Hutong Chronicles: Preserving a Beijing Memory

The name of a hutong implicates its origin, location or history. It is in the gray-tiled deep lanes that families play, travel, buy goods, gossip and connect. In Beijingers' eyes, hutongs means a period of history, a lifestyle and even an " encyclopedia of Beijing".

A hutong is a unique form of community that exists only in China, especially in Beijing and Shanghai (Local people call it a Nong in Shanghai). 'Hutong' literally means a small street or a lane between two courtyards, although the word can also mean a community within the city consisting of hutongs and residences.

Surrounding the Forbidden City, many hutongs were built during the Yuan (1206-1341), Ming(1368-1628) and Qing(1644-1908) dynasties. In the prime of these dynasties the emperors, in order to establish supreme power for themselves, planned the city and arranged the residential areas according to the etiquette systems of the Zhou Dynasty. The center of the city of Beijing was the royal palace -- the Forbidden City.

The main buildings in the hutong were quadrangles--a building complex formed by four houses around a quadrangular courtyard (Local people call it a Siheyuan) .The big quadrangles of high- ranking officials and wealthy merchants were specially built with roof beams and pillars all beautifully carved and painted, each with a front yard and back yard. However, the ordinary people's quadrangles were simply built with small gates and low houses.

Hutongs, in fact, are passageways formed by many closely arranged quadrangles of different sizes. The specially built quadrangles all face the south for better lighting; as a result, a lot of hutongs run from east to west. Between the big hutongs many small ones went north and south for convenient passage.

Today in the urban district of Beijing houses along hutongs still occupy one third of the total area, providing housing for half the population, so many hutongs have survived. In this respect, we see the old in the new in Beijing as an ancient yet modern city.

A typical Siheyuan: Red Door Plus Grey Wall.