Hutongs (胡同) are Beijing’s ancient alleyways, where you can find traditional Beijing architecture. They date back to when Beijing was the capital of the Yuan Dynasty (1266-1368). Most buildings in hutongs are made in the traditional courtyard (四合院) style. Many of these courtyard homes were originally occupied by aristocrats, though after the Communist takeover in 1949 the aristocrats were pushed out and replaced with poor families. Hutongs can still be found throughout the area within the 2nd Ring Road, though many are being demolished to make way for new buildings and wider roads. 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 were established under the Ming emperors Hongwu (reigned 1368-1398) and Jianwen (reigned 1399-1402).
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.
Alas, the days of the hutong alleyways and siheyuan courtyard houses are nearly over. Nothing humans create lasts forever. Exploring ancient byways and poking around places once belonging to individuals both high and humble, often side by side, in their original context is a must see activity, before they disappear in name of progress.
There are certain rules you should heed in order to maximize the hutong experience. First, keep your group small, no more than 4 people. A big group investigating the ruins or relics of a courtyard doesn’t sit well with the owners. Next, never open a closed door. Third, it’s ok to check out what’s inside an open door, provided you’re polite and discreet. If a resident says “zou! (go!)” don’t debate, just do it. The final rule of thumb concerns the issue of cameras. Pictures of places are usually OK, but many people hanging out in the hutong are at home, and frankly, if they say don’t, then don’t.
RECOMMENDED HUTONG AREAS:
People still live in these things, and in this hutong they are often foreigners who are attracted by the romantic notion (a notion that chills a bit maybe in winter when they can be pretty damn cold). The alley is mostly a pedestrian mall but rest assured someone in their BMW will honk loudly at your heels every so often, driving way too fast down a narrow brick lane full of people, and the motorbikes and bicycles weave around you. Much of the construction here is old school and this means some of the establishments don’t have restrooms inside. All along the hutong you can find public restrooms just off the street, passably clean, and totally cold in the winter. And in some cases, rather military in their layout — no partitions for the toilets, which are often squat toilets by the way.
GREAT FOR SEEING OLD BEIJING LIVING:
Adjacent to Houhai is Ya’er Hutong inside the Shichahai lakes area, just a few steps north of the Silver Ingot Bridge, where the Houhai and Qianhai lakes meet, is the exotic scene that is Ya’er Hutong. Within this network of alleys are authentic ethnic arts and crafts, ancient architecture, reminders of past political eras, friendly streetside vendors, unusual caf, and half-hidden bars. It all comes together in a concentrated blast of local color and energy quite unlike any urban setting in the Western world.
GREAT FOR FUN NIGHT & LOCAL HANDICRAFT SHOPPING:
GREAT FOR HISTORY BUFFS:
- Empress Gate: Wan Rong residence, No 35 & 37. This is the western section of what had been a much larger complex of connected courtyards. The resident making this place famous was Wan Rong (1906-46), the empress of the last Qing Emperor, PuYi. In the winter of 1922 Mao’er Hutong was the final scene of imperial Manchu wedding rites as Emperor PuYi sent gifts to Wan Rong and her family on several different occasions before sending a palanquin for his bride to join him in the Forbidden City. The remnants of this divided courtyard have seen better days. No 37 has a great chuihuamen (side gate) well worth saving. No 35 has a rock and bamboo garden worth a quick look. Eight times out of 10 you can sneak a peek.
- Militarist’s Mansion: Feng Guozhang residence, No 11, Mao’er Hutong. The last personality to inhabit No 11 was Feng Guozhang (1859-1919), one of the major participants in the nightmarish warlord period (1916-28) in 20th century Chinese history. Feng was the head of the Zhili faction, one of two cliques formed after the split of the Beiyang army, China’s first army trained and equipped in modern military methods starting in the late Qing. Zhili, roughly analogous to the area of Hebei Province, was the old imperial name for the territory surrounding Beijing. Feng vied for control of the capital and country after the death of his one time patron, the would-be monarchist Yuan Shikai, in 1916 against Duan Qirui, head of the Anhui faction. He was vice-president in 1916-17 and president of the Beijing government in 1917-18. Feng retired from politics in 1918 to live quietly on Mao’er Hutong. He died in the influenza pandemic of 1919. It is almost impossible to explore this courtyard if anyone is present. There almost always is. On a good day, they’ll let you take a photo from inside the main gate.
- Traces of the Past: Ke Yuan Garden. This is the big prize of Mao’er Hutong. In eight years I have only been able to catch one very brief glimpse of this brilliant secret garden which once belonged to a Qing scholar. I suspect (but can’t prove) buildings in the garden were part of the Ming Wenchang Gong. The door is almost never open and when it is, there’s a surly resident guarding the entry, impervious to charm or any of the limited wiles of a hutong addict. Instead, check out the residences at Mao’er No 14 and 16. Both are usually open. No 14 has two slogans from the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) and apparently belongs to a pigeon fancier. No 16 has a cool chuihuamen.
- Mao’er No 5: This is another mystery spot on Mao’er, near its eastern end. The door is never open. If it was, passages on the place say there’s a plethora of wonderful architectural features. Next to it at No 3 there’s some fine brickwork at the outside gate.
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.
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.