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Long before city planners in Europe turned cow paths into roads, China had developed a very orderly approach to organizing communities, known as a "hutong".  Hutongs surrounded the centrally located Forbidden City and were built according to the precise etiquette of the Zhou Dynasty. 

Relatives of the royal family and other imperial folks lived in hutongs that were near the palace and lay to the west and east.  Farther away and situated to the north and south were smaller hutongs where the general population lived.  A hutong usually housed a single family, all though many generations of the family would exist under one roof. 

The word "hutong" can be translated as a lane or street that runs between two courtyards.  The city of Beijing in China is famous for its thousands of hutongs -- mostly build in the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (1271 - 1911 AD).  If you visit Beijing and are interested in hutongs, you might seek out Sanmiao Street, which is the oldest hutong in Beijing -- and has existed for more than nine centuries.  The longest hutong is called Dongxi Jiaomin Lane, with one street being more than four miles long.  This is quite interesting when comparing that long walk to the shortest hutong, which used to be called Yi Chi Street (now Meizhuxie Street), just a scant 32 feet in length. 

Don't visit Qianshi Hutong near Qianmen unless you've been successful on your most recent diet.  This hutong is so narrow that two people can't pass through it at the same time, even face-to-face!  It is said that if two people find themselves arriving at either end of this street at the same time, one of them must back out and allow the other to pass through first. 

The typical hutong is a courtyard or 'quadrangle'.  In actuality, it is a square with rooms built along the four sides with the buildings and the extent of the hutong compound varying in size depending on the wealth and status of the occupants.  Think of four buildings all facing inward to a common yard, and that will give you good idea of what a hutong looks like. 

All the buildings have the same basic structure of rooms, corridors and walls, and the all-important Chuihua Gate.  The Chuihua Gate divides the courtyard into an inner and an outer partition.  Wealthier people would have extensive outer yards and their buildings would include intricately carved and painted pillars and roof beams.  Simpler folk lived with simpler fare but built along the same principles. 

The positioning of the gate and the rooms always followed the principles of Feng Shui., for example, the door of each room would face the inner yard.  Additionally, each room would be connected by a path from the yard, and every room facing the yard would have stairs in front of it. 

The Hutong system of community had many traditions.  In addition to the size of the hutong varying according to the wealth and status of the occupants, family members typically lived in certain parts of the dwelling.  For instance, older family members would live in the northern most room and younger family members would live in the wing rooms.  The southern most room or rooms would be used as a living room. 

After the Qing dynasty, around the time from 1911 - 1948, China was subject to many external influences -- including foreign invasion, as well as internal turbulence.  Conditions in the hutongs became quite bad as the society and government underwent changes in response to these influences.  New hutongs no longer followed the carefully established protocols and older hutongs fell into disrepair. 

Conditions improved with the founding of the People's Republic of China.  Old ways have for the most part given way to new.  This included the hutong system of community, all though if you visit as a tourist you will have plenty of opportunity to see a hutong.  Hutongs in urban Beijing still house about half of the population and occupy about a third of the land area.


 

The Great Wall of China The Forbidden City
The Terracotta Army Along the Silk Road
 
Dragon & Phoenix ~ Silk Embroidery
Silk Embroidery
Gold Leaf Painted ~ 10 Inch Turnip Vase
Gold Leaf Lacquer
Pair of 10 Inch Closionne Vases
Cloisonne
Pair of Brass Foo Dogs
Brass & Bronze
Inside Painted Boxes
 
 

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