A hutong is an old city alley or lane, and the hutongs of Beijing are one of its most distinctive features. The capital city is home to thousands of hutongs, many of which were built in the area surrounding the Forbidden City during the Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
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During China's dynastic heyday, the emperors planned the city and arranged the residential areas according to the etiquette systems of the Zhou Dynasty (1027-256 BC). At the center of the metropolis was the Forbidden City, surrounded in concentric circles by the Inner City and Outer City. Citizens of higher social status were permitted to live closer to the center of the circles.
The aristocratic hutongs of those days were located just to the east and west of the imperial palace. The lanes were orderly, lined by spacious homes and walled gardens.
Further from the palace and to its north and south were the commoners' hutongs, where merchants, artisans and laborers lived and worked.
The residences lining the hutongs, whether grand or humble, were generally siheyuan, complexes formed by four buildings surrounding a courtyard. The large siheyuan of high-ranking officials and wealthy merchants often featured beautifully carved and painted roof beams and pillars and carefully landscaped gardens. Commoners' siheyuan were far smaller in scale and simpler in design and decoration.
The hutongs are, in fact, passageways formed by many siheyuan of varying sizes, all arranged closely together. Nearly all siheyuan had their main buildings and gates facing south for better lighting; so that the majority of hutongs run from east to west. Between the main hutongs, many tiny lanes ran north and south for convenient passage.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the Qing court was disintegrating, foreign influences were having a huge impact on people's lives and China's dynastic era was coming to an end. The traditional arrangement of the hutongs was also affected. Many new hutongs, built haphazardly and with no apparent plan, began to appear on the outskirts of the old city; while the old ones lost their former neat appearance. The social stratification of the residents also began to evaporate, reflecting the collapse of the feudal system.
During the period of the Republic of China (1911-1948), society was unstable, fraught with civil wars and repeated foreign invasions. The city of Beijing deteriorated, and the conditions of the hutongs worsened. Siheyuan previously owned and occupied by a single family were subdivided and shared by many households, with additions tacked on as needed, built with whatever materials were available.
The 978 hutongs listed in Qing Dynasty records had swelled to 1,330 by 1949, with nearly 5,000 tiny alleys threading their way between the legitimate hutongs.
In the decades since the founding of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949, many of the old hutongs have disappeared, replaced by the high rises and wide boulevards of today's Beijing. Many citizens have left the lanes where their families resided for generations, resettling in comfortable apartment buildings with modern amenities. In Xicheng District alone, nearly 200 hutongs out of the 820 it held in 1949 have disappeared. And the Beijing Municipal Construction Committee says that in 2004, some 250,000 square meters of old housing – 20,000 households – will be demolished in 2004, which means that many more will disappear.
However, many of Beijing's ancient hutongs still stand, and a number of them have been designated protected areas. The old neighborhoods survive today, offering a glimpse of life in the capital city as it has been for generations.