Life In China

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Vanishing hutongs

Beijing was the capital city of six dynasties, and its thick cultural background makes it different from other Chinese cities. The most famous aspect of its historical and social culture is hutong, the term for the 7,000 lanes that spread throughout the city and link people living in the traditional houses and courtyards called siheyuan. One third of Beijing’s people still live along these lanes, which occupy most of downtown Beijing. They have an especially close relation to their neighbors and live in the manner and pace of a different time.

Beijing is also an international city, affected by the modern, sometimes exotic, cultures and beliefs that come with globalization. Gleaming skyscrapers for multinational corporations are the most visible sign. They give a strong contrast to the squat houses and alleys that lie just blocks away. Erecting these shiny buildings sometimes requires destroying an ancient neighborhood. A lot of Chinese people worry that Western culture and globalization will cause the old city of Beijing to lose its cultural features. They want to preserve not just the old alleys of the hutong, but also the way of life.

Cars on the rise

China has long been known as a kingdom of bicycles. There are over 10 million bikes in Beijing today. Most Chinese cannot afford cars, so bicycles remain indispensable to daily life. Three-wheel bicycles or rickshaws, with seats for passengers, are the poor people’s taxi. They also give tourists an interesting experience, especially in the narrow hutong where cars cannot fit.

But Beijingers, like the rest of the world, are getting more and more fond of automobiles. It comes with wealth and progress, it seems. Beijing has over two million cars, and the number is increasing sharply. This brings serious problems—the roads in Beijing are like huge parking lots and pollution whitens the sky. Now the government is investing a large amount of money in road construction. Will bicycles become a distant memory?

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