Beijing Hutong

Beijing HutongThe word “hutong”, which is what the small back streets or lanes of Beijing are called, is an unusual term used only in Beijing and a few northern cities in China. In fact, it was originally a Han language term, but came from Mongolian roots. In the northern grass-lands communities tended to form around wells, so “hot”, or “well” in Mongolian, came also to mean a town, and a Hudu or Hudun, variants of it, a camp or village. Later it was applied to a small street. The sound gradually changed to hutong.

Small streets in Beijing began to be called hutong after the Nuzhen people from the northeast, who founded the Jin Dynasty, captured the city in 1127 and made it their capital. (Their language has similarities to Mongolian.) The custom became more widespread when the city was the capital of the Yuan Dynasty after the Mongol conquest.

Beijing’s history is preserved in the names of its hutong. Some retain the names of some famous persons who once lived there, such as Yongkang Hou Hutong for Prince Yongkang and Wu Liang Daren for his Excellency Wu Liang. Others are named for well-known craftsmen or shops, such as Doufu Chen Hutong for a bean curd seller named Chen, and Fen fang Liu Jia for the home of a maker of bean vermicelli Liu. There are also lanes with names like Jinyu (Goldfish), Dengcao (Lighting Rush), and Shoupa (Handkerchief).

Generally speaking, when one of the winding hutong makes a major turn, it takes on a new name. There are at present some 6,000hutong in Beijing. In the wider ones two buses can pass. The narrowest spot is the southern end of Gaoxiao Hutong, through which only one person can walk at a time. The longest, Rongxian (Embroidery Floss) Hutong, is two kilometres long. The shortest is Yichi Dajie (One-foot Street), which is actually twenty metres long.

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