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Take a Piece of Beijing’s Hutongs back Home!

China Radio International, September 9, 2011

A hutong is a type of narrow alleyway, where Chinese families have been living for generations. It’s a symbol of the traditional culture of Beijing.

But China’s rapid development has meant that many of the old hutongs in Beijing have disappeared. residents have left for apartment buildings with modern amenities. Many people today know almost nothing about the history and culture of the hutongs.

He Shuzhong is the founder and chairman of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, or CHP. He says that a lack of cultural awareness is one of the reasons he founded the organization.

“There’s a lack of public awareness of cultural heritage, and that has resulted in less respect and obligation to preserve culture heritage.”

But he’s still optimistic about preserving China’s traditions. He says the key isn’t KNOWLEDGE about culture…it’s an interest in protecting it. And young people have that. 

“Compared with people of older generations, I think those born after 1980 have a better awareness of cultural protection, and they would like to participate in cultural protection activities. If young people have that interest, then it’s much easier for them to grasp the deeper meanings behind traditions, and collect information about them.”

One thing with a lot of deeper meanings is the hutongs. Gates in hutongs have their own symbolic language, and it’s not easy to decode.

Traditionally, some doors were only for people with high social status. Some were for businessmen. And some were for ordinary people. So CHP recently organized a special activity: paint your own model of the Hutong gate.

“The idea of painting the gates of traditional Chinese Hutong attracts many people, because they want to know the story behind the gates and their design. Also, painting a gate increases people’s interaction with the hutongs, and they can use their ideas and creativity in painting.” Said Wu Qiong, CHP branding and PR director.

In the beginning of the activity, participants learned about hutongs in old Beijing. Then, each of them got their own model of a Hutong gate. They could paint the model however they liked. People of all ages got into the fun. 5 year-old Li Ruiying is one of them.

“I think it’s interesting, because I can use my creativity in my painting.”

According to Wu Qiong, painting model gates won’t save Beijing’s hutongs. But it’s a step.

“Activities like this mainly aim to provide people with knowledge about cultural preservation, and to attract more people, professionals or not, to share their knowledge and information about culture preservation.”

After finishing the painting, people could also take their final products back to decorate their homes.

“I would like to take this model and put it in the doorway of my home so people can easily see it when they walk in.” Said Ye Peiwen, a 10-year-old girl who took part in this activity.

“I think the activity would definitely have a subtle effect on culture preservation, because most of us who live in the tall buildings in the cities would never have the chance to live in a Hutong. This event can bring people closer to Beijing’s Hutongs.” CHP volunteer Jiao Yang said.

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