Hutongs in Beijing

The pace of building a new metropolis continues in Beijing. Concrete shells rise from the ground like Lego sets while other structures are reduced to rubble. One of the most well known icons of the city, its intricate web of meandering alleyways called hutong, have been especially hard hit as the government juggles safeguarding its past amid rapid urban development.

There are hutongs that twist and turn like a river and hutongs that are cul-de-sacs. The narrowest hutong in the capital is Qianshi Hutong located in Dashalan, Qianmen, near Tiananmen Square while the oldest hutong is located at Sanmiaojie in Xuanwu District behind Guohua Market.

The name hutong dates back to the Yuan Dynasty (1279 -1368). The distinguished linguist Zhang Qingchang (1915-1998) writes that hutong is a loanword from Mongolian based on the sound hottog. This word also carries the meaning of 'a place where people gather.' Another explanation is that the word derives its name from the Mongolian word for passageway.

Several other terms are used to denote alleyways and small names. These are xiang and tiao. Small lanes and alleyways (generally smaller and narrower than hutong) in Beijing are also called xiang, although you will find narrower alleyways that are also called hutong. The word xiang is used extensively in the south and for those who are frequent travellers to Shanghai will know that in that city nongtang or nong, not hutong, are used to refer to small lanes and streets.

Official figures published in August 1986 put the figure of hutong in the early 1980s at 1,316. If we turn back the clock for a moment, in the early Yuan dynasty there were only 29 alleyways designated as hutong. Maps from the early Ming dynasty tell us that there were close to 630 alleyways and streets in the capital, but only 357 of these were hutong. During the Qing, China’s last imperial dynasty, the number of hutongs grew to 978. When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, there were a total of 6,000 alleyways, but only 1,330 of these were called hutong.

Some of the hutongs have become regular tourist attractions, especially around the Forbidden City and Houhai area. Many Chinese and foreigners photographed the old hutongs before falling prey to sledgehammers and bulldozers. The Scottish freelance photographer and writer Iian Masterton has his own website ( which includes several photographs of the Bamboo Pole Hutong ('Zhugan Hutong') which was demolished in 2002.

The demise of Beijing's alleyways has also been the subject of paintings and documentary films. Oil paintings of hutong by mainland Chinese artists include Zhao Guoning, Wang Guozhu and Zhao Yao. Among Melissa Scheid Frantz's evocative luminescent oil paintings are "Lighted Alley" and "Hot Hutong" (see There are documentaries such as From Hutong to Highrise—the Transformation of Beijing, directed by Jasper Goldman and Beatrice Chen (2002) and Alleyways of Change in Contemporary Beijing (2004). The young Beijing-based filmmaker Hu Tingting has made a documentary called The Hollering of Street Peddlers in Old Beijing, which has been screened on the Discovery Channel.

Hutongs are named after buildings or historical sites, historical figures, topographical features, trading quarters, warehouses or commodities and well as plants, birds and animals. Many of the names shared an interesting mixture of the earthy and vulgar with the elegant and refine. There were names such as 'dog's tail' and pig's tail', 'sky with apricot flowers' and 'secluded place'. The rather earthy names of the dog and pig were later changed to more refined names of 'righteousness elderly man' and 'screen of pearls and reeds.'Other names carry a distinct Beijing flavour by adding a suffix –r to the final syllable. These include Ju'er ('Chrysanthemums') and Xiang'er ('Fragrant').

Nanluogu is arguably one of the most well known of hutongs in Beijing. Its sixteen alleyways are paralleled with and perpendiculated by restaurants, cafes, hairdressers, and shops. These include Pass By Bar, the Drum And Gong Fusion Restaurant, a Yogurt and Cheese Shop and Fish Nation. There's an obvious symmetry about hutongs in general, but many of them twist and turn. Not surprisingly, Nanluogu, which literally means 'south cymbal drum alley' was once called 'centipede alley'(wugong xiang). It's possible that some of the old folk still call it by that name.

The lane was formerly the home of many celebrities. Mao'er Hutong, for example, was the former residence of the late Qing scholar Wen Yu. This alleyway is also the former residence of Wan Rong, the empress of Pu Yi, China's last imperial emperor. No. 13 Yu'er Hutong was once the residence of a Qing minister and also the home of the celebrated artist Qi Baishi.

In these alleyways, you'll find communities as vibrant and colourful as the shapes of their buildings. Children finishing school around four in the afternoon pour out into the narrow alleyways like pigeons released from captivity. Parents wait to collect their children. Bicycles ride into the streets. A boy sporting a blue baseball cap is leaning out of a car window, his mother all the while blowing the car horn to disperse the crowd of pigeons. A young girl carrying a packet of instant noodles and a bag of sugar walks past. We make small talk.The grey skies that will soon cover the alleyway in a curtain of rain, the best places to eat along Nanluogu, her job as a part-time waitress. I chat to a middle-aged man who tells me that he had just returned from a funeral. 'Oh?' I said, 'Somebody in the family?' 'An aunt,' he replies. 'She had a stroke. It went fast. She was already in her late eighties. You know she never married.' There was a moment of silence, and I broke it by remarking that it was unusual for a woman not to have married. I wondered how many other stories I could unearth along Nanluogu.

A fresh-swept blue sky with only a trace of white cloud took me out on one of my recent weekend morning bike rides along Dongsi beidajie. As I veered right into Dongsi Batiao, I cycled for about five minutes until I suddenly stopped and looked up into the sky through the tessellated hanging branches. The locust trees moved back and forth like waves. At that moment the hutong became a centipede, not horizontal or vertical, but spiral and unwinding. Was there an etymological vapour trail that would reveal that the origin of the word hutong was not of a water well but a mythical centipede in ancient Mongolia?

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