A Hutong(胡同), translated as a lane or alley formed by rows of buildings around a courtyard, or siheyuan (四合院), is a neighborhood rich in history, tradition and culture in Beijing. These unique settlements originated from the Mongolian word “hottog”, or water well, where ancient villagers dug a well and built their camp around it. During my recent visit to Beijing, we had the pleasure of taking a rickshaw tour with a welcoming guide through a historic Hutong of Beijing. Traveling through this community on an authentic bicycle and buggy was quite a memorable experience. As we traveled over the intersecting paths of these ancient courtyards, we embraced the culture and history of these close-knit quarters representing a simple way of life.
The history of this neighborhood started between the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in 1368 and the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. They were built on the lands of the nobility as feudal estates after various wars. In 1949, it was estimated that there were over 3,000 Hutongs in all of China. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, all property in Beijing was to be seized by the state, and one of the areas that was not given back to its residents to own, were the Hutongs. Presently, almost ninety-eight percent of those who currently live in this neighborhood have had family members who have passed their homes down to the present generation. Children are moving from the bustling city center, back to the Hutong, to trace family roots and local history back to where modern China was created. Today, the simple locals were warm and friendly to foreign tourists, always displaying their gracious nature welcoming visitors to their humble setting. Presently, homes in the Hutong are costly and quite difficult to purchase, due to their prestige in history. As we exited our buggies after our tour, we learned that decorations on one’s front stoop represented what kind of person lived behind the tall red front doors. As our guide explained, the simple design and door embellishments revealed that you worked for the government, while ornate pedestals on your front stoop showed that you were an imperial advisor.
The culmination of this incredible adventure in the Hutong was the special opportunity to visit a home in this historic neighborhood. During our gracious visit, we had the experience of seeing a 300 year old jade-embellished sofa and listened to a family member play a traditional Chinese melody on the guzheng, a modernized version of a Chinese string instrument developed over 2500 years ago. We watched and listened with amazement and wonder as the woman’s handed glided over the strings and produced the most delightful sound. The beautiful song, entitled Mo Li Hua(茉莉花), or Jasmine Flower, mesmerized our group and transported us to a life of Ancient China surrounded with simple pleasures, family gatherings and pure harmony. Please enjoy a small sample below of that magical moment.
Some of the information in this article came from the following sources:
“Beijing Hutongs.” China Highlights, www.chinahighlights.com/beijing/hutong/. Accessed 6 Dec. 2017.
“History of Hutong.” Travel China Guide, www.travelchinaguide.com/cityguides/beijing/hutong/history.htm.