The family we visited with.
When I was in China in 2005, our group toured some of old Beijing in rickshaws. We visited with a family at a siheyuan, or courtyard house, that had been in their family for generations and generations; the house itself dated back several hundred years. They no longer had the resources to keep it up, so the side chambers which had belonged to other family members were closed up and falling apart. Despite the lovliness of the visit, it was so incredibly sad to see that home in that state.
Not my photo, but much as I recall the state of hutong housing.
That family was a lucky one, however. Under Mao, many siheyuans were redeveloped into group housing lacking the basic amenities, and many remain that way, housing four families in spaces meant for one. These have no indoor plumbing, just centrally located public bathrooms (which leave much to be desired, believe me). In the years leading up to next month's Olympics, the Chinese government razed old Beijing hutong neighborhoods left and right in an effort to spruce up their city.
A home built in the Qing Dynasty, partially razed to make room for a new Transportation Ministry Building.
The New York Times has an article today about foreigners buying and renovating old siheyuans in Beijing, and the results are more Chinese than Beijing's newest building projects.Even with the modern updates, the homes retain the peaceful, closed-in feel of traditional siheyuan living, down to the interiors and detailing.
I love China and traditional Chinese art and architecture. It's good to see that there are people trying to maintain those traditions, since the government is plainly uninterested in doing so.