Thursday, July 21, 2016

Qianshi Hutong: the World's Narrowest Hutong

Most people who travel to Beijing make sure to see the highlights: the Forbidden City, Tian’anmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, and the Summer Palace. Few sojourners to the Northern Capital, however, experience the nooks and crannies of the city. On the afternoon of June 24th, I went on one such an adventure to one of the most tucked away tourist sites: Qianshi Hutong.

Located off Zhubao Street, which runs perpendicular to Dazhalan Commercial Street in the Qianmen neighborhood, Qianshi Hutong is easy to miss. That’s not surprising, as Qianshi Hutong has the distinction of being the world’s narrowest hutong. I went in search of Qianshi Hutong three times during my both my current and previous tenures in Beijing. The first time, I walked past it entirely and spent a good portion of the afternoon walking up and down Zhubao Avenue, finally returning home in defeat. I was able to locate it several weeks later with a travel companion, and the second pair of eyes was certainly helpful. Today, on my own once again, I walked all the way down Zhubao Street, recalling that the hutong would be on my left, but passing it by nonetheless. Given the increased tourist presence in the area and the market stalls selling silk scarves, cloisonné jewelry, and Old Beijing snacks, Qianshi Hutong has been practically swallowed up.

In Chinese, the name “Qianshi” means “Money Market.” It’s a fitting name, as Qing Dynasty moneychangers would go there to exchange currency. The hutong also boasted 26 mints that produced money for all the banks in Beijing. As it stands today, what is left of the hutong dates back to only the late Qing Dynasty, as a fire during the 1900 Boxer Revolution burnt much of the area to the ground. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the party-state reformed the monetary system entirely, thus rendering Qianshi Hutong obsolete.

Just how narrow is Qianshi Hutong? It’s 55 meters (180 feet) long, but just 70 centimeters (28 inches) at its widest. At one point, the alley narrows down to only 40 centimeters (16 inches). The alley isn’t wide enough for two people to pass by one another. Just this afternoon, I entered the hutong while another person was leaving. I turned to the side and backed up against the wall to allow her to pass—it would have been impossible for either of us to move otherwise. The reason for the extreme narrowness relates to the original purpose of the hutong. Were someone to have robbed the banks, the narrow passage would have made escape difficult, thus making it far more likely for the authorities to successfully apprehend the thief.

As I walked the length of the hutong this afternoon, there’s very little, with the exception of two plaques, that betrayed the alleyway’s original purpose. I glimpsed some faded white stone that might have been part of the façade of one of the mints or moneychanging houses, but it’s so worn that it’s impossible to tell. Rather, the hutong is primarily residential now, with wooden doors leading into small, intimate courtyards and laundry hanging in front of the windows.

The hutong first made its appearance in China during the Yuan Dynasty, a time during which the Mongols ruled. In fact, the origin of the word “hutong” is a Mongolian word meaning “water well.” These alleys used to be the lowest level of administrative division in Beijing. Parts of this Mongolian influence still survive today, although a number of hutongs have been demolished to make way for high-rise apartment buildings. Some of the alleys, including Qianshi Hutong, are protected, thus preserving just a bit of Old Beijing culture and history. 

Allison Quatrini, Ph.D. Political Science 2017
Sigur Center 2016 China Summer Research Fellow 

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