Hutongs in Beijing
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The word hutong came from the Mongolian language about 700 years ago. The original Mongolian word was hottog, meaning 'water well'. Because people always gather where there is water then is it known as a place where people live. Today in Beijing, the word hutong means a small alleyway or lane. They are typical of the old part of Beijing and are formed by lines of siheyuan (a compound made up of rooms around a courtyard ) in which most Beijing residents used to live.

In old China, there were clear definitions of what was a street and what was a lane. A 36-metre-wide road was called a big street and an 18-metre-wide road was called a small street. A 9-metre-wide lane was called a hutong. Most of the hutongs in Beijing run east to west or north to south. This is because most siheyuan were built along such axes according to the rules of feng shui and to take in more sunshine and resist cold winds from the north. Of course, not all hutongs follow the straight and narrow. There are also slant hutongs, half hutongs and blind hutongs. Beijing's shortest hutong is just 10 metres long and the narrowest is only about 40 centimetres wide. Some hutongs have more than 20 turns. As such, they are often a maze through which it is fascinating to wander, as long as you're not afraid of getting lost.

How many hutongs are there in Beijing? Old local residents have a saying: "There are 360 large hutongs and as many small hutongs as there are hairs on an ox." Laid out in a chessboard pattern which was established as early as the Ming Dynasty, these hutongs crosscut the city into tiny squares. In those days the capital was divided into the eastern, western, northern, southern and central districts, with a total of 33 neighborhoods, divided again into hutongs.

At present, there are about 4,550 hutongs, the broadest over four meters wide and the smallest -- the eastern part of Dongfu' an Hutong, a mere 70 cm across -- just wide enough for a single person to traverse. Although the city has changed a great deal over the last 500 years, the hutongs remain much the same as during Ming and Qing times.

Beijing's hutongs are more than just architecture. They are the people who live there. They are a museum of Beijing's folk custom and they are a witness to the city's history.