Walking home one afternoon, I saw a confused, older European couple wandering near Beixinqiao Beiertiao. The husband gently asked, “Excuse me, but where is the hutong?” I told them “you’re in it now, it’s this whole neighborhood.” Their look of confusion was priceless.
With the future of the 胡同 (hútòng) in flux, it’s a word on every Beijinger’s lips. But what exactly is the hutong? The word is actually derived from the Mongolian hudeg, or “water well.” Starting in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), back when Genghis Khan and his massive empire ruled over China, whole neighborhoods were designed around the hudeg, as they formed the primary source of water for each community.
Over time, the Chinese transliteration of hudeg, became hutong, and the word began referring to the alleyways between 四合院 (sìhéyuàn), or traditional Northern Chinese courtyard homes. These hutong were the arteries of Beijing, forming connections between the wide and moneyed lanes of areas around the Forbidden City, and the laborers outside of the first ring road.
In today’s common vernacular, the meaning has been further skewed, and now hutong means the entire neighborhood itself. Roads and lanes, siheyuan, historical rubble, family homes, small businesses, migrant worker dorms and 公共厕所 (gōnggòng cèsuǒ), or public toilets.
Like much of Beijing, the overwhelming majority of historical spaces in the hutong are gone. It’s also still unclear what this summer’s hutong “renovation” project will achieved. This project is a combination of four characters: 开墙打沟 (kāi qiáng dǎ dòng). Kaiqiang means to build a wall, and dadong means to create an opening. Both actions being very en vogue this season.
All is not lost. For the historical adventurer amongst us, poke around a bit around Gulou or Xisi and you can still see gorgeous 19th century landscape murals, and long forgotten rock gardens, now used to prop up mops and store cabbage. Maybe, just possibly, you’ll even stumble across the ruins of a hudeg, hidden near the chili plants and drying bitter melon in a granny’s courtyard garden.
– Hutong – 胡同
– “Build a wall, make an opening” campaign – Kāi qiáng dǎ dòng 开墙打洞
– Traditional northern Chinese house – sìhéyuàn 四合院
– Complicated maze-like yard – dàzáyuàn 大杂院
– Public toilets – gōnggòng cèsuǒ 公共厕所
– Weasel – huángshǔláng 黄鼠狼
– Hutong Convenience Store – xiǎomàibù 小卖部
– Demolish – Chāi 拆