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Hutong (胡同; pinyin hútòng; Wade-Giles hu-t'ung) is the name of certain traditional inner-city neighborhoods in Beijing, China, especially in the East, West, Xuanwu and Chongwen districts, and for the narrow and twisting lanes, alleyways, and passages (hutong, or hu tong) formed by the outer walls of private residential compounds, usually with open courtyards (siheyuan) which are their principal public feature. The term hutong is a derivative of hottog the Mongolian term for well, a reference to the wells for residential use often located in the siheyuan.

Hutongs are said to occupy a very special place in the history and folk culture of Beijing. It is estimated that there may have been as many as 400,000 such residential compounds (siheyuan) in the old city.

A siheyuan usually forms a rectangular compound with one-story houses facing the cardinal points and a courtyard in the middle. There might be a pair of stone Chinese lions in front of the entrance with a wooden Chinese lintel overhead. Decorative motifs might also include birds and flowers. Immediately behind a high wooden threshold might be a stone screen built to prevent a direct view of the interior of the compound from the hutong outside, and believed to keep out evil spirits. The outer courtyard is flanked by rooms serving as kitchens and servant's quarters to the east and west. The main residence is located on the north side of the compound for maximum sunlight into 3-5 rooms. The central room in the main residence is for family or communal use, and is flanked by a study or bedrooms. Passages on either side of the main residence give way to the inner residence, with rooms for married children and their families and a garden.

One of the most distinctive features of Hutong neighborhoods are the narrow passageways or lanes, many of which include from 1-20 bends, twists, kinks, blind alleys and cul de sacs. In Beijing the spaces between siheyuan are said to range in width from 10 centimeters to 40 meters.

The way of life which developed in the streets and alleyways and public spaces between the siheyuan is said by Chinese authorities to have survived intact from the 13th century through the 1940's and the Chinese Maoist revolution.

Visiting hutong neighborhoods has long been a standard feature of visits by non-Chinese tourists to Beijing but only came to wider public attention in 2008 when the world learned that many such areas, most of which had long been crowded, deteriorating and slum-like, were being demolished for economic development, much as with inner-city neighborhoods in other parts of the world. There is a nascent preservation movement in Beijing and the municipal government there is said to have earmarked a number of dwelling compounds for protection, although it is unclear how many entire hutong neighborhoods are marked for preservation.

The restoration movement faces not only political challenges but also hurdles owing to the fact that through the Maoist period and more recently deterioration continued in many neighborhoods, with the result that many of the small lanes and old-style courtyard houses have been determined to be beyond repair. "Even in those areas where the authorities want to preserve some of the city's old look, especially in the northcentral part behind the Forbidden City, renovating an old house usually means reconstructing it from scratch." [1]

  1. Richard Bernstein. "The Death and Life of a Great Chinese City." New York Review of Books. (March 26, 2009). p. 40-42.