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Beijing's Hutongs

The question most frequently by tourists to Beijing is: "Where are the hutongs ?" Beijing's hutongs were built in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and at one time numbered in excess of 6,000. The earliest ones were built in the areas between Chaoyang and Dongcheng districts, and were quite orderly laid-out. The hutongs that run from south to north are comparatively wider than the east-west ones, which can be very narrow. On either side of a hutong are the siheyuan - traditional residential compounds with rooms or living quarters around a courtyard or quadrangle.

Taking Qianmen as a reference point, the hutongs north of it are wide and built in an orderly way. Those to the south are narrow and disorderly laid-out. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the government kept migrants outside the city center limits for safety reasons. They set up camp in the Qianmen and Chongwenmen areas, which led to the commercial development of these two areas. Many of the migrants were candidates for the imperial examinations. The presence of so many academics led to the formation of what we know today as Liulichang Cultural Street. Public entertainment venues and theaters sprouted in the Tianqiao and Shichahai areas.

It can be tiring walking the many hutongs in Beijing. Not only are the hutongs quite widely spread out across the city these days, but some of the lanes can be extremely narrow, the narrowest measuring only 80 cm . You would have to walk sideways to get through! The average length of a hutong is between 30 and 40 meters.