Adventures Through the Great Classroom Of China - My Family Travels

How much does the average kid learn in 80 minutes in a classroom? If they aren't sending text messages under the desk, they might learn a poem, learn to use their knees when shooting hoops, or figure out cell mitosis…  maybe.

Over four jam-packed days last October, two hundred 6th graders from the Hong Kong International School made Beijing their classroom. Now, any tour company could ferry the kids out to Badaling to walk on the Great Wall with the masses, walk them around the Tiananmen Square with a guide, and when they fall asleep from boredom you can lay them in a pedicab to snooze through a standard Hutong tour. 

The educators at the Hong Kong International School and Wild China had an alternative plan.

Instead of shuttling them to the Great Wall and back, they hiked along an old section of wall and spent the night camping near it, like an olden-days garrison.  Rather than just walking around Tiananmen Square, the students took part in a role-playing game of an emperor on their first outing into their city.  And rather than merely eating jiaozi in a restaurant, the kids were divided among the families of a village and were taught to make (and eat) the tasty dumplings in farmers' homes. 

Lao Beijing – An Intimate History Tour

When the time came to explore the secrets of the winding Beijing Hutong, it was time to swap the magic school bus for a magic pedicab for a deeper, more enjoyable insight into Lao Beijing than the usual tourist offering: a genuine interaction with the living history of this ancient city.

Most of the homes in the old city were once Siheyuan courtyard homes, which date at least 700 years back to the Yuan dynasty of Genghis Khan.  Siheyuan are comprised of four buildings around a central courtyard, and are connected by alleyways called Hutong.  Wealthy and imperial families would have several opulent courtyards to themselves, while less affluent families would cluster around a single quad.

Under the People's Republic, the Siheyuan owned by the wealthy were apportioned among several families, and all were organized into communes.  Now, these charming and lively neighborhoods are threatened by Olympic projects, shopping malls, and high-rises as the city embraces the future.

Keeping with the ubiquitous Olympic theme, the tour operator WildChina organized a Hutong pentathlon: consisting of four events, plus holding on tight to their pedicab seats!  The students were equipped with a map, a set of instructions, and a sturdy pedicab driver.

First, students received a crash course in the art of the Chinese yo-yo from retired Dalian acrobatic troupe spin-queen Ms Qiao on the Houhai esplanade, much to the amusement of passers-by.  Even the pedicab drivers joined in to help the students. 

Next, master Liu Zhen Ying delivered a lesson in traditional calligraphy.  With horsehair brush and poise, students discovered this ancient art form's refined and meditative blend of creative grace and rigid discipline. 

The following stop was a visit to the Yuding Qiao Chuitangren.  Using a technique similar to glassblowing, these craftsmen sculpt melted sugar into a range of shapes aspired to by laboratory glassware everywhere.  Sadly, the best mere mortals can manage is a humorous tomato. 

Finally, in a real laobeijinger's siheyuan home, students learned the art of tying a traditional beaded bracelet, just as Beijing children have done for centuries.

Ultimately, with a bit of creative planning, the children were able to make Beijing their classroom.  They had the opportunity to problem solve and interact with Old Beijing in a way that was both unique and fun, and learned so much more in the Great Classroom of China.

Hutong Facts in Beijing, China

Old Beijing is essentially delineated by the second ring road, with an inner city in the north, centered on an imperial city, which in turn was centered on the Forbidden City and Zhongnanhai Lake.  A larger outer city attached to the south, which was generally for the ordinary folk.  The old city was roughly 62.5-square kilometers in area.

  • Roughly half of Beijing's Hutong neighborhoods have been razed since 1950, mostly in the last 25 years.
  • Of the remaining Hutong, about a third of those are in ‘good' condition.  The rest have been renovated beyond recognition or are too dilapidated.
  • An estimated 7% of Hutong have special protected status.  A further 9% are of especially high value (e.g. featured in classical literature) and have been or could be restored to a high standard.
  • Another 24% or so are of high architectural value and need careful restoration.
  • The population of the former old city has gone from 1 million to 3 million since the 1950s.

A number of laws have been enacted to protect the Hutong, but lack of public awareness, enforcement, and corruption are major obstacles.  The Beijing Cultural Heritage Project (CHP) informs the public of these laws, monitors compliance, and advocates for better preservation of Beijing's cultural heritage.  They also educate officials and the public on cultural heritage protection nationwide, and coach at-risk communities on protecting their heritage themselves.  The CHP also hold a monthly lecture series in the Bai Lin temple near Yonghegong, and their English language website features a heritage news update, reading list, and more. They welcome volunteers and contributions.

– This post is provided by Josh Whale, a guide at the luxury, custom tour operator Wild China, who shares his experience with 200 Hong Kong sixth graders on a Beijing tour in 2009. WildChina, founded by Harvard business school graduate Zhang Mei, designs group tours and custom adventures for high-end and personalized vacations to explore China's wilderness and its cultural heritage.

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