For the past five years, I’ve lived about a mile north of the Forbidden City, in an apartment building off a tiny alleyway in downtown Beijing. My alley, which has no official name, begins in the west, passes through three ninety-degree turns, and exits to the south. On a map, the shape is distinctive: it looks a little like a question mark, or perhaps half of a Buddhist swastika. The alley is also distinctive because it belongs to one of the few surviving sections of old Beijing. The capital, like most Chinese cities nowadays, has been changing fast—the biggest local map publisher updates its diagrams every three months, to keep pace with development. But the layout of my neighborhood has remained more or less the same for centuries. The first detailed map of Beijing was completed in 1750, under the reign of the great Qing emperor Qianlong, and on that document my alley follows the same route it does today. Xu Pingfang, a Beijing archeologist, has told me that my street may very well date to the fourteenth century, when many sections of the city were originally laid out, under the Yuan dynasty. The Yuan also left the word hutong, a Mongolian term that has come to mean “alley” in Chinese. Locals call my alley Little Ju’er, because it connects with the larger street known as Ju’er Hutong.
The author is Peter Hessler and you can read the rest here.