When the Mongols conquered Beijing in the 13th century, they built streets called hutongs. Along these streets, people built clan courtyards with high walls and gates for protection.
Over the centuries, the area covered by hutong lanes kept expanding. The people developed many traditions about how to live life in the hutongs, how to decorate their hutongs according to their status. The poorer the hutong, generally the more communal they were.
Here, we present a history of the hutongs from the 13th century onwards highlighting the development in each epoch and how hutong life evolved in the 20th century when the last imperial dynasty fell and the hutongs developed under the communist government. The residential hutongs are rapidly disappearing, but they've become popular tourism and shopping attractions for both Chinese and foreign tourists.
Hutong History from the Yuan to the Qing Empires
Yuan Empire Hutongs
Beijing was the capital city of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). They initially laid out wide streets in a grid pattern. Their city was well laid out: the widest main streets were 25 to 36 meters (39 yards) wide, side streets were about 18 meters (20 yards) wide, and the narrow ones that they named "hutongs" were 6–7 meters (about 9 yards).
Each of the large avenues had underground sewers which carried rain and refuse away to the south of the city. The Yuan nobles and high-ranking army officials were awarded with lands as their estates in the city. They built houses and courtyards that are now called "Siheyuan" (四合院) that were arranged in an orderly way around the wells.
Most buildings were oriented south and north so as to adapt to the climate in the Yuan capital. The orientation afforded a break against the wind and allowed maximum sunlight in winter. The numerous south-north oriented siheyuan created a great number of east-west oriented alleys and hutongs.
The Yuan rulers wanted the city to be a showcase of beauty and imperial power, and foreigners who visited the city called it the most beautiful and rich city in the world along with one or two other cities in the empire. By 1327, the city had almost a million residents.
Ming Empire Hutongs
During the era of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Han people replaced the Mongols and their officials in the inner city, and the government extended the size of the city by building additional walled areas.
The Ming construction codes were more lax than those of the Yuan. So the people built their siheyuan and lanes more haphazardly. In the new areas of the city, the people built many more hutongs. The number of Hutongs grew to be about three times more than that in the Yuan Dynasty.
Qing Empire Hutongs
During the Qing Dynasty era (1644–1912), it is thought that the number of hutong residential lanes significantly increased to 2,076, among them were 978 hutongs.
This increase in the number of hutongs happened because the Manchu government drove the people Han people out of the inner city so they could settle Manchus and Mongols there.
The Han residents were forced to build their courtyard homes along hutongs they constructed somewhat haphazardly on the outskirts. So the size of Beijing increased. In 1550, after an attack by Mongols, the outer walls of the city were constructed and enclosed many hutongs inside the city proper.
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Hutong History in the 20th Century
They were built when times were hard.
The Nationalist Era 1912 - 1949
After the fall of the Qing Empire in 1912, times were rough. Wars such as the Boxer Rebellion and the Nationalist government takeover disrupted the lives of the people in the city. The old ruling class lost their status and their estates, and poor Han people moved into the fomer Manchu and ruling class enclaves.
The poor people built small dwellings along the lanes, or they moved into larger compounds and subdivided them so that many families lived in a siheyuan created for one family clan.
In 1931, the Japanese invaded Manchuria, and after that, refugees moved to Beijing. By 1949, there were about 3,000 or 3,250 hutongs in Beijing.
Communist Era 1949 - 2000
In 1949, there were 2 million people living in Beijing. The communist government focused on building factories and industrializing the city in the 1950s. The government extended the city limits, and millions of poor people poured in over a ten year period and built another 3,000 more ramshackle hutongs around the original central core. By 1959, most of Beijing's 6 million residents lived in 6,000 hutongs.
These hutongs were usually only narrow lanes and tiny alleyways that snaked between high walled compounds. Almost no one had an automobile, and in most hutongs, people walked or rode bicycles on the dirt lanes.
Living conditions were cramped, and most lived in poverty or at a subsistence level. Few had indoor plumbing, so people fetched water from community spigots and used communal public bathrooms.
It is difficult now to imagine the level of poverty. Many buildings had no kitchens, and most people were forced to eat at communal kitchens. By 1959, famine was so terrible that working class people were forced to supplement their meager food rations with whatever edible thing they could find in the city such as tree bark and dogs.
By the late 1950s, many of the better-built older official hutongs around the Forbidden City resembled the hutongs in the newer parts of the city.
The Destruction of the Hutongs Began in the 1980s
After the 1970s, when China's export industry and openness to the West began, the urban conditions in Beijing improved a lot. However, renovation of the city required the destruction of the hutongs. People moved into apartments or moved out to the suburbs or to other areas of China.
The number of hutongs decreased rapidly. In 2003, there were only 1,571 hutong lanes left.
The Fate of Hutongs in the 21st Century
The general trend in this century is for the total disappearance of the traditional residential hutongs. Some hutongs have been turned into shopping, dining, or bar streets. Others have been selected for preservation by the government because they either contain or are near special historical sites or they are noted to be of special interest for another reason.
The main driver of the destruction of the hutongs and their siheyuan is simply the rising wealth. Since the turn of the century when China joined the WTO, the wealth of the average Beijinger has skyrocketed.
In the last 10 years, the average annual income increased 5,000 USD to now about 14,000 USD per year in 2019.
The spendable income is putting great pressure for the redevelopment of the old hutongs. The land in Beijing is very valuable: in 2015, the average courtyard house price ranged from 70,000 to 250,000 RMB ($11,000 – $39,288 USD) per square meter.
Conversely, many hutong residents want to move out of their old dwellings into bigger and newer buildings. Many of the old hutong structures don't even have adequate toilets. The government also needs land to develop the transportation infrastructure to accommodate the millions of cars and a population growing at more than 2% per year.
As of 2019, there are only several hundred hutongs left. A recently published study (Beijing Siheyuan Zhi " 北京四合院志") says there are only 923 complete siheyuan remaining in Beijing's inner city and outer regions of the 3,000 that once existed in the 1980s. High-rise apartment buildings, luxury properties, skyscrapers and highways have destroyed almost all the hutongs in Beijing.
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Hutong Preservation Efforts
There is no unanimity about the need for redeveloping the hutong land. Many residents of the last hutongs still would like to keep living their dwellings. For some, their family's dwelling is a clan hallmark and even a shrine of their clan handed down for generations.
For others, it is simply that they are the cheapest places they know to live in the city. See more about Preservation of Beijing's Traditional Hutong Residence Heritage.
Hutong Lifestyles in the 21st Century
People playing mahjong. The residential hutong lifestyle is more communal and neighborly than that of most Beijingers.
During the past decades, in the cramped streets and alleys, the residents developed a lifestyle where they had a lot of contact and communication with their neighbors. It is more communal. Hundreds of residents in a hutong may share the same bathroom, so even while using bathrooms or bathing, they had to live with each other intimately.
In the remaining residential hutongs, the older way of life continues. The people still meet, chat, eat, and play games such as mahjong in the lanes and public spaces. Long-term neighbors and relatives visit daily and share meals. The familiarity and closer relationships is what the older residents cherish, and many hope to stay.
The Hutongs' Future Depends on Their Tourist Attractiveness
Unless there is a change in Beijing urban planning strategy, there won't be any hutongs left except for ones that are tourist shopping and sightseeing streets. This doesn't bode well for the future of hutong life. There are even plans to tear down the remaining sections of hutongs near the Drum Tower and turn it into a giant tourist plaza. A lot seems to depend on whether there is enough tourist interest that presents enough business to justify a lane's existence to the government.
'South Gong and Drum Alley' (Nanluogu Xiang 南锣鼓巷) is an example of the kind of hutong that might survive. It was originally built wider as an official ceremonial street with gate structures called pailou. The Drum Tower, Silver Ingot Bridge, and gardens are around it. It has shops, restaurants, and many cheap cafes for tourists.
The ancient landmarks and a lot of historical events that happened on the street are what help it get earmarked for protection. However, the old residential lifestyle is almost gone. It retains more of a traditional feel than the modern shopping and sightseeing streets.
Unless the government values the community relationships and steps in to preserve the hutong communities, perhaps only by developing a hutong in the way Nanluogu Xiang has been developed may allow a hutong to continue to exist. The exteriors of the buildings have been preserved, and it retains the old lane look. Otherwise, hutong life will not exist much longer.
Where You Can Go to Learn about Hutongs and Their Preservation
Accurate information about hutong preservation is hard to come by. But you could visit one of the museums dedicated to hutongs and their history such as the Shijia Hutong Museum. The Beijing Hutong Zhang Folk Art Museum is another option.
To learn about Beijing's urban planning and future projects, the The Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall is the place to go complete with an extraordinarily detailed scale model of the city that projects what Beijing will look like in the year 2020. It is near the Forbidden City.
The Most Popular Beijing Hutongs
- Liulichang Culture Street
- The Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street
- Beijing Goldfish Hutong
- Dong Xi Jiao Hutong of Beijing
- Shijia Hutong Museum
- Beijing Hutong Zhang Folk Art Museum
How to Visit the Hutongs
To tour through the residential hutongs, you can walk or take a bike. You might be able to find rickshaw drivers in some of them, and a lot of tourists enjoy both the ride and their drivers who act as tour guides and might entertain as well.
Things to Learn, Do, and Experience in Hutongs
You might be able to find residents who'd invite you in for a visit since the people in residential hutongs are often friendly to tourists. If you'd like to visit a hutong family, tell us, and we can arrange for a visit.
There are a lot of things you can learn in hutongs. Our native tour guides can act as your interpreters as you talk with the locals. Private hutong tours that visit residents are popular ways to experience the daily life of Chinese.
We can arrange private classes with locals to learn everything from Chinese cooking to playing Chinese games such as mahjong, one of the most popular Chinese games.
There are many other things you can do in hutongs. Biking trips and walking tours are popular. You can sightsee.
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Learn More about Hutong Life with Us
Each hutong has its own character and would interest different people. Our expert guides can help you explore the hutong environment in the way that best suits you.
They can bring you to hutong residences and help you meet and communicate with the people. We can tailor your tour of Beijing, and you can modify any of our tours with hutong visits such as these below.
- VIP Beijing Essential Tour with Great Wall Hiking at Mutianyu - We can schedule a hutong tour for you.
- Private 4-Day Emperor's Tour of Beijing - We'll help you pick the hutongs you'd most like while you tour the major sights such as the Great Wall.