Beijing Attractions: Hutongs
Beijing Hutongs: Beijing's Memory Lanes
At the geographic and symbolic heart of Beijing lie ancient networks of intricate lanes and time-honored courtyard houses known collectively as hutongs. Oases of calm and culture amidst the city's skyscrapers and superhighways, these residential retreats offer visitors a fascinating mix of the authentic and avant garde.
In a narrow alleyway not far from the placid waters of Beijing's Houhai (Back Lake), pensioner Liang Jian wanders slowly home with a bag of tofu and vegetables. Out on the street, on an impromptu table of bricks and plywood, his neighbors are noisily engaged in a game of Chinese chess. Liang Jian pulls up a stool, lights a cigarette, and ponders the next move.
Nanluoguxiang hutong, Beijing
Dashilanqianmen Hutong, Beijing
The real beauty of hutongs, many residents say, lies not just in their gently crumbling elegance, but in their closely knit communities of families and friends, who team about the narrow alleyways, wandering in and out of open doorways, offering help, advice, and the latest gossip. With most Beijingers housed in impersonal tower blocks, such neighborhood camaraderie is now a rare commodity in the Chinese capital.
"I've lived in this area all my life," says Liang Jian in a thick Beijing accent. "I have a couple of rooms off a small courtyard. The government did offer me a brand new apartment but I told them I wanted to stay. I'd miss my friends too much. Besides, it's not modern blocks that define a city, but its historical buildings. I'm living in history."
Nanluoguxiang Hutong Map
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Siheyuan - courtyard house roof in Beijing hutong
Beijing's hutongs developed from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD) onwards. Under the watchful eye of Kublai Khan, grandson of great Mongolian leader Genghis Khan, this period saw Beijing reorganized and expanded along a symmetrical grid of streets.
"The root of the word 'hutong' is not Chinese at all," explains Charles Dukes, American expat and long-term hutong enthusiast. "It's actually Mongolian, derived from the word 'hottog', meaning water well. On the grasslands far to the north of Beijing, traditional Mongolian communities would gather round wells, and the word "hottog" became synonymous with a gathering place. Under the Mongolian masterplan, Beijing's street layout fostered new communities, so 'hutong' came to mean any lane running through a well-populated area."
While many hutong areas have been demolished during Beijing's recent modernization, there are still an estimated 2000 left. Their labyrinthine, one-storey sprawl is punctuated with small shops and cafes, their passageways filled with street vendors, hand carts, bicycles and pedicabs.
Traditional Beijing Hutong siheyuan Courtyard House
"Old Beijingers used to have an expression about hutongs," explains Charles Dukes. "Roughly translated, it ran: 'there are 3600 famous hutongs in the city, but as for nameless hutongs, they are as many as there are hairs on an ox'. There may be fewer around these days, but life in many of the remaining hutong areas has changed very little over the last 50 years."
The courtyard houses accessed from Beijing's hutongs are called siheyuan in Chinese (literally "four-walled, enclosed spaces"). Dating back 3000 years, the siheyuan structure has been used as a template for homes, temples, palaces and monasteries across China; the Forbidden City is the world's largest example.
Aiming to protect Beijing's siheyuan, the local government issued a notice in 2004 encouraging companies and individuals to buy them (many had been state-owned). In an ironic twist, wealthy Chinese and expats began scrambling to pay top dollar for housing that other Chinese shunned as old-fashioned. Even media mogul Rupert Murdoch got in on the act, splashing out a cool RMB 30 million (24 million) on a courtyard near the Forbidden City.
"The current Chinese attitude toward hutong areas and their siheyuan is mixed," explains Kevin Cleary, an American teacher who rents a courtyard near the center of Beijing. "While they're proud of their heritage, many younger people prefer to live in modern apartments. Siheyuan are not generally packed with modern conveniences, and can be very expensive to renovate."
"While the government has finally decided to protect a number of hutongs and their siheyuan, what this protection means is not really clear," adds Chen Gang, a Beijing historian. "Many Beijingers are still worried that authentic hutongs will disappear forever. Still, gentrification is obviously a lot better than redevelopment."
In terms of commercial gentrification, two of Beijing's greatest hutong success stories to date are the Shichahai and Nanluoguxiang areas, both liberally sprinkled with fashionable boutiques, bars, cafes and eateries. Many tourists opt for a guided pedicab tour of Shichahai, which make a relaxing way to take in the area's rich history. Liu Qing, known to his neighbors as "Lao Liu" (Old Liu), has been offering rides for 10 years.
"At first I didn't speak any English," he explains. "Then Shichahai began to get more trendy, and foreign tourists came here. They wanted to learn about the hutong while I cycled them around, so I decided it was a good idea to learn some phrases. Although my English is still poor, I enjoy chatting to foreigners."
With their idiosyncratic architecture and bohemian charm, it's little surprise that Beijing's hutongs now play host to a large part of the capital's increasingly cosmopolitan culinary and nightlife scene. Nanluoguxiang's myriad restaurants offer everything from fish and chips and chicken tikka to kung pao chicken and Hawaiian pizza.
"In the past food in the hutongs was heavily influenced by Beijing cuisine, which often consisted of snacks, and was typically sold by little shops or street vendors," explains Adlyn Teoh, who runs a popular culinary tour called Hutong Eats. "Nowadays the fare is pretty eclectic, with a wide range of Chinese and international influences."
"Nanluoguxiang is now one of my favorite places to eat and party," says twenty-five-year-old Beijinger Jillian Chen. "Of course there are plenty of laowai (foreigners), but it's more about the crowd. There's lots of young people having fun, enjoying good music, food and drink in a cool environment. There are so many different places to go - if you get bored, you just move on somewhere new."
While its varied attractions and intelligent renovation have contributed much to Nanluoguxiang's popularity, it's the presence of old Beijingers that gives the area real appeal. Complete with outdoor toilets, grannies with red armbands, and men in Mao jackets, hutong life is still on display here in all its authenticity. As with all Beijing's hutongs, these priceless characters deserve to be treasured as much as the alleyways and courtyards they enliven.
When to go
The best times to visit Beijing and its hutongs are spring (April-May) and autumn (September-October). Expect most days to be warm and sunny, although evenings may be cool.
Where to stay
Hotel C Cour
Beijing's best courtyard hotel, located close to the Shichahai area
70 Yanyue Hutong
One of Beijing's finest hotels, within walking distance of the Forbidden City
1 East Chang An Avenue
Peking Downtown Backpackers
What this hostel lacks in luxury it more than makes up for with its superb location on Nanluoguxiang's main street
Another great, mid-range courtyard hotel, close to the Forbidden City
53 Shijia Hutong
Tel: +86 (0)10 6512 5557
Buy a map with English and Chinese. It will be very useful in cabs and when you are lost.