Street and Hutongs

How many hutongs are there in Beijing? Old local residents have a saying: "There are 360 large hutongs and as many small hutongs as there are hairs on an ox." Laid out in a chessboard pattern which was established as early as the Ming Dynasty, these hutongs crosscut the city into tiny squares. In those days the capital was divided into the eastern, western, northern, southern and central districts, with a total of 33 neighborhoods, divided again into hutongs.

In the Tang Dynasty, the city, then named Youzhou, was divided into 28 walled residential districts guarded by sentries. A curfew was enforced at night. Youzhou was renamed Xijunfu in the Liao Dynasty and the city was divided into 26 residential districts. In the Jin Dynasty it became Zhongdu (the Central Capital) and was divided again into 60 residential areas. Under the Yuan, the city was renamed Dadu (Great Capital) and divided into 50 districts, including Jintaifang (Golden Terrace District) and Wendefang (Literature and Morality District).

The 33 neighborhoods mentioned above were established under the Ming emperors Hongwu (reigned 1368-1398) and Jianwen (reigned 1399-1402). The figure increased to 40 after the time of Emperor Yongle (reigned1403-1424).

The Qing rulers made use of the existing city structure and divided the capital into five districts, reducing the number of residential districts to 10. During the last years of Dynasty, the old residential district system was abolished and Beijing divided into 10 outer districts and 12 inner districts. The city is now divided into four districts -- East City, West City, Chongwen and Xuanwu -- each of these comprised of numerous sub districts.

At present, there are about 4,550 hutongs, the broadest over four meters wide and the smallest -- the eastern part of Dongfu' an Hutong, a mere 70 cm across -- just wide enough for a single person to traverse. Although the city has changed a great deal over the last 500 years, the hutongs remain much the same as during Ming and Qing times.

Beijing's best known hutongs are of three types: centers of government offices, residential areas for nobles and officials, and old markets. Lumicang (Salary Rice Granary) Hutongs, in the neighborhood of today' s Nanxiao Street, is the site of the former nine imperial granaries of the late Ming and early Qing. Each year, large amounts of grain were brought in from Zhejing Province to the capital and stored in Lumicang District. Hutongs in the area took on the names of the various granaries, names that have stuck to this day. Then there's Xishiku (Western General Warehouse) Alley off Xi' anmennei Street, once called Houku Dajie (Back Warehouse Street) for its 10 warehouses serving the imperial palaces and gardens.

Dongchang (Eastern Prosperity) Hutong, originally called Dongchang (eastern Yard) Hutong, located south of the National Art Galley, was named in the Yongle period for the offices of the newly created eunuch administration. The Dongchang had a reputation for terrorizing innocent people. It was here that the eunuchs Liu Jin and Wei Zhongxian had numerous people, including members of the imperial family, high officials and nobles, put to death.

The second group of hutongs is named after the officials or nobles who resided there. When Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty established Beijing as the capital, most of his officials moved from Nanjing. The alleys they lived in took on their names. Yongkang Hutong in the north was originally named Marquis Yongkang Lane after the Yongkang Marquis, Xu Zhong. Sanbulao (ThreeNever-Old) Hutong on the West City District was originally named Sanbao Laodie (Father Sanbao) Alley after the "Sanbao" court eunuch, Zheng He, who lived there. Sanbao is a corruption of the original name; Laodie is a term of respect for an elder person.

In the East City District is the Red Star Hutong, once named His Excellency Wuliang (Immeasurable) Alley, taken from the name of Emperor Hongwu's general Wu Liang (Written differently from wuliang, immeasurable). In Xisi (Western Four Archways), there are the Front, middle and Rear Maojiawan hutongs, said to have once been home of the Ming Dynasty scholar Mao Wenjian.

Finally. There are those hutongs, which derive their names from old markets and trading centers. These include Xianyukou (Fresh Fish Market), Luomasi (Horse and Mule Market), Gangwasi (Pottery Market), Yangsi (Goat Market), Meisi (Coal Market) and Zhubaosi (Jewelry Market). Other hutongs are named for historical sites and ancient relics. Qilinbei (Unicorn Stela) Hutong, north of Eastern Di' anmen Street, is named for a Ming Dynasty stela that once stood at its entrance.

Anecdotes and legends abound. There is a slab of stone, the top(or "hat") of which is carved into a beautiful branch of plum blossoms with a crescent moon at its tip in the Xianyougong Illustrious Blessing Hall) in Mao' er (Hat) Alley. Story has it that there was a "plum blossom girl"who painted such lovely blossoms in the old days.

Principal Sites Around the Forbidden City
Major Historical Sites
Tales of Streets and Hutongs
Public Parks and Former Gardens
Places Commemorating Famous People
Museums, Schools and Cultural Institutions
Temples, Mosques and Churches
Scenic Spots on the Suburbs of Beijing
A General Survey of Beijing
Facilities and Infrastructure
Shopping, Eating and Accommodation
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