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Hutong Hutong

How many hutongs are there in Beijing? Old local residents have a saying: "There are 360 large hutongs and as many small hutongs as there are hairs on an ox." According to linguistic experts, "hutong" originally meant "well" in the Mongolian, Uygur and Manchu languages. Due most likely to the absorption of these peoples into the Chinese nation, the word became incorporated into the Han vocabulary.

Walking along the sinuous Hutong, you seem to be wandering in the long history of the old Beijing. In the Tang Dynasty, the city was divided into 28 walled residential districts guarded by sentries. A curfew was enforced at night. It was renamed Xijunfu in the Liao Dynasty and the city was divided into 26 residential districts. In the Jin Dynasty it became Zhongdu (the Central Capital) and was divided again into 60 residential areas. Under the Yuan, the city was renamed Dadu (Great Capital) and divided into 50 districts, including Jintaifang and Wendefang.

The 33 neighborhoods mentioned above were established under the Ming emperors Hongwu (reigned 1368-1398) and Jianwen (reigned 1399-1402). The figure increased to 40 after the time of Emperor Yongle (reigned1403-1424).

The Qing rulers divided the capital into five districts, reducing the number of residential districts to 10. During the last years of Dynasty, the old residential district system was abolished and Beijing divided into 10 outer districts and 12 inner districts. The city is now divided into four districts -- East City, West City, Chongwen and Xuanwu -- each of these comprised of numerous sub districts.

Hutong Hutong

At present, there are about 4,550 hutongs, the broadest over four meters wide and the smallest -- the eastern part of Dongfu" an Hutong, a mere 70 cm across -- just wide enough for a single person to traverse. Although the city has changed a great deal over the last 500 years, the hutongs remain much the same as during Ming and Qing times.

Beijing"s best known hutongs are of three types: centers of government offices, residential areas for nobles and officials, and old markets. Lumicang (Salary Rice Granary) Hutongs, in the neighborhood of today" s Nanxiao Street, is the site of the former nine imperial granaries of the late Ming and early Qing. Each year, large amounts of grain were brought in from Zhejing Province to the capital and stored in Lumicang District. Hutongs in the area took on the names of the various granaries, names that have stuck to this day. Then there"s Xishiku (Western General Warehouse) Alley off Xi"anmennei Street, once called Houku Dajie (Back Warehouse Street) for its 10 warehouses serving the imperial palaces and gardens.

Dongchang (Eastern Prosperity) Hutong, originally called Dongchang (eastern Yard) Hutong, located south of the National Art Galley, was named in the Yongle period for the offices of the newly created eunuch administration. The Dongchang had a reputation for terrorizing innocent people. It was here that the eunuchs Liu Jin and Wei Zhongxian had numerous people, including members of the imperial family, high officials and nobles, put to death.

How to go there:
Two Areas for Hutong Exploring:
Shichahai Area: north of Beihai Park
Dazhalan Area: south of Tiananmen Square
Rickshaw: RMB 50-100

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