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Heritage Trail project

Heritage Trails: Xiguan Hutong

Project: Walk the Old City- Beijing Hutong Conservation Status Survey has begun! Volunteer teams are currently walking every hutong in the old city, collecting and updating information on the present state of conservation. In conjunction with the survey, Historian Jeremiah Jenne will be highlighting the history behind one hutong from each of Beijing’s 33 heritage zones. His first article is on Xiguan Hutong is part of the North Zhangzizhong Lu Historic Protection Zone.

Xiguan Hutong 细管胡同 is a narrow hutong just west of the bustling shops and restaurants of Dongsi Beidajie, and about 500 meters south of Beixinqiao.  The eastern end is on Dongsi Beidajie and the hutong runs west until it ends, mid-block, at Bei Jianzi (North Scissors) Hutong.

Xiguan Hutong
Xiguan Hutong

Xiguan Hutong also has two narrow subsidiary lanes which run north and south from the main hutong just before the intersection with Bei Jianzi Hutong. The southern spur leads to Baimicang (Rice Storage) Hutong; the northern spur ends at Daxing Hutong. A comparison of maps from the Qianlong, Republican, and PRC eras suggests that the shape of the hutong may have changed slightly over the years.

The name of the hutong has also varied at times and some of its older names hint at former uses. During the Qing era, it was known as the Water Tower (Shuita) and Oil Tower (Youguan) Hutong. A 1948 map of the city lists the western hutong again as “Shuita” but instead of Water Tower 水塔 shuǐtǎ, the characters used were those for Otter  Hutong. The Eastern section, closest to Dongsi Beidajie, was known as Xiguan Hutong.

While a relatively modest hutong, the lane does boast some historic structures along its 400 meters, particularly in the eastern section.

On the southern side of the hutong, about 100 meters from Dongsi Beidajie, is a large building which has just recently (2016) undergone a major renovation. The original structure was one of the branches of the Salvation Army Church in Beijing. The Salvation Army came to China in 1916, with their primary headquarters and church of located on what is today Wangfujing Dajie. The Salvation Army established branches throughout the city, including Beixinqiao. The property was returned to the government in 1952. Until 2015, there was a historical marker posted on the building, but that was removed during the recent renovation.

Branch of the Salvation Army Church
Branch of the Salvation Army Church

A short walk further, at Number 9 on the north side of the Hutong, are two older gates indicating a large courtyard. Originally built for a family named Chi , in 1953, it was purchased by the China Theatre Association on orders from Zhou Enlai and given to Tian Han (1898-1968), an author and playwright perhaps most famous for writing the lyrics to China’s National Anthem, “The March of the Volunteers.”

Born in Hunan in 1898, Tian Han became one of China’s leading dramatists, poets, and translators. Between 1921 and 1949, he wrote dozens of plays and four screenplays. The 1935 film, Children of Troubled Times, written by Tian Han, also contains the first appearance of the “March of the Volunteers.” Originally a poem by Tian Han, it was set to music by Nie Er and became the theme song of the movie.

The song became a popular anthem for the Chinese resistance against the Japanese. The American singer Paul Robeson performed the piece in the 1940s, often as benefits for the China Aid Council and United China Relief. A version of the song also appears in the 1944 propaganda film The Battle of China, directed by Frank Capra. In 1949, a committee was established to decide on a national anthem for the soon-to-declared People’s Republic of China. Painter Xu Beihong nominated “March of the Volunteers,” and on September 27, 1949, the song became the provisional anthem.

In 1953, Tian Han moved his family into Number 9 Xiguan Hutong. Tian Han and his wife, An E, lived in the inner courtyard while Tian Han’s secretary lived in the outer courtyard. Once the couple had settled in their new home, Tian Han brought his mother to Beijing from Hunan to live with them.

It was at Number 9 that Tian Han completed the libretto for The Legend of White Snake (Beishe Zhuan 白蛇传,1958), and the biographical plays Guan Hanqing (), and Xie Yaohuan (謝瑤環).    For many years, he and his family lived a quiet life in their courtyard. Tian Han was fond of gardening, and he planted grapes, gourds, and beans.

Tian Han Gate at 9 Xiguan Hutong
Tian Han Gate at 9 Xiguan Hutong

Unfortunately, their idyllic life came to an end in 1966. That year a People’s Daily article condemned Tian Han’s opera Xie Yaohuan in one of the opening shots of the Cultural Revolution. In December of that year, Party thugs burst into his home on Xiguan Hutong and took away the 68-year-old writer. Imprisoned under harsh conditions for two years, Tian Han died in custody in 1968 of diabetes and other untreated medical conditions. It wasn’t until years later, in the early 1970s, that authorities finally notified Tian Han’s family of his death.

After his arrest, the Party forbid the singing of Tian Han’s words, which made it a little awkward to play the national anthem. For several years, the “East is Red” substituted as the unofficial anthem until instrumental versions began again in the early 1970s. In 1979, Tian Han was posthumously rehabilitated, and the singing of his lyrics resumed.

Unfortunately, the family had already been evicted from their courtyard in the last years of the Cultural Revolution, and the site became a dormitory for workers and staff of the China Theater Association.

In 1986, the courtyards were listed for preservation by Dongcheng District. Today, at least part of the yards are used as residences.

Next to Tian Han’s former home, is Beijing Number 5 High School.  Founded in 1928, the school was completely renovated and rebuilt from 1991-1993. It is considered one of Beijing’s top high schools with several notable alumni. The author Cong Weixi (b. 1933) attended the school in the 1940s. Like Tian Han, Cong Weixi would run afoul of CCP authorities in the post-1949 era. He spent nearly 20 years in prison before publishing his novel The Blood-Stained Magnolia beneath the Wall (daqiang xiade hongyulan下的) which described the brutality of the “Lao Gai”, reeducation through labor camps during the Anti-Rightist Movement and Cultural Revolution. Other alumni include Hu Songhua (b. 1932), a famous singer and contemporary of Cong Weixi, former child actress Jin Ming (b. 1980), and Gyaincain Norbu (b. 1990), who is recognized by the PRC government as the 11th Panchen Lama.

Cuju Moroccan Bar at Number 28 Xiguan Hutong
Cuju Moroccan Bar at Number 28 Xiguan Hutong

Like much of Dongcheng, the area is undergoing a bout of gentrification. The popular Moroccan restaurant and sports bar Cuju is at Number 28 Xiguan Hutong, and the international shop Miss Muesli is located at Number 42. The street remains primarily residential. Behind the unremarkable and relatively new walls and gates are large yards with a mix of established Beijing residents and new arrivals. There are also several apartment buildings dating from the past two decades, some of which are now becoming popular with Beijing’s international residents.

About the Author:

Jeremiah Jenne grew up in Atkinson, NH and is the Executive Director of The Hutong, Beijing’s premier cultural exchange center. In his spare time Jeremiah runs the Chinese history website, Jottings from the Granite Studio.

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