Beijing Hutongs

Beijing Hutongs The essence of Beijing is it's distintive hutong, the alleywas that criss-cross the center of town. Not only do these enchanting passageways offer a very real glimse of what Beijing was like before the bulldozers and constructions crews go to work in earnest, but they are still home to around 20% of the residents of inner Beijing. Immersing yourself in the hutong is an essentical part of any visit to the capital and by far the best way to experience Beijing street life. Nor will you struggle to find them. As the Chinese saying goes:"There are 360 hutong with names and as many nameless hutong as there are hairs on a cow." If you get lost, it won't be for long as you'll never be far from a main road.

Origins of the Hutong

Hutong first appeared in Beijing in Yuan Dynasty, in the wake of Genhis Khan's army. With the city, then known as Zhongdu, reduced to rubble in Characteristic Mongol fashion, it was redesigned with hutong running east-west. By the Qing dynasty, more than 2000 huotong riddled Beijing, leaping to over 6000 by the 1950. But the construction of the office building and apartment blocks that now dominate central Beijing, as well as the widening of roads, resulted in the demolition of many of them.

Around 2000 remain, with the oldest being the 900-year-old Sanmiao Jie in Xuanwu District, which dates to the Liao dynasty. Despite all that history, the origin of the word hutong are hazy. Originally a Mongolian term, the name derives from the time when the Khan's horsemen camped in the new Yuan dynasty capital. It might have referred to a passageway between gers. Or it might come from the word 'hottog' wherever there was water in the dry plain around Beijing, there were inhabitants.

Most hutong lie within the loop of the second Ring Rd. The most famous are the ones to the immediate east and west of the Forbidden City. With proximity to the centre of power a sign of status, they were reserved for aristocrates and the city elite. These hutong have the oldest and grandest siheyuan (courtyard houses). Further away, to the north and south of the Forbidden City, were the homes of merchants and artisans, which feature more functional design with little or no ornamentaion. Other hutong sprung up still further from the city centre, and much later, and have little aesthetic value.

Hutong Today

Now, hutong land is a hotchpotch of the old and the new, where Ming and Qing dynasty courtyards come complete with modern brick outhouses and stand alongside grim aprtment blocks. Adding to the lack of uniformity is the fact that many siheyuan were subdivided in the 1960s so that they could house more people. The shortage of space, as well as the pausity of modern facilities, such as heating, proper plumbing and sometimes private bathrooms and toilets, is the main reason many hutong dwellers have been happy to leave the alleyways for newly built high-rise flats.

Older residents are more reluctant to abandon the hutong, citing the sence of living in a real community, as opposed to a more isolated existence in the suburbs. And there are now increasing signs tha many will be able to see out their days in them because, despite having enthusiastically consigned so many hutong to history in the near past, the city authorities seem to have cottoned onto their worth as one of the principal attractions of Beijing.

Some alleyways are now protected by law, while others have become tourist hubs. The succesful remodelling of Nanluogou Xiang into a nightlife hotspot is being replicated elsewhere: some of the hutong behind the drum tower and off Gulou Dongdajie and Andingmennei Dajie in Dongcheng District have started to sprout more and more bars and restaurants. While not exactly preservation in its strictest sense, the adaptation of the hutong for commercial use will undoubtedly aid their future survival.


Ticket Price: No Admission Fee
Bus Route : Biking to the hutongs or just walking
Opening Hours: All Day Round

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