V7 Coffee, serving fantastic specialty coffee in Haidian district, Beijing, China.
Text & Photo © CM Cordeiro, JE Nilsson & E Sindhöj 2023
Having had the privilege of visiting Beijing on numerous occasions, I remain drawn to the Forbidden City, also known as the Palace Museum, despite the staggering modernization that has transformed this great city. The Palace’s imposing gates and striking red pavilions situated at the heart of Beijing never fail to impress me. Equally fascinating to me is the network of narrow streets and low houses surrounding the Forbidden City, known as “Hutongs.” Once the living quarters of those who worked in the palace, some Hutongs have been converted into commercial areas, while others remain residential neighborhoods.
During the Ming and Qing dynasties these quarters served as a mental relief to the even the highest ranked individuals inside the Forbidden City. Some eunuchs played a role in facilitating visits by imperial court members even to pleasure houses outside of the Forbidden City. These illicit visits were seen as a way for court members to escape the rigid protocols and constraints of palace life.
Even the Emperor Guangxu (1875-1908) sought help for his medical problems from those among the Hutongs that practiced traditional Chinese medicine towards the end of the Qing dynasty. It is said that his great-aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi, repeatedly tried to poison him due to irrevocable differences in their ideas about the future of China. In 1908 they eventually both died. The Guangxu emperor one day before Cixi, poisoned by arsenic.
With this in mind I set out to visit this maze of winding small roads and gray buildings in the area around the Forbidden City in late February 2023.
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