Hutong’s in Central Beijing

Urban planning in China originated during the urbanization of the Wangfujing-Beijing City_2-2015-12Yellow River valley near the end of the Neolithic Age (4,800-3,750 BC). The process in China, as elsewhere in the world, is similar to the process of centralizing power in a political state. During the Neolithic, several cultures formed competing states and the direct ancestor of the Chinese state was Longshan culture.

The Longshan culture, also sometimes referred to as the Black Pottery Culture, was a late Neolithic culture in the middle and lower Yellow River valley areas of northern China from about 3000 to 1900 BC. The first archaeological find of this culture took place at the Chengziya archaeological site in 1928. The culture is named after the nearby modern town of Longshan (“Dragon Mountain”) in Zhangqiu, Shandong. The culture was noted for its highly polished black pottery (or egg-shell pottery). The population expanded dramatically during the 3rd millennium BC. Although, it decreased in most areas around 2000 BC until the central area of China evolved into the Erlitou culture of the Bronze Age.

The earliest Chinese urban planning was a synthesis of Longshan traditional cosmology, geomancy, astrology, and numerology. This synthesis generated a diagram of the cosmos, which placed man, state, nature, and heaven in harmony. A city was planned in the context of this cosmic diagram to maintain harmony and balance.

China Travel 2015We visited China in 2015. It was the last international location we wanted to drop in on, but today, it is the first place we would like to visit again. Apart from the cultural differences and the pollution, we enjoyed our time in China.

We met our daughter in Beijing, which was our home base, and although life is very Forbidden City_2-2015-47different in the PRC, we found the people to have lives very similar to ours. Young people get together, raise a family (supposed to be only one child) and work to provide for their loved ones. The rules are different, but day to day life is much like ours.

We took daily excursions in and around Beijing. We toured historical sites: the
Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and Tiananmen Square. We visited the Great Wall at Mutianyu and the tomb of emperor Qin. We were in awe of the terra cotta soldiers and we spent a night in the ancient walled city of X’ian.Great Wall-Mutianyu_2-2015-8

There were unexpected adventures during our visit, and one of the more interesting was a visit to the Wangfujing hutong in central Beijing.

Hutong is a Mongolian word meaning water well. In the Yuan Dynasty, Mongolians attached great importance to water. The modern meaning of the word hutong now means a lane or an alley, formed by rows of siheyuan (a compound
with buildings around a courtyard) where old Beijing residents lived. The word “hutong” originates from the word “hottog” which means “a well” in Mongolian. It relates to ancient times when villagers dug a well and then lived around it.Xi'an Clay Soldiers_2-2015-10

In the Ming Dynasty (early 15th century), the center of Beijing was the Forbidden City, which was the location of the imperial palace. This central location was surrounded in concentric circles by the Inner City and Outer City. Citizens of higher social status were permitted to live closer to the center of the circles. Aristocrats lived to the east and west of the imperial palace. The large siheyuan of these high-ranking officials and wealthy Wangfujing-Beijing City_2-2015-7merchants often featured beautifully carved and painted roof beams and pillars and carefully landscaped gardens. The hutongs they formed were orderly, lined by spacious homes and walled gardens. Farther from the palace, and to its north and south, were the commoners, merchants, artisans, and laborers. Their siheyuan were far smaller in scale and simpler in design and decoration, and the hutongs were narrower.

Historically, a hutong was also once used as the lowest level of administrative geographical divisions within a city in ancient China, as in the paifang (牌坊) system. The largest division within a paidang of a city in ancient China was a fang (坊), equivalent to current day precinct. Each fang (坊) was enclosed by walls or fences, and the gates of Wangfujing-Beijing City_2-2015these enclosures were shut and guarded every night, somewhat like a modern gated community. Each fang (坊) was further divided into several plate or pai (牌), which is equivalent to a current day (unincorporated) community (or neighborhood). Each pai (牌), in turn, contained an area including several hutongs, and during the Ming Dynasty, Beijing was divided into a total of 36 fangs (坊).

Today a hutong is a gathering place and a residentialdistrict. At nine meters (about 30 feet) wide, it is the name given to a lane or small street that originated during the Yuan Dynasty


(1271–1368). Hutongs are now representatives of local culture.Wangfujing-Beijing City_2-2015-4

Since the mid-20th century, the number of Beijing hutongs has dropped dramatically as they are demolished to make way for new roads and buildings. Although, more recently, some hutongs have been designated as protected areas in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history.

Our trip to Wangfujing was like ending our day with a tripto a street fair. Items for purchase consisted mostly of souvenir’s and trinkets.


Wangfujing-Beijing City_2-2015-2Although, some of the items for sale were very unusual. We expected most of the unusual items on display and it was a welcome glimpse into the daily life and culture of the people who live in Beijing.

Wangfujing-Beijing City_2-2015-2-2







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Beijing Hutongs

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