Beijing's Hutong and Courtyard
A hutong is a unique form of community that exists only in China. If you are fed up with high buildings and wide streets, enter Beijing's hutongs then. Here, you will find "Hutong Culture" and "Courtyard Culture"."Hutong" literally means a small street or a lane between two courtyards, although the word can also mean a community within the city consisting of hutongs and residences. Shanghai local people call it a "Nong". There are thousands of hutongs in Beijing City. Most of them were built in the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasty (1271-1911). Every hutong has a name. Some hutongs have had only one name since the hutong was formed, but some have had more than five names in the past.
People name each hutong by various means. Some got their names from places such as Inner Xizhimen Hutong; some from plants such as Liushu (Willow) Hutong; some from directions such as Xi (West) hongmen Hutong; some from Beijing idioms such as Yizi (Beijing local people call soap as yizi) Hutong; some from good words such as Xiqing (Happy) Hutong; some from markets for business such as Yangshi (Sheep Market) Hutong; some from temples such as Guanyinsi (Kwan-yin Temple) Hutong, and some are even from the names of common people such as Mengduan Hutong.
There are many different types of hutongs. The most interesting to tour is in the Shichahai area, which is a scenic spot. It includes three lakes. They are Front Sea, Back Sea and West Sea. There are many historic scenes around this area. You can see Bell and Drum Towers, Prince Gong's Mansion and many hutongs. The oldest hutong in Beijing is called Sanmiao Street. It has been there for more than 900 years! The longest is Dongxi Jiaomin Lane. The total length of it is 6.5 kilometers. The shortest one had a name of Yi Chi Street because it was only a little more than ten meters long. Now, it belongs to Meizhuxie Street.
Usually most of Beijing's hutongs are straight. However, if you enter Jiudaowan Hutong, you will probably get lost as you have to turn corners 19 times, so please note not to be lost.
There is an interesting hutong called Qianshi Hutong near Qianmen (Front Gate). The narrowest section in its middle is only 40 centimeters. When two people pass through it face to face, one has to turn back to the exit of the Hutong and let another pass first. Interesting?
You may find that a lot of smaller hutongs have been formed inside bigger hutongs.
A courtyard is like a square. Rooms are built along the four sides of the square. Beijing's courtyards have three sizes - the bigger ones, the middle-sized ones and the smaller ones. The
smaller ones are very simple. Usually, there are several rooms arranged on each of the four sides respectively. They are the north rooms, east and west wing-rooms and south rooms. The older family members live in the north rooms; the young live in the wing-rooms, and a south room is constructed as a living room or study.
The middle-sized ones are a little more complicated than the smaller ones but still obtain all the basic structures. Rooms, corridors, walls are added to this kind of courtyard. Among these, a Chuihua Gate is very important. It divides the whole courtyard into front yard (outer yard) and inner yard. The wing-rooms in the outer yard are smaller than those in the inner yard. They are used as a kitchen or bedrooms for the servants. The south rooms are a gate room, living room or a study and garage.
The bigger courtyard is the most complicated form of courtyard. It consists of more than two small courtyards.
The middle-sized and smaller courtyards are dwellings for the common people while the bigger courtyards were used only by government officials and family members of the government officials.
The doors of all the rooms face the inside of the yard. With the influence of Fengshui, the gate of a courtyard is usually at the east end of the south side. When you enter a courtyard from the gate, you will first face a wall called screen wall. The wall prevents you from seeing the activities inside the courtyard.
In the yard, small brick paths connect every room. Stairs are in front of every room. In the yard, people can entertain themselves by planting trees and flowers, raising fish, resting and doing housework.
Usually, one courtyard is only for one family to live in. A family may include 2 or 3 generations. However, for the poor people, several families live together in one courtyard.
When you have a tour especially to Beijing's hutongs, some travel agencies may arrange with local people to visit their courtyards and rooms. Some travel agencies may also bring you to a kindergarten after you finish your visits to hutongs. In the kindergarten, you can see how the lovely boys and girls study and live. You can also talk with the teachers and the children to feel the development of modern China for yourself. Do not forget to taste the food at a local person's home and to try the pedicabs.