Hutongs are a type of narrow streets or alleys, most commonly associated with Beijing, China. In Beijing, hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences. Many neighborhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another.
Since the mid-20th century, the number of hutong neighborhoods in Beijing has dropped dramatically because they are being demolished to make space for wider roads and new buildings. More recently, some hutongs have been designated as protected areas in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history. Approximately one million people still live in hutongs in Beijing.
The term “hutong” first appeared during the Yuan Dynasty to describe the residential areas of Beijing. The residential areas of Beijing were originally organized by social class. The wealthy/upper class lived in an area together while the working/lower class lived in other areas. When these courtyard residences first appeared, they were very organized. At the beginning of the 20th century (the end of China’s dynastic era), the formerly organized hutongs were neglected and became rundown while new hutongs appeared seemingly haphazardly constructed. Hutongs have now become a part of Beijing’s history.
The way we accessed the hutong neighborhood was via rickshaw. It was amazing the way the rickshaw drivers were able to navigate through the chaos. There were cars and people everywhere in the narrow streets, but we managed to make it unharmed thanks to our wonderful rickshaw driver. The hutong we visited was like new. There were workers repairing and fixing the walls and adding fresh coats of paint to the wooden window panels. This is not necessarily typical of all hutongs, but this particular hutong is used for tourists, so it is well cared for.
Walking down the narrow street to the courtyard
The family that occupied the hutong came from a long line of calligraphers. It was fun to watch one of the men work on the calligraphy and also see many of his finished products. One of the women of the family explained to us the traditional living situation in the hutong: the northern building was reserved for the older members of the family because it is cool in the summer and warm in the winter; the other males of the family lived in the eastern building because they symbolize hope for the family; the females lived in the eastern building; and the slaves lived in the southern building because it was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. This was something that I found important because it shows the respect and importance the family places on their elderly and ancestors, and it also reminded me that this culture has traditionally valued male children over females.
I think it would be very interesting to live in a hutong neighborhood. Our culture tends to value our personal space a lot, but there is very little room for personal space with all the buildings so close. The courtyard in the middle of the buildings was a nice outdoor space, but it still didn’t offer a lot of extra space. The rickshaws were a lot of fun, and I thought it was kind of intriguing that there was a point in which it was impossible to even ride a rickshaw through the narrow streets. I would be interested in visiting a hutong that was not “prepared” for tourists to see the differences (if any). The ones that I have seen from a distance riding the bus seem to be more run-down.