People say that the real culture of Beijing is the ‘culture of the Hutong’ and the ‘culture of the courtyard’.
How true that is. Often, it is Beijing’s winding Hutongs that attract tourists from home and abroad rather than the high-rise buildings and large mansions.
Hutong is a typical lane or small street in Beijing that originated during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Hutong is a Mongolian word, meaning water well. During that time, water well is the settlement around which people lived. There are tens of thousands of hutongs surrounding the Forbidden City. In the past, Beijing was composed of countless courtyards. Hutongs were formed when people left a passageway between two courtyards to make entering them more convenient.
As the symbol of Beijing City, a hutong has its own layout and structure, which makes it a wonder in the world. When taking a bird’s eye view of Beijing, you will find the combination of hutongs and courtyards just like an orderly chessboard with delicate gardens, fine rockeries, and ancient ruins. Hutongs have witnessed the development of Beijing. Where there is a hutong, there is a story.
Among the numerous hutongs in Beijing, Beixinqiao Hutong has the most turns. There are more than 20 in which you can easily get lost. The narrowest is Qianshi Hutong (Money Market Hutong), measuring about 30 to 40 meters (32 to 44 yards), located in ZhuBaoshi Street outside the Front Gate. The narrowest part is merely 40 centimeters (16 inches) wide, so when two people meet, they must turn sideways to pass each other. The longest one is Dongjiaomin Hutong, with a total length of 6.5 kilometers (4 miles), lying between Chang;an Avenue and East Street and West Street of the Front Gate. The shortest one is Guantong Hutong measuring about 30 meters (33 yards).
The names of these hutongs are all-embracing and various, such as Lumicang Hutong, Fuxue Hutong, and Gongyuan Hutong, which were named by official organizations. Hutongs named by craftsmen and ordinary people are ;earthenware pot Liu Hutong (now Dashaguo Hutong, maybe there once lived a Mr. Liu who sold earthenware pots) WangZhima Hutong, and Mengduan Hutong. Hutongs named by their market trade include Xianyu Kou Hutong (Fish street), for it once was the place where fish was sold. Mules and Horses Hutong were named in this way because people once traded mules and horses there. Some Hutongs got their name by special marks, such as Stone Tiger Hutong, Iron Lion Hutong and Cypress Hutong.
The Courtyard, a traditional unique folk house in the hutongs, has a long history in Chinese architecture. It is called ;Siheyuan; in Chinese, which here refers to the four sides: east, west, north and south. refers to the surrounding, meaning the four sides circle into a square. Due to its special layout, it is compared to a box with a garden in the center. There is only one gate leading to a hutong, so when the gate is closed the courtyard loses touch with the outside world. Therefore family members can fully enjoy tranquility and share the happiness of a peaceful family union.
Most of the existing courtyards are relics of the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644 – 1911) Dynasties. They are the shadow of old China. The ancient furniture, fish pond, wooden doors and windows, and cane chairs remind you of their flourishing past. Those flashed bricks, Chinese eaves and cornices, fine brick designs, and wood carvings, reveal a strong classical tone of old Beijing. Hidden in the forest of armored concrete, it presents an aching beauty of decadence, waiting eagerly for you to explore its past. You cannot fully understand Beijing until you live in the courtyards.
Owners of the courtyards often grow flowers and trees in the garden to decorate their happy life. Generally speaking, they love planting date trees, locust trees and cloves. The pomegranate tree is also their favorite because it has many seeds. In Chinese, the pronunciations of ‘seed’ and ‘son’ are the same, and old people believe that the more sons, the more blessings. This is the reason why we can see many pomegranate trees growing in the courtyards. Living in this elegant and harmonious environment, they must enjoy a peaceful and blissful life!
The Hutongs and the Courtyards reflect the ritualistic and traditional ideas of China, and contain rich cultural connotations. They are the archetypes of the royal architecture. It’s a great pity that these traditional heritage sites are being replaced by high-rise buildings during the remodeling and new construction of the city. People from home and abroad are concerned that the historic and cultural value of Beijing will certainly be reduced if the Hutongs and Courtyards are destroyed and lost forever.
Come and see them for yourself by hiring the rickshaw, and you’ll have a true taste of Beijing!