Two men hold a picture of Mao Tse Dong in a neighborhood huton in Beijing.
Beijing – Been There

How Chinese brothels influenced history

Photo by Christian Kober

Beijing – Been There How Chinese brothels influenced history

Walking through Beijing’s hutong neighborhoods, I am transported back to the time of a flourishing Bada Hutong, once the most infamous brothel in China.

Gareth Clark
Gareth Clark

The Beijing hutong area has an idyllic feel. Narrow, winding alleyways with red doors in the stone walls on either side that lead you to ancient Chinese courtyards. Walking through the area easily takes you back to a time when dynastic China was at its most prosperous.

One of these picturesque neighbourhoods, however, has an unexpected past. 

The unassuming area known as Bada Hutong (which translates to “Eight Great Streets”), used to be the home of the city’s red light district from the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) until the Communists took over in 1949. Discreetly outside the city gates, in its heyday it crammed more than 700 opium dens and 300 brothels into its overflowing lanes.

It was also home to legendary madam Sai Jinhua, credited with helping keep the peace in the area during the Boxer Rebellion, owing to her supposed "influence" over the allied supreme commander Alfred Graf Von Waldersee.

Alas, today, much of the area has been demolished and rebuilt, its past erased. But many Hutong streets in the same style still stand. Walking through them it’s up to our imaginations to relive this infamous past.

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The hutongs or alleyways between courtyard houses in downtown Beijing are facing a threat from the city's constant construction. The word hutong is said to hark back to the gap between rows of tents of nomad warriors when Beijing was a Mongol capital in the 13th century. Photo by Adrian Bradshaw / Alamy

Adrian Bradshaw

Adrian Bradshaw

Agency
Alamy

The hutongs or alleyways between courtyard houses in downtown Beijing are facing a threat from the city's constant construction. The word hutong is said to hark back to the gap between rows of tents of nomad warriors when Beijing was a Mongol capital in the 13th century.

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