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A Traditional Chinese Residence: Hutong

Hutongs (pinyin: hútòng) are a type of narrow streets or alleys, most commonly associated with Beijing, China. In Beijing, hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences. Many neighbourhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. The word hutong is also used to refer to such neighbourhoods.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. More recently, some hutongs have been designated as protected areas in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history.Historical hutongsThe term “hutong”, originally meaning “water wells”, appeared first during the Yuan Dynasty, and it is believed to be a term of Mongol language origin.In the Ming Dynasty (early 15th century), the large siheyuan of the high-ranking officials and wealthy merchants 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. While the Siheyuan of the commoners, merchants, artisans, and laborers who were considered as the lower class of the society were far smaller in scale and simpler in design and decoration, and the hutongs were narrower.Hutongs in the modern eraAt the turn of the 20th century, the Qing court was disintegrating as China’s dynastic era came to an end. The traditional arrangement of hutongs was also affected.

Many new hutongs, built haphazardly and with no apparent plan, began to appear on the outskirts of the old city, while the old ones lost their former neat appearance. The social stratification of the residents also began to evaporate, reflecting the collapse of the feudal system.During the period of the Republic of China from 1911 to 1948, society was turbulent, fraught with civil wars and repeated foreign invasions, the conditions of the hutongs became worse. Siheyuans previously owned and occupied by single families were subdivided and shared by many households, with additions tacked on as needed, built with whatever materials were available. The 978 hutongs listed in Qing Dynasty records swelled to 1,330 by 1949. Today, in some hutongs, the conditions remain poor. But the Hutongs still attracts many tourists both at home and abroad every year.

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