Beijing hutong refers to an ancient alleyway with siheyuan or ”4-sided house” on both sides.
The name hutong dates back to the Yuan Dynasty (1279 – 1368 A.D.). According to some experts, the word originated from the Mongolian language, in which it is pronounced as hottog and means “well.” In ancient times, people tended to gather and live around wells. So the original meaning of hutong should be “a place where people live around”.
Another explanation, however, is completely different, saying that hutong derives from the Mongolian word huotuan meaning passageway. After Kublai Khan and his men swept across China and moved the capital of the vast Mongol empire from Karakorum, Mongolia, to present-day Beijing (thus the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty), the city was divided into 50 residential sections each with its own administrative head. Between these sections, there were passageways for people to travel through as well as functioning as isolation zones against fire risks. In Mongolian, passageways of this kind were called huotuan.
The two explanations are quite different, but they have one thing in common, i.e., they both agree that the word hutong came from Mongolian. It has now been generally accepted that hutong first appeared in the Yuan Dynasty.
During the last Chinese dynasty, Qing (1644-1911), Beijing boasted a total of 2,077 hutong. An estimate in 1944 put the number at 3,200. Soon after the Communists took over China in 1949, Beijing witnessed rapid urban redevelopment when the historic city wall was all but destroyed while the number of hutong continued to grow due to construction of new residential areas. But in recent years, the number of hutong has experienced sharp decline as a result of rapid economic expansion. To preserve this ancient cultural heritage, some of Beijing’s hutong with distinctive characteristics have been designated as historic heritage sites under the protection of the state.
Hutong Neighbourhoods As Tourist Attractions
Due to heavy promoting by the local tourism authorities and travel companies, Beijing’s hutong neighbourhoods have been overrun with tourists from home and abroad. Some of the neighbourhoods such as Gu Lou (Drum Tower) are so crowded with tour groups that the local government decided in May 2016 to ban large tour groups in those residential areas. The policy may stop big tour buses from the parking lots nearby but it remains to be seen if overcrowding would disappear.
Laurus Travel specializes in small group travel. We prospect hutong neighbourhoods throughout the old city centre to find unique locations that large tour buses cannot get close to. To further minimize our impact, we have purchased a large number of Quietvox listening devices for our guests to wear when we go on a hutong visit. With group size of 20 or smaller and a guide whispering into the microphone, we provide our guests an experience that they truly appreciate.
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