Shijia Hutong Museum: Sound and Memory

by Julie Zou, Education Programs Coordinator


Ever since I passed the examination to be a tour guide, my co-workers have been teasing me that I should organize a trip for everyone to go somewhere which requires a real professional to explain. Honestly, most of my foreign colleagues could be considered “Zhongguo Tong” and many have lived here a long time. I’d feel a little foolish trying to parade my skills in front of them, like the man who showed off his skills with a hatchet in front of the famous carpenter Lu Ban. I thought one day I could find some hidden nook to show off but even then…my American colleague Jeffrey beat me to it!


Jeffrey is especially interested in Chinese history and has done a lot of research into Beijing’s cultural heritage and cultural preservation. Last month, he suggested we visit Shijia Hutong. Our company is also located in an old hutong courtyard, so I didn’t quite get why we were going to another hutong to visit a museum that was based in an old courtyard. But Jeff strongly recommended we go and so I told myself maybe I was in for a surprise.


At 9:30 that morning, the staff of our company met in front of the Shijia Hutong Museum. I exited from Dengshikou Subway and walked northeast a bit to reach the museum, which is located at Number 24 Shijia Hutong. To get there, you pass the Shijia Hutong Primary School, the China Women’s Federation Publishing House, and the red walls of the Shijia Huayuan Hotel. When you finally reach Number 24, the first impression is the brown, rustic wooden doors, the gray walls and tiles, and the white marble door markers, each inscribed by Mr. Shu Yi. Even though I had only arrived at the front door, I was already intrigued.



The museum is free to visit, so there was no need to buy a ticket. After a short while, my colleagues arrived and we went inside. Jeffrey had been there several times and already knew many of the staff. We hadn’t been there for very long when an older gentleman named Mr. Yang began chatting with Jeffrey. Mr. Yang was as Beijing as they come. He introduced himself as a member of a group dedicated to preserving the sounds of Beijing’s street peddlars. We asked him what that meant and he took out an old clapper and gave a great shout. It reminded many of us of the vendors in the market selling fish. Those vendors would give great shouts to alert customers to their sales and wares. This incredible performance of the sounds of old Beijing was not even part of our plan. It was just an incredible coincidence that Mr. Yang was there the morning we visited.


The museum occupies a double courtyard. During the Repulican era, it was the home of Ling Shuhua. Since then, the courtyard has been converted into a community museum thanks to donations from the Prince’s Foundation. Although the museum is not large, there is still a lot to see. The museum features the historical layout of Shijia Hutong and introduces the history of the area. There is also an exhibition room dedicated to the People’s Art Theater, which was once located on Shijia Hutong, as well as an education hall, a remnant of the days when the courtyard was occupied by the local primary school. I found most interesting the memorial hall for Ling Shuhua and Chen Xiying, two famous residents of Shijia Hutong.


The hutongs of Beijing are in serious danger of being crowded out of existence by the rapid development of the city around them. Before, when I read about this in books, this process was an abstract concept, devoid of real meaning. I was always confused about those courtyards with multiple sections behind their walls. What these homes looked like could only be imagined. There are many pictures online, but it’s hard to get a real impression from photographs. At the museum, I finally had the opportunity to see models of the hutong, not only the ancestral home of Ling Shuhua but also 130 other courtyards along Shijia Hutong. Standing in front of the model of all of these courtyards in miniature, the historical character of the neighborhood didn’t feel so far away.

此外,这个博物馆还是一个领略民国时代名人风范的场地。凌叔华既是女作家,又是画家,还是被徐志摩誉为“中国的曼殊菲尔”的大美女 。她与著名文人陈西滢结婚后,这个院子便成了北京名流汇集的“小姐家的大书房”,与林徽因“太太的客厅”齐名, 辜鸿铭、陈寅恪、齐白石、巴金、徐志摩、沈从文还有印度诗人泰戈尔,都曾是24号院的常客。民国时代的文人互相交好实属罕见。自古文人相亲,在这个“小姐家的大书房”倒并没有发生。

Additionally, the museum recreates an air of Republican-era style. Ling Shuhua was both a writer and painter, referred to by the great poet Xu Zhimo as a great beauty and “China’s (Katherine) Mansfield.” After she married the famous scholar Chen Xiying, their yard became a great salon for Beijing’s literary elite. Lin Huiyin, Gu Hongming, Chen Yinke, Qi Baishi, Ba Jin, Xu Zhimo, and Shen Congwen all were regulars and even the great Indian Poet Rabindranath Tagore spent time at Number 24. Such a collection of Republican-era literati is rare indeed. Since ancient times, literati were often on intimate terms with each other. In modern times, this did not happen until the salon at number 24.


StaffEveryone had their own favorite parts of the museum. For most people, the most interesting part was the “Memory Room.” This room is furnished with audio equipment and visitor can tap a touch screen to hear the sounds of the hutong from different eras. There over 70 different soundscapes. Jeffrey highly recommended this room to us but in fact, Jeffrey’s favorite part is the wall just to the left of the museum door where there still remains a bit of graffiti left over from the school children who once studied in the courtyard. For Jeffrey, this is where the most authentic relics of history remain.

For me, a 90-minute visit was too short but we have things to do back in the office in the afternoon and we can’t spend the whole day at the museum. But taking some time to visit the museum on a working day was fun for our staff. It was fun for me too, and I can’t wait for our next trip. But of course…what would it be without a photo to prove we were there?

地址: 北京市东城区朝阳门街道史家胡同24号

开放时间: 9:30 – 16:30 (周二至周日)

Shijia Hutong Museum
Beijing Dongcheng District, Chaoyangmen Street, Shijia Hutong, #24
Open every day (except Tuesdays) from 9:30-4:30.