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One Day in the Hutongs for Travel Writing

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

by Tan Yumeng, Zhang Zijie, Liang Siqiao

Course Introduction

Travel Writing/Place Writing refers to targeted research, analysis, and description of a specific region. The content of writing not only encompasses the emotional feelings of the author himself but also includes his exploration and comment on human society. For the former, the author employs writing pieces of the scenery and senses of people to make his audience resonate with the article; for the latter, the author acquires an in-depth understanding of the region through existing literature and field research on the local inhabitants. Different from other genres of writing, travel writing will usually spend the author more time to understand the subjects of description, since he has to make sure the content of the article which involves a description of other regions to be accurate and responsible, fully covering the nature and property of the region he is writing about. This problem remains not only an obstacle for travel writing but also a significant focus for writers and scholars.

Writing the World:

A Study of Place is an English Liberal Arts course based on travel/place writing. The content of the curriculum mainly includes two parts----the theoretical research involved in travel writing and an actual travel writing practice of a particular place. During the course, students analyze travel writing articles through Socratic seminars and reading assignments. Students are also required to write their own travel writing articles based on a field trip of a famous hutong in Beijing, Yangmeizhu Xiejie. During the process, they can have a better understanding of travel writing.

At the half of the course, students expect to put their theoretical knowledge and writing skills into practice, thus proposing a plan of a field trip. Ethan gladly accepted our suggestion and decided to take advantage of the spare 4-5 hours to have a short trip on the afternoon of May 13th. During and after the field trip, each student can have a chance to create his own unique travel writing article. All students of the class felt excited about the trip and put forward many suggestions for the trip. When deciding the location, students proposed 4-5 plans according to their respective research and travel experience. Ethan designed a questionnaire, and Yangmeizhu Xiejie became the final option after a vote.

Located in the center of the old city of Beijing and adjacent to Qianmen and Dashilar, Yangmeizhu Xiejie is a place worth exploring from all aspects. With a fascinating history, Yangmeizhu Xiejie in the past was a popular gathering of well-renowned scholars, literati, and significant figures holding high positions from the Republic of China, and a pioneering place in literature where the eight famous publishing bureaus used to set foot on. It was also known for its diverse old Beijing elements, such as the famous “Goupigaoyao” and “Tuerye”. Walking on the street, you can hear the traditional old Beijing dialect passing by your ears. The style of architecture here is also distinctive, forming a sharp comparison with the modern metropolis a couple kilometers away with its well-protected old Beijing style a hundred years ago. Nowadays, it is also one of the art centers of Beijing, attracting lots of tourists with all kinds of cultural and creative industries and coffee shops.

Overview of the Field Trip

The field trip of Yangmeizhu Xiejie is separated into two parts: a field research and a sharing seminar. Before the field trip, students carried out their own research and probed into the region through an online data collection. They figured out their writing topics, subjects of the interview, and interview questions through journal articles online. On May 13th, students and teachers arrived at Yangmeizhu Xiejie by subway. As soon as they reached their destination, students were split up and embarked on their interviews. During the research process, students either stood in front of an architecture to have a feeling and understanding of the surrounding environment or had conversations with local shop owners and inhabitants.

After an hour of field research, students were called back to the entrance, sharing and communicating the information they’d gathered. This activity could not only avoid students overlapping their subjects of interview and allay the interference on local people, but also spread out the information to more students of something connected to their topics but was ignored before. After the sharing, students went back on their research again. After an hour, they returned to the meeting place and had another sharing. The whole process enabled students to have a more in-depth comprehension of their writing topics, and provided them with new ideas and opinions gathered from interviews.

From Course Teacher Mr. Ethan Paul:

“Originally, this class was supposed to be attached to an ELP trip to Thailand where we would be able to apply what we learned in a totally different place, so we could leave our own experiences at home and really understand what it means to do place/travel writing. With COVID, that unfortunately removed our chance of doing any travel outside Beijing, and I had almost given up on a chance to do significant place writing as a class experience. I was very happy when the class suggested a within Beijing field trip. I rewrote the curriculum for the second half of the semester to make space for and support the field trip. Upon realizing that we all had a chance to experience a new part of Beijing, I recognized that we would be able to accomplish the same goals that we could have in Thailand, although with a smaller scope. We focused our studies on research, interview preparation, and coming up with our angles for the type of article we could write. I loved being able to go outside the classroom with the class and bring our learning to a new space. Each student was able to take something different from the experience. So many students engaged with so many different spaces and people, and each was able to bring something different from that to their eventual writing. The idea for the field trip came from the students, and I think it was a brilliant addition to the class. It allowed us to give depth and meaning to the kind of writing we were doing. It was the kind of real world experience that helped define our class and its relevance to our lives.”

Description of Several Individual Projects

From Tan Yumeng:

“My research topic regards the influence of the internet on public aesthetics and shop development in the context of Yangmeizhu Xiejie. Before the field research, I already found out along with the rapid growth of the internet, people tend to shoot photos and purchase products in those shops with attractive appearance and upload their photos onto the internet to attract a massive customer flow. This aesthetic trend not only resulted in the imitation of an increasing crowd of people----go “punch the clock” in the same region----but also hatched the birth of more “internet sensation” shops. After a detailed research of Yangmeizhu Xiejie, I discovered that this phenomenon existed in lots of shops with usually an attracting environment and a decent online reputation which would attract huge amounts of customers. In this project, I interviewed and

researched three of these shops to probe into the aesthetic development of modern society.”

From Zhang Zijie:

The scenery of Yangmeizhu Xiejie is unique and peculiar. Looking inside the street from a distance, she has no difference from a regular Beijing hutong, a simple and unsophisticated wandering alley mostly in gray vanishes at the end of the horizon. However, you can only smell a fragrant and open wave of modern tide hidden inside the heft of historical sediment once you set foot on that street tiled in blue bricks. A dozen Western-Chinese buildings inherited from the late Qing and the Republic of China were alternately interwoven with all kinds of antipathetic internet sensations, cafés, and cultural and creative industries. They took off the label of a “historical heritage” of the alley, which had been well-renowned for its advanced Western ideas and pioneering social conduct and replaced it with a ticket of the modern society. Looking up, you can clearly perceive the signs of the past transformations. Within the residential area, the ancient blue tile-roofed houses filled with signs of time were inlayed with pieces of red. The outside of the antique stone brick building once welcomed by literati and theatre stars during the Republic of China was also inlayed with a layer of cement. The typical “two in, two out” building style were non-existent after the “public-private partnership” transformation. Qingyun Ge, once credited as “the head of the four largest shopping malls” during the Republic of China, had also faded in time along with the establishment of the new China.

After being told about the field trip, Siqiao hurriedly searched many articles and travel plans of Yangmeizhu Xiejie. Even though he went back to Beijing Fang and Qianmen from time to time, he still lacked an in-depth impression of Yangmeizhu Xiejie. During the process of looking through the literature, he organized the history, culture, and the status quo of this place. He thought of the urban transformation and update of his last semester sociology class when looking through literature concerning the transformation of Yangmeizhu Xiejie in recent years, thus deciding it to be his writing topic. Before he departed, he probed into many bilingual resources of the transformation and update of Yangmeizhu Xiejie, specifying the search range to the modification and update of space and architecture and street businesses. Travel with a topic can bring us a more in-depth and comprehensible understanding of this place. After the background information collection, he stepped into Yangmeizhu Xiejie with his other classmates. Rambling on the street, he discovered that the reason of why Yangmeizhu Xiejie was a lot different with some other transformed Beijing hutongs was that it successfully balanced local life with elements of cultural creativity and art. Approximately two-third of the space was still used as a residence with mahjong houses, haircut shops, and canteens, while the rest one third was used to construct art exhibition houses, coffee shops, and cultural and creative industries. You perceive not only interesting little stores walking on the street but also how local people live their lives. He saw groups of kids who just got out school and older people packing together and chatting along the street. This might be one of the bright spots attracting large amounts of tourists. In order to acquire more information, he decided to go deeper. Within the last hour of the trip, he walked into a restaurant that had run business for 20 years at Yangmeizhu Xiejie. He and the shop owners talked about the changes and the composition of tourists on the street in recent 15 years, and the business history of the restaurant. The store was filled with waves of laughter. He walked onto the terrace after ordering, looking down on the street and chatting with his friends with a delightful mood.

Smiles bloomed in each student’s face after the field trip. Students discussed what they saw and heard from the afternoon on their way back to school. Everybody had a totally different and unique perspective of observation and thought, thus having a more in-depth understanding of Yangmeizhu Xiejie through the discussion. Everyone felt inspired by the trip and cannot help preparing their own travel writing articles. Foreseeably, everyone will be able to write something peculiar yet describing Yangmeizhu Xiejie in time and space from a perspective worth thinking about. This field trip not only rendered students a chance to put their knowledge into practice but also refreshed their body and brain during a routine busy week, creating a chance of communication between teachers and students and students themselves. Meanwhile, an actual trip like this has made this course more developed and vivid, bringing all the students a joyful and unforgivable travel writing course experience.



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