The term “hutong” (hútòng) originally means “water wells” in the Mongolian language. A hutong is a typical narrow alley or street in Beijing, China. They are formed by Siheyuan (traditional compounds with houses around a courtyard). The hutongs surround the Forbidden City, and were mostly built during the Yuan (1206-1341), Ming (1368-1628) and Qing (1644-1908) Dynasties. High-ranking officials and wealthy businessmen lived in the hutongs, which is why many of the hutongs we see today feature exquisite design. Hutongs are residential neighborhoods that form the heart of Beijing, and thus represent important cultural elements.
There were 900 documented hutongs inside the city and 300 in the outskirts during the Ming Dynasty. They were developed into 1,800 in the Qing Dynasty and a further 1,000 were formed in the early 20th century. According to statistics, upon the founding the People’s Republic of China, there were 2550 hutongs. There has been both some demolition and rebuilding following China’s reform and opening up, and there now remain about 4,000 hutongs. Zhuanta (Pagoda) Hutong, formed in the Yuan Dynasty, has the longest history. The only existing bridge gallery is Guanyinyuan (Mercy Buddha Temple) Arcade.
Hutongs vary a great deal. The longest is Dongjiaominxiang, about 3 miles (4.8 km) and the shortest, Yichidaxie, is only 25.2 meters long. The widest, Lingjing, is 32.18 meters whilst the narrowest, Xiaolabakou, (small pipe socket) is only 0.6 meter wide. Interestingly, Qiuwan (9-Corner) Hutong has the most corners, but actually, there are far more than 9 corners.
The main buildings in the hutongs were almost all quadrangles, a building compound formed by four houses on four sides around a quadrangular courtyard. The quadrangles varied in size and design according to the social status of the residents.
Every hutong has a name. The naming of hutongs can also reflect local customs. A hutong can be named according to symbols (e.g. Stone Tiger Hutong), names of places (e.g. Yindian Bridge Hutong), and names of trees (e.g. Willow Tree Hutong), directions and names of the residents, and so on.
Despite their long history, many of the hutongs were destroyed or deteriorated due to war and development. However, after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the conditions of hutongs have been improved. More recently many hutongs have been replaced by modern highways and buildings. The remaining hutongs are very attractive to foreign tourists. They can experience the “old” Beijng in the New Beijing.