Hutong are small lanes formed by neighboring traditional style Siheyuan houses. These lanes are narrow and sometimes dark, but have been home to many legendary experiences and have given rise to interesting hearsay and anecdotes which affect Chinese lives today. The Hutong in Beijing have a history which dates back to about 800 years. They are the living places of the common people in Beijing and are a source of pride for the city.
History of Hutong
Hutong is a narrow lane among courtyards. The history of hutongs can be traced back to Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368) when Beijing was the capital. After the establishment of Yuan authority, the nobles and heroes were pleased to be awarded with certain pieces of land as feudal estates. They actively built houses and courtyards which were arranged in order around water wells. The passages between houses were left in consideration of light and ventilation and convenient right-of way. Though these countless passages crisscrossed the old capital like a chessboard, there were only 29 of them called hutong. Because city planning was very strict at that time, the roads which measured 36 meters (39.4 yards) wide were called main streets. The 18-meter (19.7-yard)-wide roads were named side streets and those nine meters (9.8 yards) wide or less were designated as hutongs
Hutongs were also places where grain was stored to satisfy the needs of the royal court and armies and to feed the starving people in lean years. For example, Lumicang Hutong became famous because it was the location of Lumi Grain Depot. Lumi Grain Depot was built in the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) and measured over 200 meters (218.7 yards) long, covering half length of the Lumicang Hutong.
In the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911), city planning was less strict. Stallholders squeezed in the residential districts, which made the hutongs differ in width from over six meters (6.6 yards) to less than one meter (1.1 yards). What’s more, hutongs at this time presented various appearances. Some hutongs, such as Koudai Hutong (Pocket Hutong) only had one entrance. Some hutongs, such as Jiudaowan Hutong (Nine Turning Hutong) had many twists and turns. Some hutongs even wound around a somewhat squared off circle like the Four Rings Hutong. Small retailers peddled their wares among the hutongs to satisfy people’s daily needs. The basic appearance of hutongs was generally formed during these periods.
Culture of Hutong
In the same way that the Forbidden City is the symbol of China’s royal family, the winding Hutongs in Beijing represent the way of life of the common people. Hutongs are at the root of the Beijing people’s way of life. Beijing City is like a boxy bean curd or a chess board with each hutong lying due north to due south or due east to due west. This square layout not only influences Beijinger’s way of living, but also influences their thoughts and actions.
The names of these Hutongs are all-embracing and various and relate to their location, origin or history, such as Lumicang Hutong, Fuxue Hutong, and Gongyuan Hutong, which were named by official organizations. Examples of Hutongs named by craftsmen and ordinary people include: ‘earthenware pot Liu Hutong’ (now Dashaguo Hutong, maybe there once lived a Mr. Liu who sold earthenware pots) Wangzhima Hutong, and Mengduan Hutong. Hutongs named by their market trade include Xianyu Kou Hutong (Fish street), for it once was the place where fish was sold. There are also Hutongs which bear the names of horses and mules because these animals were once traded there. Some Hutongs take their name from special landmarks, such as Stone Tiger Hutong, Iron Lion Hutong and Cypress Hutong. Hutongs’ names are regarded as important materials when researching Beijing culture.
People are pleased with their easy life in Siheyuan (the courtyard distributed orderly in Hutongs). They live a peaceful and harmonious life in these small “boxes”, away from the hustle and bustle of the streets outside. Their daily needs could be fully satisfied by hawkers who sold vegetables, eggs, fruits, and snacks. In the past, they could even get their hair cut by the itinerant barbers without walking out of their neighbourhood to find a barber shop. The winding and narrow Hutongs were heaven for children playing games. They would have played rubber-band skipping, kicking shuttlecocks, and hide-and-seek. Even in modern times, young boys get together and hold football matches in these narrow lanes. Those who live in the Hutongs love their way of life so much that it is often described by the Chinese as a culture of happiness and harmony.
However, the love of this way of life can become a burden for some Hutong-dwellers. Because many people have never known anything outside of Hutong living, they can be reluctant to move house. People have been known to live in the same Hutong for decades, until the foundations are too weak to hold the weight of the house and until the roof allows rain in. But for these people, their house still had value because they loved the way of life that had lived there. In this insular environment, people live simply and happily but are unwilling to change.
Stories of Hutong
The Beijing Hutong has a long history. These neighbourhoods have witnessed the development of Beijing City as well as the changing way of life of Beijing people.
Lianziku Hutong (The Curtain Storehouse Hutong)
Many are puzzled when first hearing the name of the Hutong ‘Curtain Storehouse Hutong’ and wonder whether it was built only for the purpose of storing curtains! However, it takes its name from an old custom of Empress Cixi. During the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911), when summer came, every room in the Palace was hung with bamboo curtains to prevent sunstroke and flies. During Cixi’s rule, she thirsted for attending state affairs but at that time it was improper for a woman to sit in the golden throne. Cixi decided to hold court from behind a curtain on the grounds that Emperor Tong Zhi was too young to handle state affairs. The curtains she used were kept in a special place when they were worn out instead of being sold to the ordinary people. Therefore, the Hutong where these curtains were stored is called Lianziku Hutong (The Curtain Storehouse Hutong).
Yan Song and Hutong
Yan Song was a notoriously treacherous court official from the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). Legend has it that he was reduced to begging on the street with a silver bowl when he lost power in court. Of course, this once proud official felt very ashamed to have to ask for food from the very people he used to oppress. He was strolling dispiritedly around the Hutongs when one day a heap of sweet potato skin was thrown out from a door near him. Making sure that no one was around; he immediately stuffed some pieces into mouth. Unfortunately for him, an office runner passed by and recognized him at once. Yan Song was scared and slipped away quickly. Thus the Hutong earned its name: “Slipping Away Hutong”.
From then on, Yan Song dared not venture onto the street to beg. Contemplative monks were generally kind-hearted and he took to begging in temples. The old monk recognized Yan Song and gave him a bowl of rice. Yan Song swallowed the rice by nodding thanks to him. At this moment, the monk asked him, “Do you know where it is from?” “No” Yan Song shook his head innocently. “It is just the rice you once wasted!” The monk scolded sharply to him and drove him out of the temple. From then on, Yan Song couldn’t even beg in the temples. He went back to the Hutongs and begged from door to door. No one offered him food as they all remembered too well the wrongs he had done them. He could not keep up efforts and fell to the ground one day. The silver bowl was pitched out far away, and so the hutong got its name “Sliver Bowl Hutong”.
Beijing Famous Hutongs
The Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street
Among the countless Beijing Hutongs, there are some historically famous hutongs worth your visit.
The skewed tobacco pouch street is one of the most famous hutongs in Beijing. It measures 254 yards long connecting Di’anmen Street at the east end and the junction of Xiaoshibei Hutong and Ya’er Hutong at the west end. Like a tobacco pouch, the street goes from north-east to south-west, which gives its name – the Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street.
Originally in Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911), this street was called the Skewed Drum Tower Street. At that time, local residents were addicted smoking opium. The increasing demand of pipes encouraged the opening of many pipe shops on the street. The shops had similar symbols – a wooden smoke pipe with a black pipe stem and a golden pipe bowl. Customers are often impressed by the vivid symbols standing in front of these pipe shops. The street became famous for its pipe business, and people began to know it as “the Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street”, which was passed down to today.
Today, many different kinds of bars, tea houses, coffee rooms and souvenir shops have mushroomed on the street. At night, the street is ablaze with lights, giving a homely atmosphere as you stroll around.
Beijing Liulichang Culture Street (Beijing Colored Glaze Factory Street)
Located outside the Heping Gate in Xuanwu District, Beijing, Liulichang Culture Street has a long history. Early in Liao Dynasty (916 – 1125), it was a village called “Haiwang”. The street’s name literally translated as “Beijing Colored Glaze Factory Street”, which indicated its historical role. In Yuan (1271 – 1368) and Ming (1368 – 1644) Dynasties, a colored glaze factory was set up here. In the early Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911), antique dealers transacted their business on the street which turned it into an antique market. The factory has now gone but its name remains
Since liberation, great changes have taken place in this old street. In 1980, the street was rebuilt to house 54 of China’s time-honored brands. For example, Rongbao Zhai, a treasure house of precious calligraphy and paintings. The China Book Store, where visitors can buy duplicates of Chinese ancient books. Bao Gu Zhai attracts many people for its innumerable famous artists’ works and beautiful embroidery.
Being endowed with so many Chinese ancient treasures, Beijing Liulichang Culture Street really deserves a visit to experience the Hutong culture in Beijing.
Zhuanta Hutong (Brick Tower Hutong)
Located near South Xisi Street, Zhuanta Hutong is named after the Brick Tower which was built inside to commemorate the great Buddhism master – Wan Song in Jin Dynasty (1115 – 1234). The tower has seven layers and is made of blue-grey bricks.
The name of the hutong has been passed down to today, and has a history of more than 700 years. During Yuan (1271 – 1368), Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644 – 1911) Dynasties, this hutong was the center for dramatic performance. In 1900, when the allied forces of eight powers invaded Beijing, the theatrical troupes were scattered and Zhuanta Hutong became a residential living area. The hutong has been home to two famous figures of Chinese history. One is Lu Xun, a great writer, thinker and revolutionary. He worked on some of his meaningful novels here in this plain hutong such as “the Blessing”, “Happy Family” and “the Soap”. The other famous resident was Liu Shaoqi, who was a great proletarian revolutionary.
Today Zhuanta Hutong is under good protection and preserves its historical features.