I finished Rickshaw last night. As we discussed earlier, I was reading the translation by Jean M. James. How are the rest of you doing and which translation are you reading?
Beijing has, of course, changed enormously since the 1920s when the novel is set. The city walls and gates are all gone, replaced by ring roads. Many of the neighborhoods are unchanged, however, and last year I visited a courtyard residence similar to the one featured in the novel.
As you can see from the photo, the courtyard is much narrower than the mental picture you are likely to have while reading the book. It is more an alley than a yard. The living conditions have no doubt improved over the years. Families typically buy up or rent several adjoining rooms, or even the entire courtyard. One thing that hasn't changed, though is the communal privy, easily located by its smell. The individual homes have electricity and internet, but no running water.
The courtyard residences of Beijing are called "Hutongs," and there is a nice article on them in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hutong
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