In the heart of Beijing, you’ll discover the historic hutong neighborhoods that date back 900 years. Hutong are narrow streets or alleys dotted with low houses and shared courtyards, where the everyday urban people live in close quarters — and with close ties to their commmunities. The neighborhoods stand today as symbols of the city’s cultural heritage; however, they are becoming rarer with each passing year, as the city continues its rapid development and modernization.
Hutong surround the Forbidden City and were mostly built under the rule of Mongol leader Kublai Khan during the Yuan dynasty. The word “hutong” originates from the Mongolian word hottog, which means “well” or “water well.” During those times villagers dug precious wells and built their homes around them.
As the population of Beijing skyrocketed and more housing was needed, the government divided single family sheyuans — classic brick-walled, tile-roofed courtyard homes within the city streets — into multifamily dwellings within the hutong. As a result, these neighborhoods became increasingly crowded and often run down. But there is an authentic charm that still pervades the hutong…. This is where you will find old men playing mah jongg on the corner. Cats doze in windowsills, from which emanate the alluring smells of tonight’s dinner. And shopkeepers — tailors, barbers, cobblers, and butchers — ply their trades using the tools of another era.
Discover Architectural Treasures
Exploring the remaining hutong is an architectural adventure. Gray-tiled homes, each nearly identical to the next, line a maze of streets. Pops of color punctuate the uniform walls — an ornately carved red eave, green shutters, blue and white tiles lining a doorway. Hutong alleys typically range from 15 inches to 32 feet wide — so you’ll squeeze your way through some that barely offer enough room for two people to pass side-by-side, and ease your way down others that are wide enough for cars to drive through. Some head east-west, some north-south, and others remain sloped or as cul-de-sacs. Each one has a special name that represents its history or location. At about four miles in length, Dongxijiaominxiang is the longest hutong. It also features more than 20 turns. Yichi Dajie is known as One Foot Street because it’s only 32 feet long. The broadest — at 104 feet across — is Lingjing, which runs east-west. The oldest one, called Sanmiaojie, dates back 900 years to the Liao Dynasty.
Immerse Yourself in History
The Chinese government has been razing hutong since the 1950s and replacing them with more modern housing. During the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, Beijing was widely criticized for bulldozing many hutong in a massive “cleanup” effort. But since then, many Chinese citizens have recognized the value of these historic neighborhoods, and have advocated for their preservation groups. And yes, canny developers have also realized that their trendy boutiques and bars are enhanced by a now-coveted hutong address. So while many hutong have been lost forever, there is hope that some will live on in some form. What is clear is that even if the hutong remain, they will change. So walking through these fascinating neighborhoods is an experience you should not miss should you find yourslef in Beijing.
A hutong tour is included on Vantage Travel’s Extraordinary Wonders of China and the Yangtze River cruise, enabling you to experience a bit of Old China that will soon be gone. Explore this labyrinth of alleyways and catch a fleeting glimpse of the past.