American author Peter Hessler used to wake up by dawn and from his desk in his Beijing home listen to neighbors chatting in the street. Soon, there would be street venders selling beer, rice and vinegar.

“The sounds are soothing, a reminder that even if I never left my doorway again life would be sustainable, albeit imbalanced. I would have cooking oil, soy sauce, and certain vegetables and fruit in season. In winter, I could buy strings of garlic. A vender of toilet paper would pedal through every day. There would be no shortage of coal. Occasionally, I could eat candied crab apple,” he wrote in his 2006 article “Hutong Karma,” which inspired many people to find a home in Beijing’s hutongs.

Through centuries, writers have found inspiration in this city. They’ve created literary masterpieces or influential articles at their desks, while listening to outside noises, enjoying the breeze in their courtyards or witnessing change in their neighborhoods.

Some of Beijing’s most famous writers, both Chinese and Western, have lived downtown. Their old homes are often within walking distance from one another – a worthwhile trip, laden with stories of the city’s transformation.

American author Peter Hessler used to wake up by dawn and from his desk in his Beijing home listen to neighbors chatting in the street. Soon, there would be street venders selling beer, rice and vinegar.

“The sounds are soothing, a reminder that even if I never left my doorway again life would be sustainable, albeit imbalanced. I would have cooking oil, soy sauce, and certain vegetables and fruit in season. In winter, I could buy strings of garlic. A vender of toilet paper would pedal through every day. There would be no shortage of coal. Occasionally, I could eat candied crab apple,” he wrote in his 2006 article “Hutong Karma,” which inspired many people to find a home in Beijing’s hutongs.

Through centuries, writers have found inspiration in this city. They’ve created literary masterpieces or influential articles at their desks, while listening to outside noises, enjoying the breeze in their courtyards or witnessing change in their neighborhoods.

Some of Beijing’s most famous writers, both Chinese and Western, have lived downtown. Their old homes are often within walking distance from one another – a worthwhile trip, laden with stories of the city’s transformation.

Peter Hessler:

Xiaoju’er Hutong

Fifteen years ago, Hessler’s hutong, Xiaoju’er Hutong, situated in the vicinity of Jiaodaokou Street, was a rustic alley where people lived in communion. The author of three acclaimed books about China, River Town, Oracle Bones and Country Driving, recalls the atmosphere.

In the early 2000s, in preparation for the Olympics, the government built a modern toilet at the head of Xiaoju’er hutong, Hessler writes. The change was so dramatic that residents made it their gathering place. They put old couches in front of the toilet and assembled there to chat, grill meat and watch TV.

Today, the street leading to Hessler’s hutong – South Lougu Alley – is probably the most crowded commercial alley in Old Beijing. But once you walk around the corner into the small hutong, the noises dissipate and are replaced by sounds of residents working and talking inside their courtyards. People still gather on couches in front of the toilet.

Mao Dun:

13 Houyuan’ensi Hutong

Less than a 5-minute walk from Xiaoju’er Hutong, you can visit the residence of famous Chinese writer Mao Dun, by his real name Shen Yanbing (1896-1981). Mao started out as an English-language editor at a Shanghai publication. In 1920, he translated the Soviet Union’s constitution, which later became the basis for the Communist Party of China’s constitution. Mao was the first writer to join the party and in 1949 became the People Republic of China’s first minister of culture. His best-known works are Spring Silkworms and Midnight.

Mao lived in Houyuan’ensi Hutong from 1974 until his death in 1981. His residence has been transformed into a small museum. The buildings surrounding its front courtyard are sitting rooms and libraries, including rooms that contain hundreds of Mao’s manuscripts and letters. Mao lived in the main house in the back courtyard. The objects and furniture inside have remained basically untouched since his death. Newspaper clippings and books are piled on a bedside table, and the calendar on the desk is open to the last page Mao personally turned over: Feb. 19, 1981.

Guo Moruo:

18 Qianhai Xijie Street

Author Guo Moruo (1892-1978) lived in a traditional courtyard west of Sichahai Lake. He is known for his historical plays, poems, archeological and government work. In 1927, he moved to Japan, where he studied Chinese ancient history and published works on inscriptions on oracle bones and bronze vessels, supporting communist doctrines on ancient China. He returned to his home country in 1937 and became a prominent scholar and official. He is best known for his poetry collection The Goddesses (1921) and the historical play Qu Yuan (1942).

Guo lived in the courtyard from 1963 until his death. The construction had been a prince’s garden during the Qing dynasty. Many of Guo’s manuscripts, books and documents are still kept at the house, which opened as a museum in 1988. Guo loved nature and reportedly planted many of the flowers and trees that still exist in the courtyard, including a gingko tree that he planted in 1954, when his wife was recovering in a hospital (The tree had been initially planted at a previous residence, but Guo moved it when the family relocated to the courtyard).

A bronze statue of Guo, created after his death, sits on the lawn facing the gingko tree. Outside the old courtyard, Sichahai Lake’s shores are bursting with activity from the popular bars and restaurants of New Beijing.

Other Writers’ Homes

Lu Xun

(known for A Madman’s Diary, Nahan, Panghuang): 19 Gongmenkou 2nd Alley, Xicheng, Beijing

Evan Osnos

(known for Age of Ambition): Guoxue Hutong, Dongcheng, Beijing

Lao She

(known for Rickshaw Boy and Teahouse): 19 Fengfu Hutong, Dongcheng, Beijing

Simina Mistreanu

About Simina Mistreanu

view all posts

Simina is a journalist who is passionate about social issues and good stories. So far, she's reported on four continents. She loves dogs and plans to get one in Beijing.

You May Like This


  1. “Guo lived in the courtyard from 1963 until his death. The construction……. trees that still exist in the courtyard, including a gingko tree that he planted in 1954.”

    The years doesn’t add up – how can he live there from 1963 but planted the tree in 1954? Unless he planted the tree 9 years before he lived there which seems strange.

    kuasimi / Reply
  2. Diao Jiayi

    Hi, Kuasimi. Thanks for reading the story. Please read the information between parentheses in the same paragraph: “The tree had been initially planted at a previous residence, but Guo moved it when the family relocated to the courtyard.”

    Diao Jiayi / Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *