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Hutongs are are an ancient but slowly disappearing feature of Beijing. A Hutong generally refers to a fairly narrow alley lined by Siheyuan (quadrangle or courtyard houses), which is then linked by other alleys to form a small neighborhood.In 1276, the last of remnants the Song Dynasty were finally destroyed by the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan. Kublai Khan set up the Yuan Dynasty (officially 1271-1368) and made his capital in Beijing. The word “Hutong” is said to originate from the Mongol word “huto”, meaning water well, around which many early Hutongs grew. The name was gradually adopted by all residents of Beijing to mean a small street or alley.

The houses lining Hutongs are called Siheyuan (quadrangle or courtyard). In Beijing these are generally rectangular compounds, with buildings on all four sides. Almost every Siheyuan is surrounded by high walls, with these walls creating a straight passage. The size and level of decoration of Siheyuan in Beijing reflected the social status of the residents, with those of high officials and merchants often large with elaborate decoration, while those of the poor were often crowded and with only basic decoration.

Thousands of Hutongs were built around the Forbidden City, with the majority built during the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. The Hutongs in which high officials resided were closest to the imperial palace and ran in ordered rows from north to south. Lower level businessmen and ordinary residents lived in crude Hutongs far to the north and south of the Forbidden City.

Following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the Siheyuan was influenced by foreign design, with numerous new Hutongs varying in size and shape being formed. During the Republican Period,with residential space limited, the buildings comprising Siheyuan often became home to several families. Since the mid-20th century, the number of Hutongs declined dramatically, with many being cleared to make way for skyscrapers and wide roads, with many Beijing residents forsaking the crowded and poorly-serviced Hutongs for modern apartments, with better amenities and more space.

Despite the destruction of many Hutongs, they still make up around a third of the urban area of Beijing, with around half of Beijing’s residents still living in these traditional alleys. During recent years, many Hutongs have been designated protected areas so as to preserve a unique and special part of Beijing’s heritage. The best preserved ancient Hutongs are in the area to the north of the Forbidden City, around the Drum and Bell Towers.

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