What is a hutong?
A hutong is a type of narrow alley that is found in the cities of northern China, particularly in Beijing. Beijing hutongs are formed from lines of siheyuan , which is a type of residence where houses are built specifically to form squares or rectangles in order to create a type of traditional courtyard. Most of the neighborhoods within the area and throughout China were formed by combining one siheyuan with another to form a hutong, which is then joined to another hutong. In the mid-20th century, several Hutongs in Beijing had been torn down to pave the way for infrastructure development. However, thanks to efforts to safeguard this significant aspect of Chinese architectural culture, many hutongs have been preserved.
The Hutongs (which roughly translate into “water well” in Mongol) first appeared during the Yuan dynasty. It is thought that the design originated from Mongolia. Much of the residential area of Beijing was organized by different social classes throughout the time of the Zhou dynasty, the longest of the Chinese dynasties that lasted from 1046 BCE to 256 BCE. Citizens who were higher in the rankings of social classes could live near the center of the circles. The aristocrats resided in the western and eastern sides of the Imperial Palace. The siheyuan of such officials who had high levels together with rich merchants were large and characterized by beautifully painted and sculpted columns and roof beams with exquisitely landscaped gardens. If they enjoyed a high position in society, their hutongs were well aligned with walled gardens and houses with ample space. However, far from the palace, workers, ordinary people, craftsmen and less well-to-do merchants lived in much smaller and simpler siheyuan forming narrower hutongs. The main houses and doors of most siheyuan faced south for better lighting and therefore a number of hutongs ran from east to west with several small lanes from north and south allowing for easy passage.
Era of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)
As the era of dynasties came to an end, the role of hutongs within society also changed. The main reason was that many of the new hutongs had been built without a proper plan and had begun to crumble rapidly. In the city center, aged hutongs were starting to crumble due to lack of maintenance. Many areas with the highest concentration of hutongs were destroyed between 1911 and 1948. Overall, the city of Beijing was deteriorating and many of the Siheyuan who had previously been owned and occupied by small families were divided and shared among many families.
Most of the old Beijing hutongs have disappeared and have been replaced by skyscrapers and wide avenues since the 1949 establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Most residents whose families have lived there for decades have left the area for the construction of modern apartments. For example, in the Xicheng district nearly 200 of the 820 hutongs that once settled in 1949 have long since disappeared.
Hutong and tourism
However, some hutongs still exist in Beijing and remain an important element of tourism in the city. Some are several hundred years old and in some places are preserved along with recreated contemporary hutongs. The area is frequented by tourists, many of whom visit the neighborhood in small local means of transport known as pedicabs.