Exploring Beijing’s Ancient Alleyways

In Beijing’s ancient alleyways, known as hutong, time seems to flow backwards. Local merchants peddle rice, fruit, and vegetables on rickshaws, calling out the day’s prices just as they have for centuries. Groups of weathered, wizened men play leisurely games of Mahjong. Incense from local temples wafts through the air, and colorful offerings dot the feet of Buddhist icons.

These narrow lanes and residential courtyards are home to timeworn traditions that have defied Beijing’s lightning-fast growth. They reflect an era of Chinese history when close-knit communities gathered to trade news, gossip flowed freely over old stone walls, and a “social network” didn’t stretch farther than a few alleys over.

Though many of the city’s hutong were demolished during the 20th century, a few hundred remain, now under the official protection of the government. They offer a window back in time and a charming respite from the cacophony and chaos of today’s Beijing.

A Brief History of the Hutong

The origin of the hutong is linked, as so many city origin stories are, to water. Deriving from the Mongolian word “hottog,” meaning “water well,” the roots of hutongs stretch all the way back to the Yuan Dynasty of 1271-1368. Almost every city was designed around a well that supplied water to the entire population. Once a central well was established, the people of the city began building their homes around it.

Many residents during this time lived in siheyuan (courtyard houses). This historical type of residence was found throughout China, but most prominently in Beijing. Siheyuan consisted of a compound of buildings surrounding a central courtyard.  As more siheyuan were built around the central water well, the city began to stretch out in all directions.

Enter the creation of hutong, the name that was given to a narrow lane or alley that was formed by lines of siheyuan. Many neighborhoods during this time were connected by hutongs, and the word can be used to describe these neighborhoods as well.

These gray-tiled alleys were where local residents lived their everyday lives, and the name of a hutong contains great significance – it can represent its history, location, or origin. When viewed from the air, the interconnecting hutongs resemble a chessboard, and the maze of streets are almost identical in appearance. In ancient times, there were no signposts with street names. The name of each hutong was passed on by word of mouth. Street names only began to be written down during the Ming Dynasty.

Beijing’s Best Hutongs

Bell Tower ancient alleys beijing placepass blog
Beijing Nanluoguxiang ancient alleys beijing placepass blog
Ancient Alleys Beijing Best Hutong

The Drum and Bell Towers to the north of Forbidden Square and the Dashilar area to the south of Tiananmen Square are a perfect starting point to explore the hutongs. Guided tours are available on PearlDive, but if you prefer to go at your own pace, another option is to rent a bike or simply walk at your leisure among the labyrinth of streets.

To experience an ancient hutong among the modern buildings of today, head to Dongxijiaominxiang. The longest hutong in the city is almost four miles long and combines traditional siheyuan with Western architecture.

For a taste of traditional Chinese fare, head to Nanluogu Xiang, a hutong known for its distinctive foods.

Mao’er Hutong was home to several celebrities, and many of their homes remain, including Wan Rong, the last empress, and Feng Guozhang, the leader of the Northern Warlords.

Finally, Qianshi is the narrowest hutong. At its smallest, this neighborhood is barely two feet wide, and two people walking side-by-side must turn and face each other to pass through. Now that’s a way to get to know your neighbor.

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Comments 1

  1. I had always been fascinated with tightly knit communities like these. The construction and layout was always intriguing. That is actually really fascinating too that communities back then were centered around water supply. It really makes you think back. Like comparing that time to now, so much has changed and we have a lot to be grateful for. Very interesting and cool read!

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