Zhonggu Hutong

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Zhonggu Hutong Photo: Yin Yeping

 Zhonggu Hutong Photo: Yin Yeping

Exploring Beijing's hutong is an exercise in getting lost and discovering places both hidden and forgotten. Zhonggu Hutong is tucked away so deeply among the assembled lanes in Dongcheng district that without the help of local residents, I might hardly have found my way.

Zhonggu Hutong was previously home to Hu Shi, a scholar, writer, and for many years, president of Peking University before 1949, when he left the Chinese mainland for Taiwan. No. 14 (now 17) was a quite place to write papers for Hu, but during the Ming Dynasty it was filled with the din of the royal musicians who lived here. Its current name of Zhonggu, "the bell," reflects its musical past. In the 17th century, it served a different purpose as the location of the palace's royal hospitality department, responsible for organizing large celebrations. Later, during the Qing Dynasty, Empress Cixi gave the hutong as a gift to her favorite servant and concubine, who soon turned No. 17 and the houses around it into a temple, renaming the area Zhong Gu Si (temple) Hutong (the "Si" was dropped during the Cultural Revolution).

Yet for all that history, the hutong's name is most strongly associated with Hu. From 1924 to 1926, Hu, at that time a professor of Peking University, lived here. Hu used to share a house with his friend in Duanku Hutong, but after he married, he wanted a more private place to live with his wife, choosing to rent in Zhonggu Hutong. Less than a century later, even the most recent evidence of the writer has been blurred. No signs lead to Hu's place, but the door to No. 17 was open, so I popped my head in to find Jiang Zaizhao, a 68-year-old man who born here and now happens to be the oldest resident in this siheyuan. "No. 17 was Hu's university dormitory," Jiang said.

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