Great urban centers have a long history in China. It was typical for each dynasty to establish its own capital, and over the centuries, several cities waxed and waned with the changing of the imperial dynasties. For instance, in 200 B.C. Changan (now Xian), capital of the Han dynasty, had an estimated population of 400,000, but by A.D. 100 the capital had moved to Luoyang, and Changan was down to about 80,000 inhabitants. By A.D. 1500, four of the ten largest cities in the world were in China, the largest being the capital, Beijing (then Peking), with nearly 700,000 people.
During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, residential life in the capital centered around hutongs, groupings of courtyard homes built along alleyways leading to a community well. Today, Beijing is a megacity with over 14 million inhabitants, and its economic success is spurring the need for more housing, office space, and roads. Preparations for the 2008 Summer Olympics are speeding that trend, as old traditions make way for modern conveniences. Of an estimated 4,000 hutongs present in 1949, only a few hundred still stand today. And it is expected that many more, if not all, will disappear over the next few years in the midst of current construction.Some argue that the hutongs, like the Forbidden City, are historical landmarks—an important cultural aspect of Beijing and popular tourist destinations—that must be preserved. Others see them as substandard housing, eyesores on a city pitching headlong into the 21st century. And just like families losing their homes in rural China to make way for new urban development, families losing their hutong homes cannot afford to buy new places in the city with the allowances they get from the government. They are forced to move to the suburbs and abandon a unique way of life.
—Alice S. Jones