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Beijing's Hutongs

北京胡同

People say that the real culture of Beijing is the 'culture of the Hutong' and the 'culture of the courtyard'. How true that is. Often, it is Beijing's winding Hutongs that attract tourists from home and abroad rather than the high-rise buildings and large mansions.


A hutong is a unique form of community that exists only in China. If you are fed up with high buildings and wide streets, enter Beijing's hutongs then.

"Hutong" literally means a small street or a lane between two courtyards, although the word can also mean a community within the city consisting of hutongs and residences. Shanghai local people call it a "Nong". The word "Hutong" originated from the Mongolian word "huto", which means water wells. Since nomadic tribes used to live and stay near water wells, they called the small alleys "huto".

Beijing has more than 4,550 Hutong. Most of them were built in the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (1271-1911). Those surrounding the Forbidden City and taking Prince Gong's Residence as the center are the best-preserved.

The buildings in Beijing hutongs are mainly compounds with houses around a courtyard, also known as quadrangles. Narrow passages between these quadrangles linked one with the other are hutong.

The width of Hutong was clearly regulated in the Yuan Dynasty and measured by steps. A passage of six steps in width was called a hutong, running directly from east to west. A passage of 24 steps in width was then called a street, which ran from north to south. The whole city, therefore, looked like a chessboard.
With the passage of dynasties, this stipulation, however, did not seem to be so strictly followed in the Ming and Qing dynasty. The meaning of hutong, in a broad sense, included alleys, passages and even small streets.

Every hutong has a name. Some hutongs have had only one name since the hutong was formed, but some have had more than five names in the past.

People name each hutong by various means. Some got their names from places such as Inner Xizhimen Hutong; some from plants such as Liushu (Willow) Hutong; some from directions such as Xi (West) Hongmen Hutong; some from Beijing idioms such as Yizi (Beijing local people call soap as yizi) Hutong; some from good words such as Xiqing (Happy) Hutong; some from markets for business such as Yangshi (Sheep Market) Hutong; some from temples such as Guanyinsi (Kwan-yin Temple) Hutong, and some are even from the names of common people such as Mengduan Hutong.

"There are 360 hutong with names and those without names are as many as hairs on an ox". This old saying is used to describe the numberless hutong in Beijing. The saying is somewhat exaggerated, but it reflects the fact that Beijing's hutong are numerous and scattered everywhere. According to historical records, there were altogether 413 hutong and alleys in Beijing in the Yuan Dynasty. The number increased to 1,170 in the Ming, 2,077 in the Qing Dynasty and 6,104 in the mid-1980s.If all the hutong were arranged in a line, they would form a new "Great Wall"

At the end of the Qing Dynasty, a unified and relatively closed China came under influence from abroad. The stereotyped arrangement of the hutong was also affected. Many newly formed hutong with irregular houses appeared outside the city, while many old ones lost their former neat arrangement. The social status of the residents also changed, reflecting the collapse of the feudal system. During the period of the Republic of China (1911-1948), Chinese society was unstable, with frequent civil wars and repeated foreign invasions.

The city of Beijing deteriorated, and the conditions of the hutong worsened. Quadrangles previously owned by one family became a compound occupied by many households.

After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, hutong conditions improved. In recent years, the houses in many hutong have been pulled down and replaced by modern buildings. Many hutong dwellers have moved to new housing.

The hutong today is fading into the shade for both tourists and inhabitants.

However, in the urban district of Beijing houses along hutong still occupy one third of the total area, providing housing for half the population, so that many have survived. In this respect, we see the old in the new in Beijing as an ancient yet modern city

There are many different types of hutongs. The most interesting to tour is in the Shichahai area, which is a scenic spot. It includes three lakes. They are Front Sea, Back Sea and West Sea. There are many historic scenes around this area. You can see Bell and Drum Towers, Prince Gong's Mansion and many hutongs. The oldest hutong in Beijing is called Sanmiao Street. It has been there for more than 900 years! The longest is Dongxi Jiaomin Lane. The total length of it is 6.5 kilometers. The shortest one had a name of Yichi Street because it was only a little more than ten meters long. Now, it belongs to Meizhuxie Street.

Usually most of Beijing's hutongs are straight. However, if you enter Jiudaowan  Hutong, you will probably get lost as you have to turn corners 19 times, so please note not to be lost.

There is an interesting hutong called Qianshi Hutong near Qianmen (Front Gate). The narrowest section in its middle is only 40 centimeters. When two people pass through it face to face, one has to turn back to the exit of the Hutong and let another pass first. Interesting?

You may find that a lot of smaller hutongs have been formed inside bigger hutongs. Hutongs are the old traditional alleyways and courtyard homes which once covered all Beijing. Many still survive today and are pleasant to walk or bike through. Not much has changed and you can see how people lived in the past.
We organize Hutong tours as part of a private tour (enquire by e-mail) and also as part of our Sleep on the Wall tour. 

Hutong Tour starts with a cycle rickshaw ride through the hutongs. Cycle rickshaws are a traditional means of transportation in the old narrow streets.

    Come and see it by hiring the rickshaw, and you'll have a true taste of Beijing!!!

Suggested visting routes:

  1. Sichahai Lake——Silver Ingot Bridge ( Yinding Bridge )——Hutong visting——Courtyards visiting
    Time: one hour
  2. Drum Tower Visiting——Silver Ingot Bridge ( Yinding Bridge )——Sichahai Lake——Hutong visting——Courtyards visiting
    Time: 1.5 to 2 hours
  3. Drum Tower Visiting——Silver Ingot Bridge ( Yinding Bridge )——Sichahai Lake——Hutong visting——Courtyards visiting——Mansion of Prince Gong
    Time: 2.5 to 3 hours

suggestions:

  1. You can take organized rickshaw tours of the Hutong & Courtyards.
    Fees for each richshaw: from CNY60 to CNY250/ (depending on the route you choose)
    Booking telephone : (86-10) 6433-4033
    (86-13) 8010-51196   
    Note: call three hours ahead of time
  2. If you have enough time, it can be more fun to explore them by yourself. Stroll through the meandering Hutong and experience the colorful and leisure life of those residents is great fun.
  3. Choose one hotel (converted from Courtoyards) in the Hutong areas where you can escape from the busy and noisy modern world.
     Suggested place: Hutong Courtyard B&B

   Hutong culture History
  Protection of Hutong
  Famous Hutongs    Nanluoguxiang (Nanluoguxiang Hutong, 南锣鼓巷)  
                        Beijing Liulichang Culture Street 
                        Yandaixie Street (Tobacco Pipe Lane)

    One Day Hutong Tour 
   Shichahai 
    
   Beijing's historical residences                                                   

         Beijing Attractions 

 Other Surrounding Scenic Spots:

 Beijing Private Tour:

Car rental in Beijing From 70 USD / Day

Tour Guide Reservation From 65 USD / Day