A hutong is a unique form of community that exists only in China. If you are fed up with high buildings and wide streets, enter Beijing's hutongs then.
"Hutong" literally means a small street or a lane between two courtyards, although the word can also mean a community within the city consisting of hutongs and residences. Shanghai local people call it a "Nong".
Beijing has more than 4,550 Hutong. Most of them were built in the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (1271-1911). Those surrounding the Forbidden City and taking Prince Gong's Residence as the center are the best-preserved.
Recording the Disappearing Old Beijing
As a new metropolis forms and the old life of Beijing disappears, a group of people, take up their cameras and rush ahead of the bulldozers, trying to save bits of the memories contained in the centuries-old lanes, or hutongs that crisscross the city center.....
The full text is available on page52-57of
The buildings in Beijing hutongs are mainly compounds with houses around a courtyard, also known as quadrangles. Narrow passages between these quadrangles linked one with the other are hutong.
Every hutong has a name. Some hutongs have had only one name since the hutong was formed, but some have had more than five names in the past.
People name each hutong by various means. Some got their names from places such as Inner Xizhimen Hutong; some from plants such as Liushu (Willow) Hutong; some from directions such as Xi (West) Hongmen Hutong; some from Beijing idioms such as Yizi (Beijing local people call soap as yizi) Hutong; some from good words such as Xiqing (Happy) Hutong; some from markets for business such as Yangshi (Sheep Market) Hutong; some from temples such as Guanyinsi (Kwan-yin Temple) Hutong, and some are even from the names of common people such as Mengduan Hutong.
There are many different types of hutongs. The most interesting to tour is in the Shichahai area, which is a scenic spot. It includes three lakes. They are Front Sea, Back Sea and West Sea. There are many historic scenes around this area. You can see Bell and Drum Towers, Prince Gong's Mansion and many hutongs. The oldest hutong in Beijing is called Sanmiao Street. It has been there for more than 900 years! The longest is Dongxi Jiaomin Lane. The total length of it is 6.5 kilometers. The shortest one had a name of Yichi Street because it was only a little more than ten meters long. Now, it belongs to Meizhuxie Street.