Why is it called a 'Hutong'? There are different explanations. Most scholars think it is from the Mongolian 'hudong', which means the 'well'. 'Hudong' in the Mongolian language also refers to long and narrow terrain, high on two sides and low in the middle. In Beijing, there are several thousand Hutongs, revolving around the Forbidden City
. They originated in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), but the majority were formed in the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties.
How many Hutongs are there in Beijing? According to the literary record, there were several thousand in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Over 900 were in the inner city and the outer city had more than 300. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), there were more than 1,800 and in the era of Republic of China, there were more than 1,900. At the time of the founding of the People's Republic of China, Beijing had more than 2,550 Hutongs. Since then, some old Hutongs have been merged and some have been newly named. With the reforming and opening policy, along with economic development and construction, some were relocated and transformed. Today, Beijing's streets, lanes and Hutongs surpass 6,000 and over 1,300 are named 'such-and-such Hutong'. No wonder the old Beijingers always said that, 'There are 3,600 ones named Hutongs and innumerable unnamed ones.'
Beijing is a foursquare city with only a few diagonal streets, and most streets lie exactly east, west, north and south. It is Hutongs that link up all these streets. Most Hutongs or other alleys have both ends open to other streets. Occasionally some dead-end, and then they will be marked 'The Impasse' at the Hutong's entrance. The oldest Hutongs are located just to the east and west of the imperial palace. The majority of the residents there were aristocrats. The simple and crude Hutongs are mostly located to the north and south far away from the imperial palace and the majority of their residents were merchants or commoners.
The overwhelming majority of Beijing's inner city's Hutongs are very straight and orderly, while the outer city's Hutongs are more irregular. This kind of pattern also indicates that the old Beijing was fully planned and constructed according to the blueprint of a chessboard. The housing comprising a Hutong is quadrangular, and faces south. These dwellings are joined to form each Hutong.
Names of Beijng's Hutongs read like an encyclopedia, reflecting the historical evolution, social character and style of the city, and the close relationship between Hutongs and the people's daily life. Since the first Hutong in the Yuan Dynasty, all Hutong's names were handed down orally. Only in the Republic of China era were names first marked on a board hanging at the Hutong's entrance.
Beijing is a city with an incomparably rich historical heritage, so the styles of Hutong's names vary. Most Hutongs and alleys were named after bureaucracies, palaces and temples, warehouses and workshops, bridges, rivers, bazaars and trades, commodities and utensils, people's surnames, scenery and public feelings and so on. Some are simple and mechanical: East 48, East 42. Some are popular and visual: Crutch Hutong, Narrow-meandering Hutong. Some are full of historical references: Banknote Depot Hutong, Soldiers and Horses Hutong. Some reflect obvious characteristics: 'Wide Street', 'Eight Bends', and 'One-foot Avenue'. Some reveal people's happy wishes: 'Blessing Hutong', 'Long-living Hutong' and 'Forever-auspicious Hutong'.
The oldest Hutong in Beijing is Sanmiaojie, which can be traced back more than 900 years. The longest Hutong is called Dongxi Jiaomin Lane, with one street more than 6.5 kilometers (4.0 miles) long; the shortest Hutong, which used to be called Yi Chi Street (now Meizhuxie Street), is just a scant 32 feet in length. The narrowest one is Qianshi Hutong near Qianmen, where the width is only 0.7 meter (0.76 yards) and the narrowest place is only 40 centimeters (15 inches). There are some winding complex Hutongs like Jiudaowan, which had over 20 crooks (later reduced to five). Outside the Qianmen, there is a Hutong called Jiudaowan where you have to turn 13 corners.
In Beijing's urban district, Hutongs still occupy nearly 1/3 of the area of Beijing, and here lives almost half of Beijing's population. It is the most common type of residence for Beijingers, not only in the past but also in current times. Alleys and Hutongs cut the city of Beijing into many blocks. This kind of square has affected both Beijing people's life and their thoughts. A Hutong is not only a residence for Beijing's people, but also is their cultural modality. The Beijing residential culture we usually say is based on the Hutong culture. Hutong culture is a closed culture that endures everything, abides by the law and lays low under bad conditions. The inhabitant of a Hutong who is not preoccupied with high material aspirations, mostly lives contentedly with little inclination to move elsewhere.
Hutongs are a basic feature of Beijing culture and the root of the old Beijing. If you want to taste old Beijing's flavor and know more about old Beijing's life, you may have to leave the dignified splendid inner city for these Hutongs spreading densely and numerously all over the outer city.
Nowadays, China pays much more attention to the cultural development of Beijing Hutongs. The National Tourism Administration sponsors a special tour in some Hutongs which have been protected from significant changes. Tourists from all over the world can take a rickshaw to visit the old Hutongs. You can stroll in the Hutong, and go into people's houses in a Hutong as a guest to chat or eat with them. Thus you can experience in person the daily life of people in Beijing's Hutongs.
The Shichahai area located in the city centre, which still maintains its ancient style, is the main Hutong tour region and the most beautiful place in old Beijing. The tour may last 1 to 4 hours. These are twice a day, at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. The tour includes the Drum tower, Shichahai, Yinding Bridge and Gong Palace Garden (Gong Wangfu). Generally, the whole tour will take approximately two and a half hours.
The Hutongs in Beijing are the symbol of Beijing people's life and also the manifestation of old Beijing's culture. They have recorded Beijing's historical vicissitude. As the carrier of old Beijing's history and culture, Hutongs have eternal charm. Big cities like Beijing are modernized and full of tall buildings, fashion and vigor. We should, however, deeply believe that in such an old, learned and brand-new city, Hutongs will still retain their attractive style and features as an historical link to welcome guests from around the world.
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