Recommended visiting time: half a day or one day
Hutongs are Beijing’s traditional alleyways, associated with courtyard dwellings, a cultural feature and foundation of old Beijing. If you want to catch a glimpse of the traditional and authentic life of Beijingers, a Half Day Hutong Tour will be one of the top priorities in your travel diary.
Let’s get to know some more detailed information about Beijing hutongs before you leave.
What Is a Hutong?
Originating during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), hutongs are narrow streets and alleys formed by lines of siheyuan (四合院, Chinese traditional courtyard residences), and were at the center of old neighborhood life in Beijing.
The word “hutong” comes from Mongolian, and means “water well”. People in ancient times dug a well and lived around it, so “water well” became the name of the residential area and then the name of the narrow streets and alleys linking up lines of courtyard houses.
According to urban planning at the time of the Yuan dynasty, a standard avenue was 36 meters wide, a small street was 18 meters wide and a hutong was 9 meters wide.
In fact, Beijing hutongs range widely from 40 centimeters to 32 meters in width. Both in the east-west and the north-south directions, there are different kinds of hutong, known as slanted, half, or “blind” (cul-de-sac) hutongs.
There was a saying in old Beijing: “There are 3,600 famous hutongs; but anonymous hutongs are as many as the hairs on an ox.”
The gray-tiled houses and numerous deep alleys cross each other like a maze, identical in appearance. You’ll find it good fun to walk through, but be careful not to get lost.
History of Hutong
Beijing hutong, alleys or lanes formed by lines of siheyuan (a compound with houses around a courtyard) where old Beijing residents live, witness the vicissitude of the city.
The word "hutong" （胡同）originates from the word "hottog" which means "well" in Mongolian. Villagers dig out a well and inhabited there. Hutong means a lane or alley, in fact the passage formed by lines of siheyuan (a compound with houses around a courtyard) where old Beijing residents live.
Be care not to lost in it! It was recorded that in the Yuan a 36-meter-wide road was called a standard street, a 18-meter-wide one was a small street and a 9-meter-wide lane was named a hutong. In fact, Beijing hutongs are inequable ranging from 40 centimeter to 10 meter in wide. The longest has more than 20 turns. Either in east-west or north-south, Beijing hutong varied as slant, half or " blind hutongs" cul-de-sacs. The gray-tiled houses and deep alleys crossing with each other in identical appearance like a maze, you will find it much fun to walk through but be care not to lost yourself.
If the Forbidden City is symbolic of the Chinese royal family, then hutongs are the epitome of the life of ordinary Beijing citizens. After hundreds of years of vicissitudes and historical change, every hutong has its story to tell. They are like museums of folk custom, representing the culture of Beijing’s citizens.
Hutongs are also like encyclopedias of Beijing. From all the different-sized courtyards and hutongs, you can catch a glimpse of the everyday lives of Beijing citizens.
Neighbors in Beijing hutongs sit down over a cup of tea, catching up with each other’s play, travel, shopping and gossip.
The name “hutong” reminds one of its origin and history. When a certain name is given and sticks, it shows the importance of the idea. From “hutong” one can discover how Beijingers, over the course of centuries, advanced from simplicity to refinement.
Many famous operas and dramas are based on the theme of “hutong life”. A visit to hutongs by day plus a drama by the Beijing People’s Art Theatre, such as “Teahouse” or “Small Hutong”, in the evening, will help you appreciate this fundamental part of Beijing’s life.
The 6 Superlatives of Beijing Hutongs
How many hutongs does Beijing have? The numbers in different historical periods are different. In 1944, there were as many as 3,200. With the continuous development of urban construction post-Liberation (1949), the number of hutongs in Beijing has been decreasing. The government has earmarked a number of them for protection.
The following are the 6 “most distinguished” of Beijing hutongs.
1. The Longest – Dongjiaomin Xiang (东交民巷)
Dongjiaomin Xiang starts from Tiananmen Square East Road in the west and reaches Chongwenmen Inner Avenue in the east. It is the longest hutong in Beijing, at 3 kilometers (nearly 2 miles) in length.
It features many western-style buildings and embassies of various countries built during the late Qing dynasty (1636-1912), which attract many overseas visitors today.
2. The Shortest – Yichidajie (一尺大街)
Located southeast of the east exit of Liulichang East Street, Yichidajie is the shortest hutong in Beijing, at 10 meters (about 33 feet) in length. Though short, it is the epitome of the old Beijing hutong, exhibiting clear characteristics of old Beijing culture.
3. The Widest – Lingjing Hutong (灵境胡同)
Lingjing hutong is in the Xidan area of Beijing. At its widest, it is 32.2 meters. It is essentially two avenues, not really one hutong, which is the source of its claim to be “widest”.
4. The Narrowest – Qianshi Hutong (钱市胡同)
Qianshi hutong, west of Zhubaoshi Street, is the narrowest hutong in Beijing. At its narrowest, it is only 0.4 meters. On encountering each other in the hutong, two people have to pass each other sideways.
Qianshi hutong may be regarded as the location of the earliest financial market and it is the remains of the “money market” in the Qing dynasty, where ancient official currencies were exchanged.
5. The Most Tortuous – Jiuwan Hutong (九湾胡同)
Jiuwan hutong is about 390 meters in length and has no fewer than 13 bends, thus it is known as the most tortuous hutong in Beijing. It is very old, deep and quiet.
6. The Oldest – Zhuanta Hutong 砖塔胡同
Built during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), Zhuanta hutong is the first recorded hutong in Beijing, with a history of over 700 years. It lies near the West Forth Archway and is known as the “root of Beijing hutong”.
Experience Hutong Culture with China Travel
Although with the development of the city, more and more hutongs have been replaced by modern buildings, in the eyes of old Beijingers and travelers alike, hutongs still provide the most representative example of neighborhood life in Beijing.
China Travel has developed all kinds of special activities in Beijing hutongs, like the Hutong Arts Tour, to help you experience traditional hutong culture and the lives of local people.
1. Chinese Learning at Lao She Teahouse
Lao She Teahouse provides an antique flavor and Beijing-style environment. You will learn the most practical Chinese words and explanations of local culture from a bilingual teacher with a Mandarin-teaching certificate.
2. Mahjong Experience
Mahjong is a game for four players that originated in China. It first became popular during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). It is a game involving skill, strategy and calculation, as well as a certain degree of luck. Your teacher will share some of the skills with you at your class in the hutong.
3. Cricket Culture
Cricket culture in China is endowed with a 2,000-year history of both singing insects and fighting crickets. It is a traditional culture in Beijing. You’ll visit the home of a cricket enthusiast in the hutong, who is engrossed in the hobby of raising crickets.
4. Folk Art
When you visit a hutong family, you’ll have opportunity to learn some traditional folk art from your hosts: paper cuts, facial makeup for Chinese opera, Chinese knotting, painting or calligraphy. Choose one according to your interests.
There are many other possible hutong activities, such as Chinese cooking at local people’s homes or yangko dancing. Contact us if you wish to add such activities to your itinerary.
Optionally, we also have selected 4 Recommended Hutong Tour Routes for your inspiration.