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The old lanes of the Beijing hutongs, many laid out hundreds of years ago during the Ming and Qing dynasty eras (1368-1912), retain some of the traditional culture and way of life of the past. Visiting the Beijing hutongs for shopping, dining, and experiencing the street life is a way to get in touch with the everyday people and experience the daily life of people in Beijing.
A hutong is a lane or alley formed by traditional courtyard compounds lining both sides. These hutongs range from little alleys 40 centimeters wide to streets 10 meters wide.
The compounds that line the lanes and alleys are called "siheyuan" (四合院 sìhéyuàn /srr-her-ywhen/). The word means: 'four joined-together courtyard.' They are old buildings arranged on four sides around a courtyard, and the buildings and the courtyard are enclosed by a wall.
The hutong streets and alleys crisscross with each other and meander in confusing ways. It is fun to walk around in them. See our Recommended Siheyuan Courtyards in Beijing.
The Mongolians captured the Beijing area in 1215, and in 1271 they started to build their Yuan Empire (1271–1368) capital called Dadu (大都 Dàdū). It was recorded that in the Yuan Empire a 36-meter-wide road was called a standard street, a 18-meter-wide one was a small street, and a 9-meter-wide lane was named a hutong (胡同 hùtōng /hoo-tong/ 'haphazardly together').
Perhaps the name describes the haphazard unplanned construction of many of the hutongs. The word hutong originates from the Mongolian word hottog that means 'water well' in Mongolian. In ancient times, villagers dug a well and then lived around it.
In the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) empires, the officials and wealthy people built their grand siheyuan compounds close to the Forbidden City of the emperors along hutong lanes that were wide and laid out according to a plan. A good example is the Qiao Family Grand Courtyard. The commoners and poorer people, however, built smaller siheyuan around narrower lanes and alleys, laid out haphazardly on the outskirts of the capital city. See more on Hutong History.
The hutongs have descriptive names that tell their origin, location, or history. It is in these gray lanes and alleys where kids play and people shop and socialize. See Life in Beijing's Hutongs.
Beijing still has about 400,000 residential siheyuans that are mainly in the East, West, Xuanwu, and Chongwen districts. New construction threatens the existence of most hutongs. The municipal government has earmarked a number of them for protection. See more on The Protection of Beijing's Traditional Hutong Residence Heritage
One of China's most famous authors, Laoshe, was born in a small lane in the west of the city. The memories of his childhood were so dear to him and left such a deep impression that even after he'd been away from Beijing for more than 20 years, he still clearly remembered his birthplace. He made it the backdrop of his novel "Four Generations under One Roof."
Many famous operas and dramas are based on the themes of the life in the hutongs, and a drama by the Beijing People's Art Theatre such as "Teahouse" or "Small Hutong" in the evening would complement a visit there.
Tourists like the hutongs where they can shop, sightsee, and enjoy the tea houses and restaurants such as Jiuwan Hutong and Wudaoying Hutong. For more about these hutongs and what to do there, see our top Hutong recommendations.
Shopping, dining, relaxing in teahouses and hutong cafes or just seeing how residents live are things you can do. You can experience the street life and visit with typical Beijingers.
There are thousands of little shops and big stores where you can bargain and try to get a deal on a variety of items. The hutongs are enjoyed for their authentic dining experiences and hutong food. The teahouses or cafes are places you can rest. See The Best Cafes in Beijing's Hutongs.
For walking tours and tasting Beijing street snacks, we've prepared two walking tour guides. One is a One Day Hutong Walking Tour of Beijing that goes through two popular hutongs, and the other is a shorter Half Day Hutong Walking Tour.
For more information, see more about The Top 7 Things to Do in Beijing's Hutongs.
The hutongs reflect the culture of the common people, while the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven are symbols of imperial culture. To get to know Beijing, you should not miss the hutongs during a Beijing tour!
Visit a local hutong family? If you'd like to visit with a local family and also get private lessons on crafts, cooking, arts or other topics, we can arrange that. Contact us for an individualized China tour.