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.