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
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
All the buildings have the same basic structure of
rooms, corridors and walls, and the all-important Chuihua
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
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
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.