Beijing is an ancient city abounding in traditional culture. The oldest, most time-honoured areas of Beijing are the hutongs – old-fashioned neighborhoods that exist along narrow laneways throughout Beijing. The oldest of these are in and around the Forbidden City in central Beijing, where imperial kinsmen and workers once lived.
Many of the hutongs were built during the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, from as early as 1206 A.D., and were still being built and occupied up into the early 20th century. The fancier hutongs generally housed aristocrats and the families of people who worked in the imperial palace. They often had carved roof beams, ornate pillars and beautiful gardens. The more crude hutongs, which were home to common merchants and laborers, were much smaller and simpler in décor.
These neighborhoods were actually an intricate string of residences, called sihueyuans. As the name suggests, siheyuans were four-sided, square communal dwellings with an open courtyard or garden in the center. Very often, large groups of extended families lived communally in the siheyuans, which were joined with other siheyuans along a narrow alleyway to form the larger network of hutong neighborhoods.
Hutongs were really the heart and soul of Beijing, as they were where common workers and families all resided together. This communal style of living signifies the deeper Chinese cultural values of group harmony and the collective ideal. Some of the city’s most fascinating historical anecdotes and events have been remembered passed down orally through hutong culture, and they also contain some of the most well preserved examples of historic Beijing architecture.
Hutong life has been in decline for many years, since the People’s Republic of China was formed in 1949. Large apartment blocks and wide avenues have replaced the quaint hutongs as the center of Beijing life. However, there are still some hutongs in existence, where traditional life and culture can be observed today. As well, some hutongs and siheyuans have been converted into restaurants and shops, still preserving their ancient architecture. Simply wandering or bicycling through one of the hutong areas is a wonderful activity for a long afternoon.