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Beijing Hutongs


Nov 4, 2011
Beijing Hutongs

The old lanes of the Beijing hutongs, many laid out hundreds of years ago during the Ming and Qing dynasty eras (1368-1912), retain some of the traditional culture and way of life of the past. Visiting the Beijing hutongs for shopping, dining, and experiencing the street life is a way to get in touch with the everyday people and experience the daily life of people in Beijing.

What Is a Hutong?

A hutong is a lane or alley formed by traditional courtyard compounds lining both sides. These hutongs range from little alleys 40 centimeters wide to streets 10 meters wide.

The compounds that line the lanes and alleys are called "siheyuan" (四合院 sìhéyuàn /srr-her-ywhen/). The word means: 'four joined-together courtyard.' They are old buildings arranged on four sides around a courtyard, and the buildings and the courtyard are enclosed by a wall.

The hutong streets and alleys crisscross with each other and meander in confusing ways. It is fun to walk around in them. See our Recommended Siheyuan Courtyards in Beijing.

Hutong History
An old style siheyuan of the past
The Mongolians captured the Beijing area in 1215, and in 1271 they started to build their Yuan Empire (1271–1368) capital called Dadu (大都 Dàdū). It was recorded that in the Yuan Empire 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 (胡同 hùtōng /hoo-tong/ 'haphazardly together').

Perhaps the name describes the haphazard unplanned construction of many of the hutongs. The word hutong originates from the Mongolian word hottogthat means 'water well' in Mongolian. In ancient times, villagers dug a well and then lived around it.

In the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) empires, the officials and wealthy people built their grand siheyuan compounds close to the Forbidden City of the emperors along hutong lanes that were wide and laid out according to a plan. A good example is the Hutong History.


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