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Hutong

One of the most characteristic features of Bejing’s cityscape are the Hutongs. The name Hutong originates from the Mongolians while they were reigning China and started to establish Beijing as their capital in 1267. In those ages Hutong was understood to be a long and narrow alleyway.

As the construction of the Hutongs proceeded throughout the following Yuan-, Ming- and Qing-dynasty, Hutong developed to be a synonym for the numerous residential quarters covering a vast area around the Forbidden City in Beijing, being the capital of all those dynasties.  The residential quarters consisted of the long and narrow alleyways next to which big, but relatively modest houses were directly built.

Chinese people would also frequently call the Hutongs Siheyuan, a so called residential quarter along an alleyway with four houses surrounding a courtyard and owned by just one family. Being connected with each other by the alleyways, running for the most part from East to West, each of the Siheyuan would have a main building with a gate opening up to the south to have more light flowing into the courtyard.

Nowadays the Hutongs are also a reflection of Bejing’s captivating history. The configuration of the Hutongs during the various dynasties followed a particular pattern based on the one created during the Zhou-dynasty (1027-777 B.C.). The Forbidden City constituted the center of Beijing and the closer buildings were arranged around it, the higher the social rank of each of the residents. Whereas the aristocracy’s Hutongs were settled directly next to the empire’s palace on its western and eastern part, the Hutongs of the “normal” townsmen like traders, workmen and also immigrants were built much further away in the northern and southern part of the Forbidden City.

Unfortunately the Hutongs’ appearance has changed gradually since the downfall of the Qing-dynasty at the beginning of the 20th century. The traditional alignment of the Hutongs was more and more discarded and new randomly built Hutongs started to change Beijings cityscape.

The years passed by, China was being shattered by various civil wars and foreign attacks, the Hutongs degenerated noticeably, the living conditions became almost unbearable, an immense population growth washed over the whole country and many families were forced to move together into one Siheyuan. In those days the average living space for one family was reduced to 26m2 and one had to deal with a leaking roof and a public toilet 100m aways from home.

Unfortunately most of the old Hutongs vanished with the foundation of the People’s Republic of China and the construction of a modern style city. The Hutongs which can still be seen in Beijings traditional districts today are the ones built at the beginning of the 20th century. As Beijing has been concentrating on its urban development and its preparation for the Olympic Games 2008 in the last few years, there has been a great deal of discussion about the future of the Hutongs.

Beijing’s municipial administration is facing a huge problem, as the momentary focus on protecting the Hutongs as cultural monuments is also contradicting the capital’s desire to modernize the city and advance the living standard of the population. What will happen with the 200.000 people still living in run down Hutongs of the traditonal districts in Beijing will still have to be awaited.

 

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