Hutongs are small alley ways or lanes surrounding the Forbidden City in the old section of Beijing that are hundreds of years old. These hutongs provide a tantalizing insight into life in ancient Beijing and a glimpse of modern Beijing’s traditional life.
A typical residence in ancient Beijing was a walled compound with a courtyard yard in the center that was surrounded by living quarters that were built against the north east and west walls of the compound. The southern wall of the compound was the gateway and entrance to the residence. Typically one family of at least three generations lived in a residence and the courtyard was the focus point of the family.
A hutong is formed by a row of these traditional residences the same way a suburban street is formed by a row of houses and yards. The residences faced south for better light and heat so hutongs normally run on a east to west axis.
The size of the hutongs varies depending on when (which dynasty) they were constructed and they can vary in width from over 9 meters to just 40 centimeters. Many of Beijing’s hutongs form winding networks of interlocking lanes like mazes that even locals can get lost in. Wandering through these hutongs is a great way to see a unique part of Beijing.
After the defeat of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang (the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty) burnt the Yuan palaces to the ground. Later in 1403 the third Ming Emperor Yongle renamed the city Beijing, made Beijing a co-capital of China and started the construction of the Forbidden City that was completed 14 years later. The Forbidden City became the center of Beijing and was surrounded by residential areas crisscrossed with hutongs.
The hutongs created a strict hierarchy in the old city of Beijing. The rich or influential people lived in hutongs to the east and west of the Forbidden City and poor and less influential people lived in hutongs to the north and south of the Forbidden City. A person’s status was measured by how close their hutong was to the Forbidden City.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 many of Beijing’s ancient hutongs were destroyed to create modern highways and housing developments. Fortunately many of Beijing’s hutongs still remain and a number of those hutongs are now protected.
Visiting the Hutongs
Beijing has many incredible sites such as the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the nearby Great Wall of China. Visiting these sites provides an insight into the greatness and splendour of ancient China but they are not about the daily lives of normal people. Visiting the hutongs of Beijing will show you where ancient Beijing’s residents lived and provide you with an insight into the kind of lives they led. Visiting the hutongs will also show how many of Beijing’s current residents live and how life in the hutongs remains unchanged in many ways.
There are groups of hutongs scattered all over the inner part of Beijing inside the second ring road that circles Beijing. Some hutongs are developed and now hutongs in name only while other hutongs have changed very little in the last 600 years. There are hutongs that are commercialized for tourism that have very little character and there are hutongs where residents go about their daily lives and foreign tourists are rarely seen.
Which hutongs to visit?
This is a hard question to answer because there are literally hundreds of hutongs you can visit and every hutong expert will give you a different opinion. I have suggested three hutong areas below that are great to visit. have minimal commercialization and that most of the residences are still used as homes.
Drum Tower and Bell Tower hutongs (my favourite) – The Drum Tower and the Bell Tower that are to the north of the Forbidden City and surrounded by many original hutongs that are hundreds of years old, well maintained and the residences are almost entirely used as homes. There are rickshaw tours of these hutongs that start in Culture Square that is in between the two towers. The rickshaw drivers will have little photo books where they show you the high lights of the local hutongs and you can pick out the places you want to visit.
The best way to reach Culture Square is to catch the subway on line 2 to Gulaodajie station. Take the B exit and walk south down Jinggulou Street. After around 10 minutes walking you will see the towers to your left. The towers are the tallest structures in the area so you will have no trouble finding the square and surrounding hutongs
Anping Alley – This alley is actually a very nice hutong that leads into a network of smaller hutongs in excellent condition where you can find locals living in the residences going about their day to day lives. These hutongs also contain a number of great restaurants that cater for locals, have delicious dishes and excellent prices.
I found these hutong late one night when I got lost trying to find my hostel that was on Anping Alley. Foreigners rarely venture down these hutongs so you will often find yourself the center of attention.
Catch the subway to Xisi station on line four. Once you exit the subway go west on Fuchengmeng Inner Street until you hit Zhaodengyu road. Head north on Zhaodengyu road and Anping Alley will be the second road on your left.
Forbidden City – On the east side of the Forbidden City is a street called Chizi street. There are a number of very nice hutongs that lead of from Chizi street that are great to visit. Many of the residences here have been converted to commercial or government buildings but still retain much of their original character. You can also find some very nice small restaurants once you enter some of the smaller hutongs in that area.
Chizi Street is the first street to the east of the Forbidden City and right next tot the moat so you can’t miss it.
I prefer to walk the hutongs not take rickshaws so I never gave much thought to the rickshaw drivers. During my last trip to the Culture Square hutongs, I had a very interesting conversation with a rickshaw driver who was waiting outside a Daoist Temple for his German customer.
This driver was a local Beijing resident who had lived in Beijing his whole live and was extremely familiar with Beijing’s hutong and rickshaw scene. He explained that basically all rickshaw drivers worked for companies like the one in Culture Square and that they did not receive any wage. The company bosses who the driver used very unflattering terms to describe, kept all of the money they received. The companies lend them the drivers their rickshaws in lieu of wages. The only income the drivers have is tips from their customers.
The driver said that they are also subject to police extortion and harassment and likely to have their rickshaws confiscated. My conversation was cut short at that point when the German tourist exited the temple and the driver pedalled off to pick him up.
So if you are riding a rickshaw and the driver does a good job of showing you Beijing’s fantastic hutongs, tip generously. Those guys work hard and a just a few dollars from you will mean a lot to them.