Aerial view of a hutong alleyway in Beijing. The term hutong refers to the narrow lanes and alleys (which have become increasing maze-like), in cities of north China. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Hutong are the narrow lanes and alleys (as well as the neighborhoods formed by them) in cities of north China. Hutong have become iconic symbols of Beijing, once an imperial capital and today an international city undergoing unprecedented change. In recent years, the conservation of the tangible and intangible aspects of hutong neighborhoods has met only limited success.
Beginning in the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) when the imperial capital was Dadu, much of what is today called Beijing was laid out like a chessboard grid with neighborhoods defined by the presence of shared water wells or hutong, as they were known in the Mongol language. By extension, the associated narrow lanes and alleys as well as the neighborhoods formed by them, each with its own characteristics, came also to be called hutong. Running east to west and crossing those running north to south, the lanes and alleys were said to be “like ox hair” in that their number was beyond calculation.
Over a span of fourteen years early in the fifteenth century, Zhu Di, the third emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), moved the capital from Nanjing in the Yangzi (Chang) River basin back north to the site of Dadu but with a new name: Beijing. The construction of the magnificent complex known in English as the “Forbidden City” created a cosmic anchor around which the city was rebuilt, growing in an orderly and structured fashion comprising walled complexes and passages of various extents. Princes, high-ranking officials, and some wealthy merchants lived in expansive residences, many of which had access to water bodies, to the east and west of the imperial palaces. In this core area the connecting hutong were comparatively broad, with imposing gateways leading through high gray walls into expansive courtyard dwellings called siheyuan. First to the north and then later to the south of the Forbidden City, commoners—shopkeepers, artisans, and laborers—built simpler and smaller courtyard dwellings, fashioning in the process densely packed hutong neighborhoods along newly laid-out narrower, irregular, and sometimes winding lanes.
In the areas around the Imperial Palace the main hutong ran principally from east to west since the main residential buildings aligned along them typically were oriented so that their main rooms and gates faced south. Linking these larger hutong, narrower alleys ran from north to south to provide shortcuts and access to residences as they were built. Over time, whatever traditional orderliness there once was, lanes and alleys came eventually to proliferate, even in a somewhat disorderly way, so that some hutong became mazelike in layout. Where once hutong were rigidly parallel in structure, meeting each other at right angles, smaller ones away from the imperial precincts often were irregular in width and length, becoming simply extended passageways. The Jiudaowan (Nine Turnings) hutong in the Dongcheng district, which actually has nineteen turns along its length, is even today an irregular, somewhat labyrinth-like, route of singular interest. Within the Qianmen area in the south of the city, the well-known Qianshi hutong is only 80 centimeters wide in one spot, insufficient for two persons to pass. Some extant hutong are nothing more than narrow alleys that lead fairly quickly to dead ends.
Throughout the twentieth century, but especially after 1949, as crowding occurred in old courtyard residences, hutong neighborhoods themselves increased in their overall residential density. Where once behind the walls of a capacious courtyard house lived a single family, now eight to ten families occupied the space, leading usually to the building of structures in once-open courtyards. Activities that once might have been confined within the dwelling increasingly spilled out into the lanes, where neighbors spent free time sitting on small stools in the alleys to read, chat, and watch children. The evolution of social communities, with markets and service facilities nearby, under these circumstances is striking. In spite of overcrowding, poor hygiene, leaky roofs, and lack of privacy, many in China today view hutong neighborhoods as quiet spaces with an idyllic atmosphere. In urban China there is much nostalgia for the quiet and community of traditional hutong life in the wake of the intrusion of automobiles and trucks into narrow lanes and the wholesale destruction of old neighborhoods.
In recent decades substantial portions of old Beijing have vanished in demolition that has, according to many observers, actually accelerated even as authorities claim that they have slowed the pace of destruction by enacting regulations to protect twenty-five hutong zones in the city. News reports and blogs regularly express outrage at wholesale demolition in areas said to be protected from destruction. Poignant tales of longtime, often elderly families and neighbors uprooted from familiar surroundings with inadequate compensation are commonly repeated, especially as the city remade itself for the 2008 Summer Olympics. In 2006 a survey by the Beijing Institute of Civil Engineering and Architecture confirmed that only about 30 percent of hutong built prior to 1949 still existed, with most destruction having taken place in the 1990s and early 2000s. One sprawling neighborhood that has been undergoing gentrification is the Shichahai area, with its archipelago-like lakes, tree-lined esplanades, and bridges strewn along the western part of the Imperial City. Here hutong tours whisk foreign and domestic tourists in three-wheeled pedicabs along narrow lanes lined with old buildings in hopes of giving them a sense of the character of life in old Beijing. Hutong, to many natives of Beijing and visitors, represent the soul of Beijing that must be preserved even as the ancient imperial city is modernized. Without hutong, some say, the essence of historic Beijing will be no more.
Source: Knapp, Ronald G. (2009). Hutong. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1134–1136. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Children play in the alley of a hutong neighborhood. Cars and carts crowd the narrow street. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.
The alley of a hutong. In Beijing hutong tours whisk tourists in three-wheeled pedicabs along narrow lanes lined with old buildings in hopes of giving them a sense of the character of life in the old city. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.