Introducing the Hutong

Hutongs are narrow streets or alley ways which represent an important cultural element of Beijing. In Beijing, hutongs are alleys formed by lines of Siheyuan, traditional courtyard house. Many neighborhoods were formed by joining one Siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another which still form the heart of Old Beijing. The word hutong is also used to refer to such neighborhoods. Thanks to Beijing’s long history and status as capital for six dynasties, almost every hutong has its anecdotes, and some are even associated with historic events. In contrast to the court life and elite culture represented by the Forbidden City and Summer Palace, the hutongs reflect the culture of grassroots Beijingers. Since the mid-20th century, the number of Beijing hutongs has dropped dramatically as they are demolished to make way for new roads and buildings. More recently, some hutongs have been designated as protected areas in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history.

Origin of name:

Version 1: The term “hutong” appeared first during the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368), and is a term of Mongolian origin meaning “water well”.

Version 2: Appeared first during the Yuan Dynasty, means “small alleys”.

Version 3: Appeared first during the Yuan Dynasty, means “town”.


During China’s dynastic age, emperors planned the city of Beijing and arranged the residential areas according to the social classes of the Zhou Dynasty (1027 - 256 BC). In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the center of Beiing was the Forbidden City, surrounded in concentric circles by the Inner City and Outer City. Citizens of higher social status were permitted to live closer to the center of the circles. Aristocrats lived to the east and west of the imperial palace. The large Siheyuan (Quadrangle Courtyard) of these high-ranking officials and wealthy merchants often featured beautifully carved and painted roof beams, pillars and carefully landscaped gardens. The hutongs they formed were orderly, lined by spacious homes and walled gardens. Farther from the Forbidden City, and to its north and south, were residences of the commoners, merchants, artisans, and laborers. Their Siheyuan were much smaller in scale, simpler in design and decoration, hutongs were narrower as well. Almost all Siheyuan had their main buildings and gates facing south for more sunshine; thus most of hutongs run from east to west. Between the main hutongs, many tiny lanes ran north and south for convenient transportation

Historically, a hutong was also once used as the lowest level of administrative divisions in China, as in the Paifang system: the largest division within a city in ancient China was a Fang, equivalent to current day district. Each fang was enclosed by walls or fences, and the gates of these enclosures were shut and guarded in the evening, like a modern gated community. Each fang was further divided into several Pai, which is equivalent to a current day community. Each Pai, in turn, contained an area including several hutongs, and during the Ming Dynasty, Beijing was divided into a total of 36 Fangs.

Hutongs in the Modern Age

In the early 20th century, the Qing court was disintegrating as China’s dynastic era came to an end. The traditional arrangement of hutongs was also affected. Many new hutongs, built haphazardly and with no apparent plan, began to appear on the outskirts of the old city, while the old ones lost their former neat appearance. The social stratification of the residents also began to evaporate, reflecting the collapse of the feudal system. During the time of the Republic of China from 1911 to 1948, society was unstable, fraught with civil wars and repeated foreign invasions. Beijing deteriorated, and the conditions of the hutongs worsened. Siheyuans previously owned and occupied by single families were subdivided and shared by many households, with additions tacked on as needed, built with whatever materials were available. The 978 hutongs listed in Qing Dynasty records swelled to 1,330 by 1949. Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, many of the old hutongs of Beijing disappeared, replaced by wide boulevards and high rises. Many residents left the lanes where their families lived for generations for apartment buildings with modern amenities. However, many of Beijing’s ancient hutongs still survive and a number of them have been designated as protected areas, offering a glimpse of life in the capital city as it has been for generations. Many hutongs, hundreds years old, in the area of the Bell Tower, Drum Tower and Shichahai Lake are well-preserved amongst newly recreated versions, which are popular with tourists home and abroad.

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Siheyuan (Courtyard House)

Siheyuan is a historical type of courtyard residence commonly found in old cities of China, most famously in Beijing. In English, Siheyuan are sometimes referred to as Chinese quadrangles. The name literally means a courtyard surrounded by buildings on four directions. Throughout Chinese history, the Siheyuan composition was the basic pattern used for residences, palaces, temples, monasteries, family businesses and government offices. In ancient times, a spacious Siheyuan would be occupied by a single, usually large family of different generations, signifying wealth and prosperity. The four buildings of a Siheyuan are normally positioned along the north-south and east-west axis. The building positioned to the north and facing the south is considered as the main house, called Zhengfang, which is also used to refer the formal wife of a man in the past. The buildings adjoining the main house and facing east and west are called side houses (Xiangfang). The northern, eastern and western buildings are connected by beautifully decorated pathways. The building that faces north is known as the opposite house. Behind the northern building, there would often be a separate backside building, the only place where two-story buildings are allowed to be constructed for the traditional Siheyuan. The entrance gate, painted vermilion for officials and black for commoners, is usually at the southeastern corner with copper door knockers on it. In China, according to the hierarchy system, only the entrance gates for the houses of emperor or prince are located in the middle. Normally, there is a screen wall inside the gate, for privacy and protecting the house from evil spirits. A pair of stone lions is sometimes placed outside the gate, also used exclusively by the emperor or prince. The officers would use square stones and round stones for the officials. Some large Siheyuan compounds would have two or more layers of courtyards and even private gardens attached to them, a symbol of wealth and social status in the past. The courtyard dwellings were built according to the traditional concepts of the five elements that were believed to compose the universe, and the eight diagrams of divination. The gate was made at the southeast corner which was the “wind” corner, and the main house was built on the north side which was believed to belong to “water”, an element to prevent fire. The layout of a simple courtyard also represents traditional Chinese morality and Confucian ethics. In Beijing, four buildings in a single courtyard receive different amounts of sunlight. The northern main building receives the most, thus serving as the living room and bedroom of the owner or head of the family. The eastern and western side buildings receive less, and serve as the rooms for children or less important members of the family. The southern building receives the least sunlight, and usually functions as a reception room and the servants' dwelling, or where the family would gather to relax, eat or study. The backside building is for unmarried daughters and female servants: because unmarried girls were not allowed direct exposure to the public, they occupied the most secluded building in the Siheyuan.

Smoking Pipe Street

Smoking Pipe Street (Yandaixiejie) is one of the oldest hutongs in Beijing. It is close to the Shichahai and Houhai area which are famous attractions in Beijing. The Yandaixiejie is about 232 meters long with its east end on the Di'anmen Street and the west to the Yinding Bridge. Stepping into the street for about 50 meters, one would come to the south end of the Dashibei Hutong, which goes to the Drum Tower West Avenue (Gulou Xidajie). Passing over the Yinding Bridge one can reach the Houhai Bar Street, one of the two most famous and popular bars streets in Beijing. According to a book published during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799), the street was initially named Drum Tower Xiejie and later named Yandaixiejie at the end of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It is recorded that there were many smoking pipe stores on the street in the Qing Dynasty, among which there was one named Shuangshengtai. The store owner put a 1.5-meter-high wooden smoking pipe in front of the store as a sign. As time went by, the street was known by the whole city for its giant smoking pipe. After the 1911 Revolution, the Qing Imperial Family was overthrown, the bannerman (Manchurians that were fed by the Qing government) lost their incomes and many of them had to sell their properties, such as antiques, to make a living. Gradually many antique markets were formed in Beijing, among which Yandaixiejie was a large one. But after 1949, the antique trading on this street gradually declined. This old alley lost its commercial position in the 1950s and many buildings were changed to residential buildings, including the Taoism Temple, Guangfu Guan. In 2007, the street was redeveloped to recover its historical features. Guangfu Guan has become a tourist site and many reproductions of classic architecture were built on the street.

Former Residence of Song Ching Ling

The Former Residence of Song Ching Ling is a museum in the Shichahai area, and once was the last residence of Song Ching-ling, the wife of Dr. Sun Yat-sen and later the Honorary Chairman in 1981. The museum opened in 1982, was renovated in 2009, and is dedicated to her memory. The site was once a garden used by princes and nobles of the Qing Dynasty, the compound contains buildings that date back to Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) and displays flowers, trees, ponds and rockeries. In 1888, the Empress Dowager Cixi granted the site to Yixuan, father of the Guangxu Emperor and was used later by Zaifeng, father of the “Last Emperor Puyi. After the establishment of China in 1949, Premier Zhou Enlai suggested that the property might be suitable for Song Ching Ling. Song moved into the residence in 1963 and lived there until her death in 1981. The property occupies an area of 20,000 m² with gardens and ponds. The mansion shows exhibits that relate to Song’s life. Documents and photographs show her childhood, student years, marriage, and political activities as interpreted through the official view. Another exhibit depicts her life and her decision to support the communist cause. Her love of the children of China is represented by another exhibit. The compound also contains her living quarters that include a number of rooms with the personal furniture and appointments as used by Song such as her study, dining room and bedroom.


Entrance Fee: Free


No. 18 Qianhai West Street, Xicheng District, Beijing




Getting There


Line 6 Beihai North Station Exit C



(Please take me to the former Guomoruo Residence Shichahai)

Travel Tips

There are many Hutongs in Beijing, the Hutongs nearby Guomoruo Residence are the most typical ones and easy to explore Houhai in a row

Last Updated

2018-05-04 23:25:48

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