A labyrinth of ancient China meets the new, the Beijing Hutongs are steeped in history and modern trends. This neighborhood of alleyways and modest homes has stood the test of time, showing off the city’s resilience while preserving its culture. The Hutongs of Beijing find a way to thrive no matter what the era throws at them; always keeping an air of authenticity. Standing on the border of the Hutongs, visitors can look in, not knowing what they’ll find inside, but being sure that it will be an entryway to the real Beijing.
-The longest Hutong is 6.5 kilometers in length while the shortest is only 10 meters long. The broadest Hutong is 32.18 meters, and the narrowest Hutong is 0.7 meters in width.
-There are more than 1,000 alleys left in the Hutongs, but about ten of these are popular today.
-Hutongs were first built as a residential neighborhood during the Yuan Dynasty from the year 1206 to 1341.
-Many famous, Chinese artists and playwrights once lived in the Hutongs.
History of The Beijing Hutongs
It was during the Zhou Dynasty, from 1027-256 BC, that the city of Beijing was planned by emperors. Hutongs, a Mongolian term that means “water well,” first started to appear during the Yuan Dynasty. They started off as residential neighborhoods, designed based on different social classes.
The water wells in the area played a big role. In fact, the hutongs were designed around these wells so that the residents would have easy access to their water supply. Essentially designed in circles, the more elite members of society were allowed to live close to the center, while others lived farther away. Wealthy merchants began carving ornate roofs and beams, which they painted colorfully. Others built walled gardens and designed ornate courtyards that can still be seen today.
With the Forbidden City at the center, the Hutongs were a way to keep the residential neighborhoods connected through a system of lanes and alleyways. During its time, the Hutongs were where the life of Beijing really resided. The residents of the hutongs had originally been nomadic, but once they got used to life in the alleys, they began to put down roots, turning many of areas into marketplaces and storage for food supplies. It became much more of a city within itself than just a place to live.
It was during the Qing Dynasty that the local Han and Hui people were driven out of their homes to make room for officials. This caused more houses to be built further away from the city. The Hutongs expanded to around 6,000, but as time went on, Beijing was quickly developed, and many of the Hutong buildings were demolished or made into commercial spaces. Today, a small portion of the Hutongs still exists, but much of it is modern, with a small number of famous, traditional buildings still in place.
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The Culture of The Hutongs
While this area has changed dramatically over time, it still holds onto both traditional culture, and it’s unique culture from modern day.
For the local Chinese, just the word Hutong inspires ideas of classic China. And, for visitors, much of this culture can still be seen and felt. While the area is quite large, there are 10 specific Hutongs that show off the culture better than others. These include:
- Yandai Xiejie: This street used to be filled with pipe shops during the Qing Dynasty. Now, there are tea houses, coffee shops, souvenir stores, and bars.
-Drum Lane and South Gong: This long street has an equally long history and was once known for its food and specialty stores.
-Mao’er Hutong: This lane was once the home to celebrities in Beijing. Many of their original homes remain.
-Liulichang Cultural Street: This street has a long history that includes being a village, the site of a color glaze factory and an antique market. Now, the street is full of well-known shops selling high-end works of art and goods.
-Guozijian Street: This street is well known for its traditional architecture and historic buildings like the Imperial Academy and the Temple of Confucius.
-Jinyu Hutong: Home to famous buildings such as the Peninsular Hotel, Jixiang Theater, and the Novotel Peace Hotel, this street has become quite well-known.
-Xijiaomin Lane: This street once housed ten banks and was considered the financial center of Old Beijing. Now, many of the buildings still remain but have been renovated to house other businesses.
-Dongjiaomin Lane: This lane was once the home of Beijing’s foreign embassies. It was also the site of clubs, churches, banks, and official mansions. Many of buildings are reminiscent of European design and can still be noticed today.
-Bada Hutong: This was once considered the center of Beijing’s red light district. It’s an interesting area to wander as it has so many small alleyways jutting off it.
-Ju’er Hutong: This Hutong was once the home of the Qing Dynasty minister, Rong Lu. The remains of his mansion and garden can still be seen here.
Today, a part of the Hutongs have been taken back by a youthful, more alternative scene. Wandering the lanes and alleys, visitors may stumble upon craft beer bars, cocktail lounges, coffee shops, and even a reggae bar.
And, for those who want to deepen their cultural experience in the Hutongs, there are plenty of options. Visitors can take Chinese cooking classes, calligraphy lessons, and paper cutting courses while visiting.
-Let yourself get lost: Part of the fun is getting lost in the maze of alleyways. You never know what you’ll find.
-Visit the historic homes: You’ll get a whole lot of history with half the crowds as other historic sites in Beijing.
-Rent a bicycle: There’s a lot to see in the Hutongs. Rent a bike if you want to get around faster while preserving your energy for the nightlife.
-Do a homestay: What’s better than seeing the historic Hutong homes? Living in one. There are quite a few options to stay overnight in a historic Hutong home.
Visiting The Beijing Hutongs
Planning a trip to Beijing? See more than just the Hutongs. Here are a few tours that will help you discover the best of Beijing.
-3 Days of Beijing Private Tour: Private tour guide and car, visit to The Great Wall, Beijing Roast Duck tasting, Forbidden City tour, visit Temple of Heaven, visit the Hutongs.
-1 Day Tour of The Badaling Great Wall: Private tour guide and car, all day to explore the wall.
-1 Day Great Wall Tour From Simatai West to Jinshanling: Tour the more wild section of The Great Wall, and enjoy a Chinese lunch at a local farmer’s restaurant.
-1 Day Best of Beijing Group Tour: Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, and the Summer Palace.