The word“hutong” originally came from Mongolian language which means "water wells". Actually, hutongs are narrow alleys or lanes in Beijing which connect the traditional Chinese residential houses-Shiheyuan (compounds with houses around a courtyard). The typical hutongs are closely around the Forbidden City, mostly built during the Yuan (1206-1341), Ming (1368-1628) and Qing (1644-1908) Dynasties. Only the high-ranking officials and wealthy businessmen could afford the huge cost of the courtyards in the hutongs, many of the hutongs we see today still featuring its exquisite design. Hutongs are residential neighborhoods that formed the city center of old Beijing, and thus represent important cultural elements of Beijing as an ancient capital.
Records saying, there used to be 900 hutongs in the city center and 300 in the outskirts in the Ming Dynasty. They were developed into 1,800 in the Qing Dynasty and a further 1,000 were formed in the early 20th century. When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, statistics showed there were 2550 hutongs. There has been both some demolition and rebuilding following China's urbanization process, and now about 4,000 hutongs remain in Beijing.
Hutongs vary a great deal. The longest is Dongjiaominxiang, about 3 miles (4.8 km) and the shortest, Yichidaxie, is only 25.2 meters long. The widest, Lingjing, is 32.18 meters whilst the narrowest, Xiaolabakou, (small pipe socket) is only 0.6 meter wide. Interestingly, Jiuwan (9-Corner) Hutong has the most corners, but actually, there are far more than 9 corners.
The main buildings in the hutongs were almost all quadrangles, a building compound formed by four houses on four sides around a quadrangular courtyard. The quadrangles varied in size and design according to the social status of the residents.
Every hutong has a name. The naming of hutongs can also reflect local customs. A hutong can be named according to symbols (e.g. Stone Tiger Hutong), names of places (e.g. Yindian Bridge Hutong), and names of trees (e.g. Willow Tree Hutong), directions and names of the residents, and so on.
Despite their long history, many of the hutongs were destroyed due to war and development. More recently, some hutongs have been replaced by modern highways and buildings. Fortunately, there are still many historical hutongs remained, they are like some cultural windows to introduce Beijing to foreign tourists. Travelling to the hutongs, you can experience the old part of Beijng in this fast developing morden city.