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There are thousands of hutongs in Beijing, most of which were formed in the Yuan Dynasty (13th century), while others were formed in the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty.
The formation of hutongs is closely related to the forming, changing and development process of Beijing City. Hutongs were formed in the Yuan Dynasty, with the foundation of the Yuan capital (nowadays known as Beijing). In 1274 AD, the imperial palaces in the Yuan capital were built (they now no longer exist), and bureaucrats and the nobilities began to build their mansions along the main avenues in the capital. Houses and courtyards crisscrossed next to each other, and the separation distance between the rows of buildings formed hutongs, which provided better functions of ventilation and lighting. Most buildings were oriented south and north so as to adapt to the climate in the Yuan capital; such a house orientation could not only provide a wind barrier but also provided maximum sunlight in winter. Numerous south-north oriented buildings formed a great amount of east-west oriented alleys and hutongs.
In the Ming Dynasty, Beijing City was divided into 36 fangs (a Chinese area unit), with 28 fangs in the inner city and 8 fangs in the outer city. Alleys and hutongs were built along the fangs. Most alleys and hutongs in the inner city to the north of Chang’an Avenue were of the architectures from the Yuan capital.
However, since the Ming Dynasty, the codes of the city’s buildings had become more and more flexible, and many oblique streets and irregular roads were built. In the Yingzong period of the Ming Dynasty, more oblique streets and irregular hutongs were built in the outer city.
In the Qing Dynasty, Beijing had 2,076 alleys, among which there were 978 hutongs.
Hutongs are an indispensable part of Beijing’s history, along with siheyuans (quadrangle dwellings), and they are regarded as symbols of Beijing’s folk culture. Therefore, distinctive hutong-themed tours in Beijing have gradually become a heated issue.
However, with the development of history, more and more Beijing hutongs and one-story houses have become the target of projects concerned with renovating dilapidated houses: on one hand, for citizens who live in the old city, the old houses are dangerous and very inconvenient to live in; on the other hand, property developers are eager to leverage the huge tracts of land in the old city. So dozens of hutongs in Beijing are disappearing at an increased rate every year, which are replaced by high buildings, large mansions and broad avenues. These are very modern but without any of Beijing’s distinctive architectural style.