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Hutong

 

A "hutong" is an ancient city alleyway or lane typical of ancient Beijing, where hutongs once ran into the thousands.

Hutongs were first built around the walled imperial compound known as the Forbidden City. The majority of these alleyways were built during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (1271—1911). At the height of each era, the emperor arranged the residential areas surrounding his moat according to a system of etiquette hailing back to the Zhou Dynasty (C.1100—221 B.C.).

At its heart was the Forbidden City, surrounded by main roadways travelling east-west and north-south. There were originally two kinds of hutongs. The first were grouped to the east and west of the Forbidden City and laid in an orderly design alongside main roadways. Most of these hutongs housed members of the royal family, officials, eunuchs and aristocrats. The second type of hutong was a crude version of the first, located far to the north and south of the sprawling imperial compound, inhabited by merchants and commoners.

What both had in common was the type of structure lining the alleyways. The "siheyuan" known in English as a quadrangle, or courtyard complex, invariably comprised four main buildings facing each compass point and surrounded by a high wall. The size and design of each complex reflected the social status of the inhabitants.

 Wealthy families often boasted several walled courtyards surrounded by a main wall, each building decorated with intricately carved and painted beams and pillars.

The quadrangles of the poor were of a much simpler construction with small gates and low ceilings. Beijing's meandering hutongs are passageways formed by thousands of closely arranged quadrangles of different sizes. The main buildings of most of these structures face south for optimum sunlight, especially during the bitter Beijing winters. Because of this, the majority of the city's hutongs run east to west. Between the major hutongs meandered narrow alleys running north to south to allow convenient passage through what was once a vast maze of gray brick and tiled roofs. 

Old Beijing is in essence a magnified quadrangle, symmetrically arranged and surrounded by a high city wall that was torn down half a century ago to make way for a beltway ringing the increasingly modern capital.

By the end of the Qing Dynasty, China's economy was in tatters. But pleasure-loving Beijing continued to cater to the emperor and his hangers-on. Life was mostly confined to the hutongs. The quadrangle reflected the way of life and social culture of the times.