ruler-subject, husband-wife, elder-younger, friend-friend. Confucius believed that if each individual carried out his or her proper role in society (ie a son served his father respectfully, while the father provided for his son), social order would be achieved.
Know Your Temples
All Chinese temples follow the same basic pattern. Built with careful respect for feng shui, they face southwards and are symmetrical along a north–south axis. Each temple consists of a series of halls, with the most important at the rear. Entrance is from the south, through imposing gateways which open onto a courtyard protected by a spirit wall.
It is by the interior that you can tell the various types of Chinese temples apart.
Confucian temples are devoted to the memory of Confucius and the philosophers of Confucianism, and are the least noisy, colourful and lively of Chinese temples. Their courtyards are usually filled with stelae (stone tablets) dedicated to local scholars.
Běijīng's only Confucius temple is the second largest in China.
Buddhist temples often contain the same combination of deities. First is a hall containing huge, multicoloured statues of the angry-looking Four Heavenly Kings. Next is often a chubby 'laughing Buddha' (Maitreya). There may be other halls with other deities, but the main hall usually contains three enormous Buddhas, side by side; the Buddhas of past, present and future. Around the back you will often find the multiarmed Guanyin, a popular cross-religious figure, believed to lend a hand during childbirth.
At the sides of the main hall you will often find several dozen arhats, caricaturish statues of Buddhist saints.
Central Běijīng's largest and most significant Buddhist temple is the Lama Temple, although ancient Tánzhè Temple, nestled in the hills outside the city centre, is also hugely impressive.
Taoist temples tend to be the most colourful and gaudy. The main gates are painted with fierce-looking mythical heroes to scare off evil spirits. The halls can contain any number of different deities, the many-armed Guanyin among them. Other likely deities include the Eight Immortals and the Three Purities, believed to be the founders of civilisation.
Christianity (基督教; Jīdūjiào) didn't really take a foothold in Běijīng until the arrival of the Jesuits in the 16th century. They made few converts, but they became popular figures in the imperial court, and helped design the astronomical instruments you can still see at the Ancient Observatory. Běijīng's first church, South Cathedral (1605), was built on the site of the house of the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci.
The so-called 'Unequal Treaties' that followed the Opium Wars (1839–42 and 1856–60) gave foreign missionaries the legal right to proselytise in China, but their new beliefs, and the general treatment of Chinese people by foreign powers at this time, were not well received. Hostilities culminated in the Boxer Rebellion (1898–1900), a violent anti-Christian, antiforeign movement, which was crushed by Allied troops, ultimately leading to the collapse of the Qing dynasty.
Christianity has seen a revival in recent years. Most Chinese Christians belong to illicit house churches, rather than the state-recognised Protestant or Catholic churches, so the precise number of Christians is hard to fathom, but it is likely that there are more of them than the 87-million-odd members of the Communist Party.
Islam (伊斯兰教; Yīsīlán Jiào) in China dates to the 7th century, when it was brought by Arab and Persian traders along the Silk Road. The descendants of these groups, now scattered across the country, gradually integrated into Han Chinese culture and today are distinguished primarily by their religion, rather than ethnic characteristics. In Chinese, they are called the Huí (回). Islam is also the religion of the Uighurs, a 10-million-strong ethnic group who live in far-off Xīnjiāng province.
Niú Jiē Mosque, originally built in AD 996, is the oldest and largest mosque in Běijīng, and the spiritual centre for the 10,000 or so Huí Muslims living in the vicinity.
Sidebar: Falun Gong
Falun Gong is a quasi-religious lifestyle philosophy that gained so much traction in the 1990s that it was labelled a cult by Chinese authorities, and subsequently outlawed. Its followers at the time numbered between 60 and 70 million.
Sidebar: Jesus in Beijing
David Aikman's Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (2003) predicts almost one third of Chinese will turn to Christianity within 30 years.
Sidebar: Zhīzhù Temple
During the Cultural Revolution, many temples and churches in Běijīng served as warehouses or factories. Zhīzhù Temple, for example, was a television factory in the 1960s. It's now a heritage hotel.
The essence of Běijīng is its hútòng (胡同), the distinctive alleyways that cut across the centre of town. These enchanting passageways offer a very real glimpse of what Běijīng was like before the bulldozers and construction crews got to work, and are still home to almost 20% of the residents of inner Běijīng. Immersing yourself in the hútòng is an essential part of any visit to the capital and by far the best way to experience Běijīng street life in all its frenetic and fascinating glory.
Hútòng first appeared in Běijīng in the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), in the wake of Genghis Khan’s army. With the city, then known as Zhōngdū, reduced to rubble in typical Mongol style, it was redesigned with hútòng running east–west. At first, their numbers were comparatively small – there were no more than 380 by the end of the Mongol reign over Běijīng – but they began to increase during the Ming dynasty. By the Qing dynasty more than 2000 hútòng riddled Běijīng, giving rise to the Chinese saying, ‘There are 360 hútòng with names and as many nameless hútòng as there are hairs on a cow'.
The number of alleyways peaked in the 1950s, when there were reckoned to be more than 6000. In recent decades the construction of office buildings and apartment blocks, as well as the widening of roads, has resulted in the demolition of many of them. However, it’s likely that somewhere between 1000 and 2000 of these beguiling lanes have avoided the wrecking balls.
Venerable alleys include Zhuanta Hutong (砖塔胡同; Brick Pagoda Alley), dating from Mongol times and found west off Xisi Nandajie; and Nanluogu Xiang, which dates back 800 years and is now the best-known alley in town thanks to its emergence as a nightlife hub and later a tourist snack streeet. Other hútòng survive in name only, like 900-year-old Sanmiao Jie (三庙街; Three Temple St) in Xuānwǔ District, which dates back to the Liao dynasty (916–1125). Long cited as the oldest hútòng of them all, little is left of the ancient alley as its courtyard houses were demolished in 2009.
Most hútòng lie within the loop of the 2nd Ring Rd. The most hútòng-rich neighbourhoods are in the centre and north of Dōngchéng District, closely followed by the northern part of Xīchéng District, especially the area around and to the west of Hòuhǎi Lakes. The hútòng here were the closest to the Forbidden City, and the nearer you lived to the imperial palace, the higher your status. For that reason, the hútòng immediately east and west of the Forbidden City were reserved for aristocrats and the city elite. It’s in these hútòng that you’ll find the oldest and most prestigious sìhéyuàn (traditional courtyard houses), many of which are now government offices. Most date from the Qing dynasty, though many of the actual lanes are older.
The alleys around or close to the Forbidden City have been largely protected from the ravages of redevelopment. The houses further away were the homes of merchants and artisans, featuring more functional design with little or no ornamentation. It is these hútòng, especially the ones southeast and southwest of Tiān’ānmén Sq, that have suffered the most from the wrecking ball.
The once vibrant neighbourhood directly due east of Qianmen Dajie is now almost devoid of original hútòng, instead replaced by faux-historic tourist alleyways hawking old Běijīng style snacks. To the west, the area around Dazhalan Xijie, itself a hútòng, still has many alleys left, with the government seemingly more keen to preserve the old character of these lanes.
But you can find hútòng of one sort or another in all Běijīng’s neighbourhoods, even if some are relatively recent creations and are basically low-level housing rather than anything worthy of preservation. Wherever you choose to plunge into hútòng land, you’ll be treading streets that have hundreds of years of history behind them.
Imperial City Hútòng
The Imperial City failed to survive the convulsions of the 20th century, but the hútòng that threaded through the imperial enclave remain. Many bore names denoting their former function during imperial days. Zhonggu Hutong (钟鼓胡同; Bell and Drum Alley) was responsible for the provision of bells and drums to the imperial household. Jinmaoju Hutong (巾帽局胡同; Cloth and Cap Department Alley) handled the caps and boots used by the court, while Zhiranju Hutong (织染局胡同; Weaving and Dyeing Department Alley) supplied its satin and silk. Jiucuju Hutong (酒醋局胡同; Wine and Vinegar Department Alley) managed the stock of spirits, vinegar, sugar, flour and other culinary articles.
Candles were vital items during Ming and Qing times. Supply was handled by the Làkù, which operated from Laku Hutong (蜡库胡同; Candle Storehouse). The Jade Garden Hotel sits on the former site of the Cíqìkù (Porcelain Storehouse), which kept the Forbidden City stocked with porcelain bowls, plates, wine cups and other utensils.
West of Běihǎi Park, the large road of Xishiku Dajie (西什库大街; West Ten Storehouse St) gets its name from the various storehouses scattered along its length during Ming times. Among items supplied to the Imperial City from warehouses here were paper, lacquer, oil, copper, leather and weapons, including bows, arrows and swords.
There are also hútòng named after the craftworkers who supplied the Forbidden City with its raw materials, such as Dashizuo Hutong (大石作胡同; Big Stonemason’s Alley), where stonemasons fashioned the stone lions, terraces, imperial carriageways and bridges of the Imperial City.
Now-vanished temples are also recalled in hútòng names, such as the Guangming Hutong (光明胡同), south of Xi’anmen Dajie, named after the huge Guāngmíng Diàn (Guāngmíng Temple) that is no more.
Hútòng land is now a hotchpotch of the old and the new, where Qing dynasty courtyards come complete with recently added brick outhouses and stand beneath grim apartment blocks. Adding to the lack of uniformity is the fact that many sìhéyuàn (traditional courtyard houses) were subdivided in the 1960s so that they could house more people, and again after 1976 to rehouse thousands of refugees from the city of Tángshān, 180km from Běijīng, which was levelled by a devastating earthquake.
The shortage of space, as well as the paucity of modern facilities such as heating, proper plumbing, private bathrooms and air-conditioning, is the main reason many hútòng dwellers have been happy to leave the alleyways for newly built high-rise flats. Older residents are more reluctant to abandon the hútòng, preferring the sense of living in a community, as opposed to a more isolated existence in the suburbs.
Foreigners long ago cottoned on to the charm of courtyard life and breached this conservative bastion, although many are repelled by poor heating, and neighbours who can be too close for comfort by Western standards. In addition, some hútòng homes still lack their own toilets, explaining the malodorous public loos strung along many alleyways. But other homes have been thoroughly modernised and sport such features as varnished wooden floors, fully fitted kitchens, split-level bedrooms and numerous bathrooms. Converted courtyards are prized and are much more expensive to buy or rent than even the swishest apartments.
While large numbers of old courtyard houses have been divided into smaller units, many of their historical features remain, especially their roofs. Courtyard communities are served by small shops and restaurants spread throughout the hútòng, making them very much their own self-contained worlds.
Old Walled Courtyards
Sìhéyuàn (四合院) are the building blocks of the hútòng world. Some old courtyards, such as the Lǎo Shě Museum, have been quaintly mothballed as museums, but many remain inhabited and hum with domestic activity inside and out. Doors to communal courtyards are typically left open, while from spring to autumn men collect outside their gates, drinking beer, smoking and chewing the fat. Inside, trees soar aloft, providing shade and a nesting place for birds.
Prestigious courtyards are entered by a number of gates, but the majority have just a single door. Venerable courtyards are fronted by large, thick red doors, outside of which perch either a pair of Chinese lions or drum stones (bǎogǔshí; two circular stones resembling drums, each on a small plinth and occasionally topped by a miniature lion or a small dragon head). A set of square méndāng (wooden ornaments) above the gateway is a common sight. You may even see a set of stepping-on stones (shàngmǎ shí) that the owner would use for mounting his steed. The more historic courtyard gates are accessed by a set of steps, both topped with and flanked by ornate brick carvings – the generosity of detail indicates the social clout of the courtyard’s original inhabitants.
Many of these impressive courtyards were the residences of Běijīng’s officials, wealthy families and even princes; Prince Gong’s Residence on Dingfu Jie is perhaps the most celebrated example. In more recent times, many were appropriated by work units to provide housing for their workforce. Others still belong to private owners, or are used by the government or universities, but the state ultimately owns all property in China, which leaves the fate of the hútòng in the hands of local authorities.
By far the majority of hútòng run east–west, ensuring that the main gate faces south, so satisfying feng shui (geomancy, literally ‘wind and water’) requirements. This south-facing aspect guarantees maximum sunshine and protection from negative forces prevailing from the north. This positioning mirrors the layout of all Chinese temples, which nourishes the yang (the male and light aspect) while checking the yin (the female and dark aspect). Less significant north–south running alleyways link the main lanes.
Some courtyards used to be further protected by rectangular stones bearing the Chinese characters for Tài Shān (Mt Tài) to vanquish bad omens. Other courtyards preserve their screen walls or spirit walls (yǐngbì) – feng shui devices erected in front of the main gate to deflect roaming spirits. Běijīng’s two most impressive spirit walls are the Nine Dragon Screens at the Forbidden City and in Běihǎi Park.
Trees provide qì (life energy) and much-needed shade in summer, and most old courtyards have a locust tree at the front, which would have been planted when the sìhéyuàn (traditional courtyard house) was constructed.
Some hútòng are christened after families, such as Zhaotangzi Hutong (赵堂子胡同; Alley of the Zhao Family). Other hútòng simply took their names from historical figures, temples or local features, while a few have more mysterious associations, such as Dragon Whiskers Ditch Alley (Lóngxūgōu; 龙须沟胡同). Many reflect the merchandise that was for sale at local markets, such as Ganmian Hutong (干面胡同; Dry Flour Alley), while some hútòng, such as Gongbei Hutong (弓背胡同; Bow Back Hutong), have names derived from their shape.
Other names reflect some of the rather unusual industries that coalesced around the Forbidden City. Young Girl Lane was home to future concubines and Wet Nurse Lane was full of young mothers who breastfed the imperial offspring; they were selected from around China on scouting trips four times a year. Clothes Washing Lane was the residence of the women who did the imperial laundry. The maids, having grown old in the service of the court, were subsequently packed off to faraway places until their intimate knowledge of royal undergarments was out of date and no longer newsworthy.
Some hútòng names conceal their original monikers, which were considered either too unsavoury or unlucky, in homophones or similarly sounding words, or are euphemisms for what actually went on there. Guancai Hutong (棺材胡同), or ‘Coffin Alley’, was dropped for Guangcai Hutong (光彩胡同), which means ‘Splendour Hutong’. Muzhu Hutong (母猪胡同), ‘Mother Pig Hutong’ or ‘Sow Hutong’, was elevated to the much more poetic Meizhu Hutong (梅竹胡同), or ‘Plum Bamboo Hutong’. Rouge Hutong (胭脂胡同; Yanzhi Hutong) earned its name because it was the haunt of prostitutes, ‘rouge’ being old Běijīng slang for a working girl.
Despite an attempt at standardisation, Běijīng’s alleys have their own personalities and proportions. The longest is Dongjiaomin Xiang (东交民巷), which extends for 3km, while the shortest – unsurprisingly called Yichi Dajie (一尺大街; One Foot St) – is a brief 25m. Some people contest that Guantong Xiang (贯通巷; Guantong Alley), near Yangmeizhu Xijie, which is east of Liulichang Dongjie, is even shorter, at 20m.
Some hútòng are wide and leafy boulevards, whereas others are narrow, claustrophobic corridors. Běijīng’s broadest alley is Lingjing Hutong (灵境胡同; Fairyland Alley), with a width of 32m, but the aptly named Xiaolaba Hutong (小喇叭胡同; Little Trumpet Alley), the city’s smallest, is a squeeze at 50cm.
Chubby wayfarers would struggle even more in Qianshi Hutong (钱市胡同), situated not far from Qiánmén and Dàzhàlan – its narrowest reach is a mere 44cm, although it’s a pathway rather than a genuine hútòng. Nor do all the lanes run straight: Jiuwan Hutong (九湾胡同; Nine Bend Alley) has no fewer than 13 turns in it.
Exploring Běijīng’s hútòng is an unmissable experience. Go on a walking or cycling tour and delve deep into this alternately ramshackle and genteel, but always magical, world. Best of all, just wander off the main roads in the centre of Běijīng into the alleyways that riddle the town within the 2nd Ring Rd. Getting lost is part of the fun of exploring the hútòng, and you don't have to worry about finding your way back because you’ll never be far from a main road.
Good places to plunge into are the alleys to the west of Hòuhǎi Lakes, the area around Nanluogu Xiang, and Beiluogu Xiang, the roads branching west off Chaoyangmen Beixiaojie and Chaoyangmen Nanxiaojie, east of Wangfujing Dajie, and the lanes southwest of Tiān'ānmén Sq.
Hiring a bike is by far the best way to explore this historic world. But if you want to join a tour, the China Culture Center runs regular tours, or can arrange personalised tours. Call for further details, or check the website. Bike Běijīng also does guided hútòng tours. Many hotels run tours of the hútòng, or will point you in the direction of someone who does. Alternatively, any number of pedicab touts infest the roads around Hòuhǎi Lakes, offering 45-minute or one-hour tours. Such tours typically cost ¥60 to ¥120 per person. If you want an English-speaking rickshaw rider, the Běijīng Tourist Information Centre opposite the north gate of Běihǎi Park can find you one.
The Changing Face of Hútòng Land
One by-product of the commercialisation of some hútòng is that they cease to be the fascinating microcosms of local life they once were. Ten years ago, Nanluogu Xiang was still full of families who had lived there for generations and was lined with xiǎomàibù (small general stores) and greengrocers rather than bars.
Now, virtually none of those residents remain. The vast majority have leased their courtyard homes as shops, restaurants, bars and cafes and used the sky-high rents to relocate to comfy new apartment blocks in the suburbs. Whereas once kids played in the street on summer nights, while the adults sat fanning themselves or playing Chinese chess, now young Beijingers and domestic tourists stroll up and down, shopping, eating and drinking.
This transition from living, breathing communities into something far less organic is being mimicked elsewhere; for example, at Wudaoying Hutong near the Lama Temple and at the nearby Fangjia Alley, where hipsters mingle with the remaining original residents.
The hútòng dwellers aren't complaining too much, though. On the contrary, it is now near impossible to buy a sìhéyuàn in such areas because their residents know they can guarantee their long-term future by renting them out instead. But if you’re looking for a taste of truly authentic alley life, you’ll need to plunge into the hútòng that haven’t been touched by the hand of Mammon.
The origins of the word ‘hútòng’ are hazy. Originally a Mongolian term, it could have referred to a passageway between gers or ‘yurts’, the traditional Mongol tents; or it might come from the word ‘hottog’ (a well) – wherever there was water in the dry plain around Běijīng, there were inhabitants.
Many of the grandest sìhéyuàn are occupied by high-ranking CCP cadres or are government offices. A number of senior officials live in the hútòng off Nanluogu Xiang, while former Premier Zhao Ziyang spent the last 15 years of his life under house arrest in a courtyard once occupied by Empress Cixi’s hairdresser.
Scattered within the Imperial City were numerous storehouses, surviving in name only in such alleys as Lianziku Hutong (帘子库胡同; Curtain Storehouse Alley), Denglongku Hutong (灯笼库胡同; Lantern Storehouse Alley) and Duanku Hutong (缎库胡同; Satin Storehouse Alley).
For a bird’s-eye panorama of Běijīng’s hútòng universe, view the diorama of the modern city at the Běijīng Planning Exhibition Hall. The excellent NGO Běijīng Cultural Heritage Protection Centre (www.bjchp.org) is a great source on efforts to preserve the city's remaining hútòng.
Best Hútòng for Eating & Drinking
- Nanluogu Xiang
- Beiluogu Xiang
- Wudaoying Hutong
- Fangjia Hutong
- Banchang Hutong
You can experience these delightful lanes to the full by spending a night in a hútòng courtyard hotel. There are also restaurants, such as Dàlǐ Courtyard or Susu, where you can dine inside a sìhéyuàn, as well as a number of cafes and bars located within former courtyard homes.
The rectangular waffle-grid pattern of the hútòng stamps the points of the compass on the Běijīng psyche. You can still hear older locals exclaiming, ‘wǒ gāoxìng de wǒ bù zhī běi le’, meaning ‘I was so happy, I didn’t know which way was north’ (an extremely disorientating state of joy).
During the Cultural Revolution, selected hútòng were rechristened to reflect the political fervour of the times. Nanxiawa Hutong was renamed Xuemaozhu Hutong, literally ‘Study Mao’s Writings Hutong’, while Doujiao’er Hutong became Hongdaodi Hutong, or ‘Red to the End Hutong’.
The most significant hútòng have red street signs sporting the alley name. The hútòng name in Chinese also appears on a small metal plaque above doorways strung along each alley. A small blue plate over the doorway of a sìhéyuàn (traditional courtyard house) indicates a building protected by law.
An Uncertain Future
A few years ago, it seemed that Běijīng's government had finally realised the aesthetic value of preserving the historic heart of the capital. Now, though, the future of the hútòng appears less certain. People are still being evicted from homes their families have occupied for generations, as local authorities continue to demolish whole alleys in the name of what they regard as progress.
The latest assault took place in the Drum and Bell Tower area, with some of the surrounding hútòng levelled as part of the authorities' misguided attempt to develop the area. The result is a sanitised, wholly fake version of an 18th-century Qing dynasty neighbourhood. To the distress of many Beijingers, local officials still seem to have a vision of a gleaming, new Běijīng that purposefully excludes the hútòng.
Despite laws that are supposed to protect them, it is telling that perhaps the best guarantee for the survival of a hútòng is whether it has commercial value. The successful remodelling of Nanluogu Xiang into a nightlife hot spot and tourist hub has been replicated elsewhere: some of the alleys off Gulou Dongdajie and Andingmen Dajie have also sprouted shops, bars, cafes and restaurants and have become almost as popular. As long as a hútòng is generating significant tax revenue for the local authority, officials appear willing to shield them from redevelopment.