Home : City Guide: Beijing: Attractions

Hutongs and Courtyards

Hutongs and courtyards, BeijingThe word 'Hutong' refers to the small and narrow alleyways between rows of courtyards and it is estimated that there are thousands of hutongs in the city from the narrowest 40-cetimeter (16 inches)-wide Qinshi Hutong to the zigzagged Jiudaowan (literally means quite a long hutong with nine turns). Names of hutongs are related to people's daily life, such as a person's name, an auspicious word or a beautiful flower. 

Courtyard, (Si He Yuan) in Chinese, refers to a square or rectangular courtyard compound usually with four houses built on each side. It is a typical example of Northern Chinese residential architecture. This closed construction has only one entrance and is considered to safeguard family privacy. Four houses arranged on each side with an interior courtyard symbolize the union of the family. Architectural designs of unique roof decorations, elaborate wood and stone carvings and vividly colored paintings make the courtyard a museum of traditional Chinese culture. Entering the compound is to explore the traditions of China. The history of Beijing's courtyard can be traced back to the construction campaign of this capital city in China's Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368). Compared with its skyscraping modern counterparts, courtyards in the city allow tourists to learn more about the daily life of ordinary Beijing people.

Nowadays, Hutong Culture or Courtyard Culture is used to describe anything related to old Beijing and a featured tour by a pedicab through Beijing's winding hutongs is a popular choice for travelers who want a glimpse of the city's past.


Recommended China Tour with Beijing Hutong
5 Days Beijing Tour: Visit Tian'anmen Square, Forbidden City, Badaling, Rickshaw Tour in the Hutong and more as well as enjoying Beijing Duck Dinner and Chinese Kungfu Show


Hutong History - Why are Beijing's lanes called Hutong?
Hutongs in Beijing
It has record that in the 12th century B.C. when the Jin had capital here called Zhongdu, streets and lanes appeared, but not hutongs. In 1276 B.C. in the Yuan, Dadu - the capital city was built thronged with officials and nobles. Residential houses were set up for high-ranking officials (usually a compound with a courtyard with one-story houses) side by side. Each courtyard house accommodated a single family. Small alleys that run between courtyards home for proper draught and daylight were earliest hutongs. The word "hutong" originates from the word "hottog" which means "well" in Mongolian. There were 29 hutongs at the time. Most of the hutongs remained today were built in the Ming and Qing resulted from block extension of the imperial city. The Zhuanta Hutong in Xisi on the west side of the city was once mentioned in the Yuan dramas. It used to be the residential house for the noted playwright Guan Hanqing, China's Shakespeare of the Yuan dynasty.

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 hutongs worsened. Quadrangles previously owned by one family became a compound occupied by many households. Beijing's hutongs accounted for 3000.

In the 20th century, with the development of metropolis, hutongs are gradually replaced by skyscraper.

Hutong storiesStories behind Hutongs 
A hutong called "Girl Weaver", named after a fairy who descended to the world and married a cowherd. Her enraged father, the Celestial Emperor, took the girl back and separated the couple with the Milky Way. Symmetrically, on the other side of the axis of the Imperial City is a Cowherd Bridge. This arrangement seems to suggest that feudal emperors living in the Forbidden City are sons of Heaven.

Protection of Beijing's Hutongs
Ping'an Avenue is so wide and straight that it looks like an airport runway stretching along downtown Beijing. To built it, the city had to remove a large number of alleys traditionally called hutongs, from the map.

Only 50 years ago, Beijing had about 3,200 hutongs, but today there are only 990. In Xicheng District along, from the 1960s to the 1990s more than 260 hutongs were cleared.

Some older citizens worry that without these hutongs can Beijing still be called Beijing?

In their eyes, the disappearance of hutongs means the disappearance of a period of history, a cordial lifestyle, and even the disappearance of Beijing itself.

They even hold that Beijing is represented by two sections: the imperial gardens represented by the Forbidden City and the hutongs. It is the gray walls and tiles of the siheyyuan (couryard dwellings) that make the Forbidden City look splendid in gree and gold, and it is the flat buildings in the imposing. The two bring out the best in each other, but the courtyard dwellings in the hutongs are the more typical of the two.

As Shu Yi, the deputy curator of the China Contemporary Literature Museum, said, if most of the courtyard dwellings and hutongs in Beijing are replaced by high-rise buildings, where can people find traces of Beijing's history as a 3,000-year-old city and a 1,000-year old capital? At the most, it can only be another version of Hong Kong, Tokyo or New York.

Indeed, from the names of now-disappeared hutongs one can discover how Beijingers, in the course of centuries, advanced from vulgarity to refinement. For instance, there was a hutong called" Lishi," meaning " donkey market." Another example is Shikeliang Hutong, which means " bright all the time." But the name evolved from " shikelang," which means " dung beetle."

Beijing Hutong protection
Every era has left its mark on the names of hutongs. During the " cultural revolution" ( 1966-76), the adjective Hong (red) was added to the names of many hutongs. As a result, the number of hutongs with the character " hong" increased to more than 100. Among them, 27 hutongs were named " Hongri" Road, which means "red sun". Even those names without "hong" also had the characteristics of the times. For example, Babaolou Hutong near Jianguomen was renamed " Miezi" Hutong, which means " eliminate the bourgeoisie"; and Nanxiawazi (South Depression) Hutong was renamed " Xui Maozhu" ( Study Mao's Works) Hutong.

In Beijing's numerous hutongs are scattered the residences of famous personages, and these places are repositories. When urban construction threatens the existence of these hutongs, some Beijingers become worried. Mr Shu Yi appealed, " Please preserve the few hutongs that are left."

Having already lost their city wall, Beijingers feel that they cannot afford to lose the hutongs and courtyard dwellings that are their pride as well. But the headache for the municipal authorities is how to preserve the shabby but valuable hutongs while trying to build a cosmopolitan metropolis?
 
Xu Yong rescued a hutong unexpectedly. A construction company wanted to terar it down to make room for a high-rise building, but the hutong had been included in the itinerary of a hutong tour by his company- the Bejiing Hutong Culture Development Co.Ltd. Taking into consideration the preservation of the ancient capital and its tourism development, the planning department finally changed the original plan and preserved the hutongs. Foreign tourists who have toured the hutongs all claim that without visiting Beijing's hutongs, one cannot say he or she has seen the real Beijing.