China Seminar | 9 March 2006

The Beijing Hutong: Home Sweet Hutong

Sandra SI Tingting Sandra SI Tingting
Sharon TANG Honghong Sharon TANG Honghong
Sunny XIE Chuanjiao Sunny XIE Chuanjiao

Hutong, the traditional alley, evokes in the minds of old residents and visitors to Beijing the very essence of civility in this historic city. Of Mongol origin (huo-dong), the hutong is often narrow, not necessarily long, but always picturesque in an understated way. It generally means compound living around a well and/or where hu-people gather. Behind the walls of these alleys are the four-structures houses around a courtyard (seven if around two courtyards, the middle being shared). This arrangement, the siheyuan, is synonymous with the hutong. An old Beijing expression says the names of the hutongs are “as many as the hairs on a cow.”

However, with the rapid development of the city, a great number of hutongs gave way to modern construction of buildings and roads. Statistics show that every year hundreds of thousands of square meters of old houses have been demolished in the past three years alone. Better late than never, the Beijing Municipal Government and many individuals are starting to preserve these architectural treasures. “Old Beijing Hutong Visit” has become a new tourism attraction, last year bringing in over US$484,000.00. Some owners of old private homes in Beijing are making money from this preservation.

Ms. Si (Opinion Department), Tang (Culture & Leisure, China Daily affiliate 21st Century) and Xie (Politics, Economics, and Culture for China Daily’s Shandong Bureau) are journalists from China Daily. For 2005-06 they are enrolled in the Parvin Program of the School of Communications at the University of Hawaii under the direction of Prof. Gerald Kato.