Hutong is one of the unique special features in Beijing; in a degree, it could be simply defined as the old city alley that tend towards from east to west. There are thousands of Hutong here surrounded the Forbidden City, most of which were came into being in the dynasties Yuan, Ming, Qing. Old local residents have a saying: "There are 360 large hutongs and as many small hutongs as there are hairs on an ox." And with the development of the economy and city constructions, there are mainly 4000 Hutongs in Beijing at present.
Beijing Hutong has various kinds of names and even each of them may possess its own features. Most of them are named according to the feudal institution, bridges, rivers, trade market, merchandise and peoples names etc. Still we could find another features that all the hutong together with buildings inside were arranged by the past dynasty emperors in accordance to the formality manners of Zhou Dynasty to consolidate their supreme power.
As the above said that Hutong was originally set up in Jin Dynasty, in other words, there was no hutong before, but just roads and city districts. At the beginning of the 13th century, a Mongolian tribe from the west led by Genghis khan occupied Beijng. And after several years warfares, Beijing city had been destroyed and Genghis khans grandson, in 1260 decided to rebuild it. It is well known that the feudal emperors all along obey the principle of symmetrical structures in architecture. So they had to fix a central axis and lay all the buildings and houses in a well balance strictly. And the construction process had formed the hutong spontaneously.
Origin of the Name
As history goes, the name Hutong is such a kind of transliteration from the Mongolian word huto, which means water wells. Since nomadic tribes used to live and stay near water wells, they called the small alleys huto. Gradually, with the development of the town and human life, people changed the name into hutong as today. It was just applied for the small street after the period of Nuzhen People came to the north China. They are exactly the people who established Jin Dynasty and captured the city in 1127 and make it their capital. Because the Mongolian and Nuzhen People were both nomadic tribes, their languages are somewhat familiar with each other. So they still adapt the name hutong.
Beijing hutong culture is a unique Gem of the Chinese culture. About the Beijing hutong culture, there are a lot to say, either from the historical side or the personal experiences. Chinese history, right in the world-famous also seldom-noticed hutong, has gone through its three-time ethnical fusion with the same progress of the assimilation of the Western Culture and architectual styles. Each of which are small alley civilians Paradise, you will see the elderly and laverock dialogue, the innocent playing children. Beijingers rush busy all the time to present great and extraordinary means of living style. Time and again, some calls from the lanes still permeated a kind of long and silvery flavors. To say something in details, there you can enjoy a lot of the ordinary human life and also some special way of talking, eating are appealing. People, especially the old generations, like to sitting together around hutong talking, or playing chess. In the early morning and evenings, it is easily to see that the Chinese traditional way of exercise Taijiquan as well as folkway dancing and songs or Peking Opera arias. All of which, in a sense, are kinds of Chinese culture soul. Beijing civilian foods could also be found here not only as a kind of folk culture, but also connected a lot to the formal literature.
As time goes by, we could see many operas, plays and films about hutong. They are deeply enrooted in literature history. The most famous playwright associated to hutong is Laoshe, who is one of Chinese greatest novelists in 20th century. As he himself was born in such environment in a small lane. He had gone through what the real life in hutong personally. Though later he had left there for several years, still he remained his originally emotion closely on it. Reflected to his writings, the most famous is the Four Generations Under One Roof, he set the background of the novel in a hutong named Small Sheep Pen Hutong. Another perfect representation of his based Hutong Culture is the dream Teahouse, it is just a description on the small ordinaries life in hutong, which both implies the real life aspect in hutong and reveals the problems of society at that time.
The huge Beijing City has formed its construction style almost after Qing Dynasty. Its city building overall arrangement obeys the pattern style that south and north in rectangular. Influenced by the whole settings, hutongs as well followed such ways. They were surrounded by the traditional Chinese constructions Siheyuan, in other words, it is the Siheyuan that make the Hutong came into being. Maybe the total Beijing City could be called a big palace with royal palace and civilian palace. The civilian place here lot its original meaning as a real palace with delicate decorations. They are much more smaller with low walls and small gates. There is no rules to forbidden anyone from entering, it is convenient for all. In all, hutong is several passageways of the surrounded houses and big streets.
Different Types of Hutong
As there are numerous hutongs in Beijing, certainly they will appear differences from each other. In ancient China, there are strictly define to hutong to distinguish from street. A 9-metre-wide lane was called a Hutong. But today we may find that a lot of smaller hutongs have been formed inside bigger hutongs, which shows the development of our minds and society.
If as the traditional way, we could divide hutong into mainly two kinds:
One is regarded as a rigorous path obeyed the traditional rules. They were near the palace to the east and west and orderly arranged along the street, where lived the imperial relatives and aristocrats.
Another kind, opposite to the above one, is a type without regular shape. And mostly located far to the north and south of the royal palace, where ordinaries live.
Some Special Best of Hutong
Longest: Dongjiaominxiang and Xijiaominxiang, running parallel with the Chang'an Avenue
Shortest: Yichi (meaning "one foot") Hutong, only 75 feet long
Narrowest: Xiaolabakou Hutong, whose northern part is less than 0.4 meter. Jiudaowan (meaning "nine turnings") Hutong located in Dongcheng District has the most turnings--more than 20 in all.
Broadest:Lingjing hutong, the widest part is 32 plus 18 meters.
Oldest: Sanmiaojie, which located outside Xuanwu Gate, was called Tanzhou Street in the Liao Dynasty (916-1125).
Roundest: Jiuwan Hutong
Today, as the Beijing city develops into an international metropolis, its lanes and alleyways, occupying one third of the city proper, still serve as dwellings for half the total urban population. If Beijing sightseeing at the Imperial Palace, Ming Tombs and the Summer Palace is helpful in learning about the lives of China's emperors, the Hutongs of Beijing reflect in turn the lives of ordinary Beijing people as a whole. So roaming through Beijing's old, narrow streets, hutongs, by old-fashioned pedicab has attracted more and more overseas visitors. Nowadays Beijing Hutong Tour appears to be a well travel item in Beijing, from which the tourists could feel the real old Beijing, especially the civilian life here. They could face to face with Chinese person and even communicate, to chat casually with people here.