The word "hutong" originates from the word "hottog" which means "well" in Mongolian. Villagers dig out a well and inhabited there. Hutong means a lane or alley, in fact the passage formed by lines of Siheyuan (a compound with houses around a courtyard) where old Beijing residents live. Be careful for being lost in it!
It was recorded that in the Yuan Dynasty 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. In fact, Beijing's hutongs are in different width ranging from 40 centimeters to 10 meters. The longest has more than 20 turns. Either in east-west or north-south, Beijing's hutongs varied as slant, half or “blind hutongs" cul-de-sacs. The gray-tiled houses and deep alleys crossing with each other in identical appearance like a maze, you will find it much fun to walk through but be care not to lost yourself.
The name of a hutong implicates its origin, location or history. It is in the gray-tiled deep lanes that families play, travel, buy goods, gossip and connect. In Beijingers' eyes, hutongs means a period of history, a cordial lifestyle and even an “encyclopedia of Beijing".
From the names of hutongs one can discover how Beijingers, in the course of centuries, advanced from vulgarity to refinement. In numerous hutongs are scattered the residences of famous personages, and these places are repositories. Laoshe, a well-known playwright is just one of them. Laoshe was born in a small lane, in the west part of the city. The memory of his childhood was so dear and impressive that after he'd been away from Beijing for more than 20 years, he still clearly remembered his birthplace, and he made it the backdrop of his novel "the Four Generations Under One Roof". Many famous operas and dramas are based on the themes of the "hutong life". A visit to hutongs plus a drama by the Beijing People's Art Theatre, such as “Teahouse" or "SmallHutong" in the evening, will help you appreciate the fundamental part of Beijing's life. When urban construction threatens the existence of these hutongs, some Beijingers become worried.
We trust that a “must see” hutong tour will greatly help you know more about Beijing history and culture.
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