Cultural Heritage Map of Beijing

By Carla Nayton / CHP

At the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) we believe that for the sake of balanced and sustainable development, local communities must be involved in the protection and management of their own cultural heritage. CHP seeks to promote public awareness and recognition of how crucial cultural heritage issues are, and provide communities with the knowledge and tools to maintain and transmit their cultural heritage. Beijing’s hutongs, or alleyways between traditional courtyard houses, are a unique part of Beijing’s cultural heritage. Once they are bulldozed, part of China’s historical legacy is lost irretrievably. Since the mid-20th century, the number of Beijing hutongs has dramatically decreased, as they are demolished to make way for new roads and buildings.

In 2001, 1,300 hutongs remained in Beijing, reduced from 3,000 in the 1950s. Our 2008 report, Friends of Old Beijing Phase II Report, puts the number at around 1,100. As noted in Conservation Planning of 25 Historical Areas in Beijing Old City (2002), the Chinese government has recognized the historical value of hutongs by designating protected areas, which will help to protect 600 hutongs in Beijing from destruction. Unfortunately, illegal development continues to take place, even within these protected zones, and at CHP we work to ensure the hutong neighborhoods continue to be saved for future generations.

When hutong neighbourhoods are destroyed, it is not merely the ancient buildings that are lost, but the intangible culture of the residents. Intangible culture is living heritage: a community’s shared traditions, practices, knowledge, oral history, skills, arts and craftsmanship. UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003) states that:

Intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity.

We believe that hutong culture is as essential and important as the ancient buildings themselves – without people, there is no culture. Their role in cultural heritage preservation is paramount.

At CHP the idea emerged of producing an interactive, online map of hutong neighborhoods in Beijing. The Cultural Heritage Map of Old Beijing was designed with several objectives in mind. Firstly, the map will provide a visual record of hutong areas, providing basic information about the old buildings themselves, their protection status, and if are they being currently renovated or demolished. Secondly, the map will also contain information about the cultural and historical value of the area, with the idea that visitors to the site can learn more about the cultural heritage of Old Beijing. Thirdly, the map will be an interactive way for members of the public to add their own heritage information. And finally, we hope that by using this cultural heritage map, members of the public and local communities will be able to more readily engage with their own cultural heritage and be motivated to monitor the illegal destruction of hutongs in their own neighbourhoods.

Ultimately we want to produce an interactive map so people can add new information and build on the existing knowledge of an area (much like Wikipedia). This means the map will also function as a way of preserving the cultural heritage of areas that are likely to be demolished in the near future, and raising public awareness of the threat that exists to hutongs in Beijing. Additionally, the map can be used to record positive developments and milestone achieved in cultural heritage protection.

For example, the District Level Cultural Heritage Administration plans to renovate a site of cultural significance. Adding this to the map shows the advances made in the field of cultural heritage protection. We feel that the cultural heritage mapping of Beijing will help reinforce the value that hutong neighbourhoods provide to the fabric of local Beijing communities. By involving residents to engage in the protection of their own local environment, our vision is that the map will be a way of enabling the public to monitor cultural heritage protection in Beijing. This is not a small feat in an environment where there are considerably few avenues for public participation.

Carla Nayton is a cultural anthropologist working for the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP). CHP is a Chinese non-government organization, working at the local level to assist Chinese communities in protecting their intangible and tangible cultural heritage.