Beijing Hutong - Culture and Lifestyle of Beijing
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"Hutong" is formally a Mongolian term that means small lanes. A folklore expert once says that the culture of the old Beijing is actually the culture of lanes because there are more than 7,000 lanes in Beijing. Each Hutong has its historical anecdotes and symbolizes the history of lifestyle of Beijingnese. Now, we will talk about a large variety of lanes in Beijing and see if we can all appreciate the charming culture of small lanes.
In the past, the city of Beijing was composed of many large and small sized Siheyuans (a combination of houses around a courtyard) face to face, back to back, side by side. Each line of a Siheyuan should leave a vacant path therefore people can go in and out easily, and the path is called Hutong (lane).
The lanes appeared early in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368AD). Many lanes got the names early in the Yuan Dynasty, which are used till now. In the past, the planning of houses in the capital was very strict, and it was the rule to build courtyards in straight lines. Due to this reason, there is slang in Beijing:
"Like carrying the bamboo poles in lanes, do it in a straight way".
Lanes spread through out the City of Beijing. The names of lanes are like an encyclopedia, which not only reflect the historical development of the city, but also represent the social customs. People today can feel the wisdom and creativity of ancient people from the way they named those lanes. Some lanes was named after famous figures, such as Prime-Minister Lane.
Some lanes were named after markets or goods, such as Goldfish Lane. Some given the name after the local dialect, for example, Enigma Pot Lane. Some lanes which had the coarse names now changes to more elegant ones, for example, Donkey Market Lane, now it changes into Protocol Lane.
Hutong in Beijing have various styles and different sizes. The narrowest Hutong is Cash Exchange Market Lane, whose narrowest part is only 40 centimeters wide. It is difficult for a man with large belly to go through this narrow lane. The most twisting and deepest, zigzag lane is in the area around Beixin Bridge. It has more than 20 turns. Nowadays, this long twisting lane was divide into five lanes. At Qian Men Gate, there is a zigzag lane where you will find 13 windings.
The lanes have gone through the changes for hundreds of years and symbolized the lifestyle of the older Beijingnese. Today lanes still occupy most of the areas of downtown and accommodate one-third of the population of Beijing. Most residents in the city still maintain the tradition lifestyle. You can climb to the Drum Tower and overlook the old downtown and lanes of all directions. You can then go to the Houhai District, where you can pay a visit to the South and North Guangfang Lane, the large and small Gold Lion Lane, and the Back and Forth Well Lane.
You can also go into one of the courtyard, and have a chat with the residents to learn more about their life. Going down Liuying Street, you will reach Prince Gongqin's Mansion, known as "The Northern Grandview Garden" compared to the one in the ancient novel "The Red Chamber Dream". You can also visit the Imperial Garden if you have time.
Lanes and modern skyscrapers combined together form two different styles in Beijing. The outside world changes rapidly everyday while the worlds in the lanes still keeps the traditional living styles and its own pace. After coming back from the Hutong tour, many tourists commented it as a "past beauty".