People say that the real culture of Beijing is the culture of the Hutong and Courtyards. How true that is. They attract more tourists from home and abroad than the high-rise buildings and large mansions.
Hutong is a Mongolian word meaning water well. At nine meters (about 30 feet) wide, it is the name given to a lane or small street that originated during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). Now they have become representatives of local culture, thus it is the first choice for people who would like to learn about the local history and culture.
In the Yuan Dynasty, Mongolians attached great importance to water, so almost every community in the city was designed around a well, which provided the daily water for the locals. Until now, one can still find dry wells in some old alleys.
In the past, Beijing was composed of hundreds of courtyards around the Forbidden City, and these lanes stretched out in all four directions, connecting the different kinds of courtyards in the city. Although originally formed in the Yuan Dynasty, the building of the these developed fast during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 - 1911). In the Yuan Dynasty, there were about 29 Hutongs, while in the Ming Dynasty, this number increased to 1,070. In the Qing Dynasty, it grew to 2,076. It is said that by 1949 there were as many as 3,250. But with the passage of time, and the requirement for city construction, the number of them has fallen dramatically. In 2003, only 1,500 were left, and now no more than 1,000 remain. Thus, protecting them is an urgent problem for modern people.
History Culture Stories Protection Tour
The lanes have their own layout and structure, and when viewed from the air the combination of the lanes and courtyards resemble a chessboard with delicate gardens, fine rockeries and ancient ruins this makes them a wonder in the world. Because of the cross interlacement of the lanes every houses connected to the other, making it easy for local people to keep in touch with their neighbors. Therefore, once one enters any of the lanes, one can feel the deep and warm relationships among people, which is rarely found in this modern world.
In the twisted lanes one can experience the life of the ancient Beijing people. The bathrooms and public toilets can be found in these lanes. Shops sell all kinds of goods that satisfy the local people's daily needs. It is just like a community. Gossiping in these lanes is a common scene as it is the main way for people to strengthen their relationship. These lanes have witnessed the development of Beijing. Where there is such a lane, there is a story.
The naming of these different lanes is very interesting. In ancient times the names of them were passed by word of mouth among people; there were no signposts. It was not until the Ming and Qing Dynasties that the names were written down gradually. Generally speaking, the naming methods can be categorized into ten kinds. Some main naming methods were to name them after the symbol construction in a lane, the local language, the markets and the local positions. For instance, the Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street, also called Yandai Xiejie, was named so because it is not straight. Mamei Hutong was named after the old Beijing language. In later years the government changed their original names into more formal ones, which sounds more refined. If one wants to know the original names of them, a tour to these feature lanes should not be missed.
Ten Famous Hutongs
Of the more than 1,000 alleys left, there are ten most distinctive ones attracting thousands of tourists from home and abroad. Some of them are famous for the old-style buildings, while some house many traditional and time-honored workshops. Walking along the crisscrossing lanes, you will definately immerse in the peaceful atmosphere.
South Gong and Drum Lane (Nanluogu Xiang)
Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street (Yandai Xiejie)
Liulichang Cultural Street
Dongjiaomin Lane (Dongjiaomin Xiang)
Xijiaomin Lane (Xijiaomin Xiang)
Besides, there are still many less famous ones also worth a visit, such as Yichi Street - the shortest one, Jiuwan Hutong, with 13 turnings, and Lingjing Hutong - the widest one.