Beijing Hutongs

The labyrinthine maze of narrow alleyways and streets, unique to Beijing, are known as Hutongs. The term “Hutong”, which is believed to be a Mongolian word dating back to the Yuan Dynasty, means alleyway. The traditional Beijing home is the Quadrangle, which consist of a courtyard surrounded on four sides by buildings and surrounded by a wall. Many Quadrangles could be put together to form a compound. The residences were built touching each other and the alleyways used to access them became mazelike. Each Hutong was like a small city where people could shop, work, and entertain themselves and each has its own unique atmosphere.

The Hutongs of Beijing first appeared during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The Yuan Dynasty was ruled by the Mongolians and the Mongolian word for water well is “Hutong”. Since the well was the center of any community, the residential areas were called “Hutongs”. There are still some Hutongs dating back to the Yuan Dynasty in Beijing, but most date from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties. Every Hutong has its own history, stories and legends and hearing these stories from the locals is a wonderful part of any visit to Beijing.

During the Ming Dynasty, when Beijing became the capital after centuries of the capital being located elsewhere, The Forbidden City became the literal and cultural center of China. Around The Forbidden City were concentric circles known as the Inner City and Outer City. The Inner city was where members of the imperial family and government officials lived. The Outer City was where the members of the 8 Flag groups lived. Outside the Outer city the general populace lived with the richer being closer to The Forbidden City and the poorer living farther away. To the north and south, the artisans, merchants, and commoners lived. The Hutongs varied greatly in size and decoration depending on the rank and wealth of the family.
The Quadrangle was residences that surrounded the Hutongs. Every Quadrangle had its own main gate, some of which were incredibly ornate. The Hutongs were surrounded by walls, so passersby could not see inside. Usually, right inside the gate was a wall which, it was believed, stopped evil spirits from entering the compound. Inside the walled compound, buildings surrounded a central courtyard with the main building and main gates faced south to give them better buildings. Because of this, most of Beijing’s Hutongs run east to west. In the wealthier homes, several quadrangles could be put together and many had private gardens inside.
Hutong Culture
Beijing’s Hutongs have a unique culture all their own. They have been lived in for many generations and the residents know each other very well. Every morning, venders wander the Hutongs selling prepared foods, groceries, commodities, and services. It is possible for a person to live in a Hutong for long periods without having to leave. Everything they need is brought right to their door. In the morning, the residents get together to practice Taiqi, dancing, Peking (Beijing) Opera, and games such as chess, mahjong, and cards. Children play together as they always have, while their parents chat and keep an eye on them.

Each Hutong has its own unique flavor and design. The Hutong with the most turns is Beixinqiao Hutong. It is very easy to get lost in. The narrowest Hutong is the Zhubaoshi Hutong which is only 40cm (16 inches) wide. The longest Hutong in Beijing is the Dong Jiaomin Hutong which is 6.5 kilometers (4 miles) long and the shortest is the Guantong Hutong which is only 30 meters (33 yards) long.

A favorite way to visit Beijing’s Hutongs is by pedicab. Visitors can sit back, relax, and visit them at a slow pace. No visit to Beijing is complete without touring some of the Hutongs. They give visitors an insight into Beijing’s ancient culture and local people.