Historical Places

Hutongs

Beijing is famous for its hutongs: intersecting alleyways bustling with residential and commercial activity, that are found all over the city. Many hutongs were developed during the Yuan (1206-1341), Ming (1368-1628) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. The Ming dynasty design of Beijing had the imperial Forbidden City at its center, with the next highest social classes living to the east and west of the imperial palace. Extending out from the center in a rigid social hierarchy was an intricate lacework of interconnecting courtyards joined by hutongs. In the neighbourhoods originally inhabited by the aristocracy, the hutongs are lined with large houses and walled gardens. However in the areas where laborers, craftsmen and other commoners lived, the hutongs are narrower and the courtyards smaller. Most hutongs run east to west so that the houses could take advantage of natural light. Smaller passageways, running north to south, connect the main hutongs.

(House decoration in Liu Li Chang) House decoration in Liu Li Chang.

Many hutongs have been destroyed to make way for modern construction, but some of Beijing’s archetypal alleyways have been designated as protected areas to preserve this part of the city’s history and culture. Some hutongs have been reconstructed with two and three storey buildings and modern stores, others dating back hundreds of years give a glimpse of how life must have been generations ago.

Some of the most famous hutongs are found near the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower and in the area around Shichahai Lake. Most hutongs are straight, but Beixinqiao Hutong has 19 twists and turns. The shortest hutong is Guantong Hutong at 33 yards long, while the longest is Dong Jiao Min Hutong which stretches for 4 miles from Tiananmen Square. Qianshi (Money Market) Hutong near Qianmen (the front gate of Tiananmen Square) is the narrowest hutong in the city measuring only 16 inches wide at its narrowest point.