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The magic of Hutong – all you need to know

What did Beijing look like during its early term as a capital city?

Marco Polo, during his time in Dadu (the old word for Beijing), described the city very precisely: “The streets are so straight that if you stand on one city gate, you can see another gate opposite, no matter how far away it is. On each side of the every street, there are many different kinds of shops and stalls. The city, as a whole, is square in shape, much like a giant chessboard.”

This impressive design was one of the achievements of Kublai Khan (1215–1294, grandson of Genghis Khan, founder of the Chinese Yuan Dynasty, and leader of the Mongolian Borjigin clan). Since Kublai Khan was a Mongolian, the word Hutong originally came from the Mongolian language and means 'water well'. 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.

Hutong

This is the “giant chessboard” referred to by Marco Polo. In between these residential districts were two types of streets, the larger ones were 24 steps wide (about 37 m) and the smaller ones were 12 steps wide (about 18.5 m). These served as the main transportation routes around the city. Their organized alignment made the city look just like a rice paddy, with the royal palace complex, including Jishuitan (present-day Shichahai) and Taiyechi (Beihai and Zhongnanhai), in the center.

The meticulous design of the Yuan capital was complete.

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.

 

Layout of a Hutong

HutongIn the feudal society the number of the steps and the hexagonal poles protruding from the top beam were strictly regulated as a symbol of social rank. You can find the 4 steps leading up to the main gate, and the 4 poles protruding from the top beams, indicating the owner was a 3-rank army officer at that time. The gate is located at the southeastern corner of the courtyard built according to Fengshui.

 

Hutong

4 poles protruding from the top beams

 

The stone piers ( mendun ) are an indication of position and wealth of the former occupants of a old hutong courtyard home in Beijing. If the stone piers were circular, then host was an army officer. If square, the host was a civil official.

Hutong

Mendun

Entering the front gate, you find a screen wall to shield the house from outsiders'view for privacy. Superstition holds that it also protects the house from evil spirits. Remember both the front gate and the screen wall are located in the southeast corner of the courtyard. Turn left, you enter the yard of the old courtyard.

The building positioned to the north and facing the south is considered the main house/hall. The main house receives the most sunlight, thus serving as the living room and bedroom of the owner or head of the family.

The west and east wings receive less sunshine, and serve as the rooms for the children or less important members of the family.

The south wing, also called the opposite house, receives the least sunlight, and usually serve as a reception room and the servants' dwelling, or where the family would gather to relax, eat or study.



 

Famous Hutongs to visit in Beijing

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 (Nanluoguoxiang and Gulou)
Many people come here for its creative culture and artistic environment. Several art studios have been established, and many movies and TV drama programs have been filmed here too. Now there are 115 different shops with plenty of restaurants and bars.
- Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street (Yandai Xiejie)
In the buildings are stores of Indian clothes, Miao costumes and accessories, Tibet costumes, Lijiang crafts, Shaanxi pottery, badges and quotations of Chairman Mao, etc. Besides these featured stores, there are also many restaurants along the Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street. Here you can go to traditional Chinese restaurants--roasted lamb, stewed pork liver (a traditional Beijing snack), the Meiyuan Dairy, baked wheaten cake with donkey meat and wonton.

On this tobacco-pouch-shaped street, the Manchu people used to be found of smoking, which gives its name - the Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street.

Hutong
- Mao'er Hutong
If you want to taste the flavor of old Beijing, Mao'er Hutong would be a good choice. Going through hundreds of years, it still preserves the original style.The construction, people’s activities and food are just like the old days. There are numerous courtyards, shops and former residences on both sides of the road. 

Hutong
- Guozijian Street
It is the only old street in the city that still has traditional arches. Guozijian Street is renowned for its old-time Beijing layout and architectures, the authentic native lifestyle, the Temple of Confucius and Guozijian (Imperial Academy).

Hutong
- Liulichang Cultural Street
If you have a favor with curios, calligraphy, painting or other artwork in China, Liulichang Cultural Street is a must see when you travel in Beijing.

Hutong

This is the narrowest hutong in Beijing. It is 55 m in length with an average width of 0.7m. The narrowest section is only 0.4 m wide. Narrow as it is, this alley has doors open to the path, as well as hidden stores. It was named “Qianshi Hutong” (Currency Market Hutong”) because it was the official currency-trading center during the Qing Dynasty.



 

Living in a Hutong

Looking for Hutong with good condition ain't too easy. The best way to find one is simply by reaching out to a Real Estate Agency, for different reasons. First of all the language, most of the landlords won't be able to communicate with you in English, not to mention the contract. Then it's also not very common for Chinese landlords to rent out a Hutong to a foreigner, so they often won't accept (for us foreigners standard) renovation wishes nor changes. But this is where we come, with our Chinese agent team, we managed to bring plenty of families and Hutongs together. With the right ressources, experience and guanxi we can guarantee a perfect tenancy management. It's not all about the first moments of a Hutong, it's also about the years and months afterwards. After all you don't want to be confronted by constantly upcoming issues, where nobody feels responsible to solve it.
Therefore we highly recommend you to use a Real Estate Agency for this kind of inquiry.

Hutong

In general there are two different kinds of Hutongs:

  • The renovated and modernized Hutong with connected pavillions, terrace and individual toilet (few landlords may add other installations such as floor heating or fully furnished open kitchen, etc.). In this case it can be either very modern or even with authentic Chinese accents.
  • A typical non-renovated Hutong with public toilets and coal heating. This obviously will be cheaper in the rent and also with the option to rent only parts or the whole Hutong. Be careful while choosing this kind of Hutong, because the isolation of these houses are not that great, so the cold is coming from everywhere in winter, same as the pollution.

 

The Hutongs are ancient, packed with history and are even one of the city's top tourist attractions, and these days, some have developed into pretty hip areas with great bars, restaurants and coffee shops. There is always plenty to do and usually it is just a short bike/e-scooter ride away.
But with that being said, there really is a Hutong for everyone out there. If you want to live in a young, cool place with lots of foreigners along with cheap drinking holes and underground music venues, you should consider the areas around Gulou, Andingmen and Lama Temple. For something classier and more comfortable, try the areas around Xinjiekou, Beihai North and Ping'anli metro stations. For an authentic, workingman's Hutong free of frothy cappuccinos, anything south of Tian'anmen Square will do the trick.

Here are a few Hutongs we listed online:

Courtyard Listing

Hutong with balcony and floor heating

Spacious Hutong with 3 bedrooms

Interested in more? Contact us!

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Rebecca Andresen

Rebecca Andresen

I try to give some practical advice but I also try to dispel some of the myths floating around about expat life. I'm a third culture kid as well so I try to share that experience and how it affects my life as an expat or living overseas.
This is my 14th year of being an expat in China and in all kind of forms - child, teenager, student, spouse and working.
Rebecca Andresen

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