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The Hutongs


A visit to the Forbidden City is perhaps incomplete without a tour of the hutongs, for it gives a parallel perspective on life that went on just outside the Imperial Palace in its heyday. Down the winding narrow lanes, children would find a haven for playing hide-and-seek, rubber-band skipping and kicking shuttlecocks, while hawkers would walk from one hutong to another offering their trade, from fruits, vegetables and snacks to knives, kitchen utensils and even barber services.

Hutongs, meaning ‘water wells’ in Mongolian, refer to a maze of narrow lanes (6-7 m wide) formed by traditional Chinese courtyard homes (Siheyuan). At the epicentre of Beijing is the Imperial Palace (Forbidden City); the hutongs branch out along its northern, eastern, southern and western walls. The history of the hutongs is as old as Beijing itself, dating back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

Each hutong tells stories about its location, origin, history, or occupation of its residences, reflected accordingly through its name. There’s the ‘Earthenware Pot Liu Hutong’ (now Dashaguo Hutong) where Mr Liu once had his studio and sold earthenware pots, ‘Xianyu Kou Hutong’ or a market for trading fish, ‘Brick Tower Hutong’ (Zhuanta Hutong) with a nine-tiered tower dating back to the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) and ‘Cypress Hutong’ so named after the cypress-fringed landscape.

Then, there are those hutongs with at least a superlative attached, such as the narrowest hutong (Qian Shi Hutong), the longest hutong (Dong Jiaomin Hutong), the shortest hutong (Guantong Hutong) and the hutong with the most turns (Beixinqiao Hutong).

Walking amongst the hutongs is like travelling back in time to the days of Imperial China, when life of a typical Chinese family seldom ventured beyond the walls of their courtyard homes. Due to their strictly defined layout and structure, the hutongs have become a proud symbol of old Beijing. In the mid 1950s, the number of hutongs reached its peak at 6,104. Now the number has dwindled to around 2,000, to make way for modern high-rises and urban planning projects.

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