Hutong History

Written by Ruru Zhou Updated Aug. 11, 2021

The Hutongs in Beijing are networks of small local houses and narrow alleyways that crisscross parts of the city.

These narrow alleyways are lined by “Siheyuan,” 1-story small houses with gardens in the center. Siheyuan literally means 4 sides: “si” is 4, “he” is a side, and “yuan” is garden. The Hutongs represent an interesting dichotomy; an urban jungle of concrete, and power lines, juxtaposed with traditional gardens and historical architecture.

How Old are Beijing Hutongs?

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Traditional Beijing Hutong

The Hutongs were originally constructed over 700 years ago, in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The Yuan declared Beijing the capital city and began road construction in the city along the lines of a grid.

The Yuan dynasty was a Mongol dynasty, and the word “Hutong” actually means “water well.” The design of the Hutongs originally had residences carefully organized around water wells and was based on different social classes. Originally, the neighborhoods were built around these wells, with the higher-status and noble families living closer to the centers, and the less elite living towards the perimeter.

Small streets were built between the houses, for accessibility, natural light, and airflow. From above, the Hutongs began to resemble -and still do to this day- a chessboard: square housing complexes cut with straight narrow roads.

The city planning was extremely controlled, so each different thoroughfare had a different title. Roads measuring 36 meters wide were officially main streets, 18 meter-wide roads were sided streets, and roads that were 9 meters or less were the Hutongs.

The original inhabitants were Mongolians, traditionally nomadic people. As they settled down in their new homes in Beijing, they gave the Hutongs personality. Each family received an area of 8 Mu (1.3 acres) so each house occupied the same total area. Those who could afford to differentiate their housing with signs of status and prosperity. Wealthy merchants would carve highly decorated eaved roofs, beams, and columns, which they also painted colorfully. The Hutong residents also cultivated traditional Chinese gardens, rock gardens, and ornate courtyards.

The Hutongs Developed during the Ming and Qing Dynasties

During the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1644, and 1644-1911 respectively), the Hutongs size, population, and functions were dramatically expanded.

Ming Changes

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The Ming Dynasty constructed the Forbidden City axially at the center of Beijing. Thus, all construction in Beijing was to expand from out North-South, and East-West from the Forbidden City, and the Hutongs were part of this expansion. The activity around the Forbidden City and the inner city of Beijing was overwhelming, so an outer city was built. Laws governing Hutong construction were relaxed, so different types of passageways could be built. The Hutongs thus expanded to three times the size they were in the Yuan period.

During the Ming period, the Hutongs also developed non-residential uses, for example, Lumicang Hutong became the location of the Lumi Grain Depot.

Qing Expansion

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Old Lady in Hutong

The Qing drove the Han and Hui people out of central Beijing, in order to give the inner city to the Manchu people. Thus, the non-Manchu nationalities had to construct more housing in the outer part of the city, so more Hutongs sprang up. The number rose to over 2000 Hutongs total in Beijing.

Many of the people who constructed the new, outer Hutongs were wealthy businessmen, so the outer city actually became more prosperous than the inner city.

Hutongs Changed during the Republic of China

After the deposition of the Qing dynasty in the early 1900s, and the opening of the Forbidden City, the Hutongs expanded with minimal restriction.

The Hutongs expanded in all directions from the center of the city. Fraught with war and invasions, desperate citizens built houses out of whatever construction materials they could, whenever it was necessary. The number of Hutongs jumped up to over 3000 by 1949. Many of the new Hutongs were very poor areas, essentially built by and for refugees or those whose homes had been destroyed in wars. Some of the haphazardly built Hutongs from the 20th century remain today.

Hutongs Have Been Protected

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Hutong Families

The rapid economic growth of the PRC has resulted in the demolition of many of the Hutongs in order to build modern amenities like high-rises and businesses.

Fortunately, many Hutongs still stand and are designated protected areas. Locals still live in the Hutongs, and some of the Hutongs are protected cultural relics. Visitors can find libraries dedicated to Chinese authors and tourist attractions like boutique shops and cafés.

Some Hutongs are hundreds of years old, well-preserved, and offer a unique and personal window into China’s past.

Tailor-Make a Beijing Hutong Tour for Yourself

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Wanna take a trip to China and see these charming hutongs?  Optionally, China Travel can also customize a Beijing Hutong Culture Tour for you, based on your budget and interests. This can save you time, money, and trouble. Please feel free to run your tour ideas by us! Tailor-Make Now!

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