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Beijing Hutongs - Beijing Hutongs Travel Guide

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The layout of Beijing as we know it today, had its roots during the Yuan Dynasty when the enlightened ruler Kublei Khan (grandson of Chinghis Khan who conquered all of Asia, central Asia and eastern Europe) determined that Beijing which rested on the foothills of the Mongolian-Manchurian steppes and the vast agricultural plains of the Han Chinese, would be the most propitious location from which to rule his own kingdom-- China.

In the year 1267 after the Mongol invaders burned the former capital of the brief Jin Dynasty (which proceeded the Yuan) in present Beijing, they began to construct their own capital. After one year the palace was erected. A year later the imperial city was completed. Altogether nine years were required to construct the capital of Dadu which was pretty much finished in the year 1276.

Kublei Khan who quickly grasped and was absorbed by Chinese culture, sought out the finest architects in the land, and set them to work designing his dream capital. The basic layout of Dadu or "Great Capital" as the city was named by the Great Khan himself, worked its way out from the central imperial palace through a network of streets which were horizontal and vertical, runing east and west. The old imperial palace was not exactly where the Forbidden City is today, but actually had its central point at jingshan or Coal Mountain, the man-made hill behind the Forbidden City. The site of current Beihai Park however, was an integral part of Kublei Khan's palace gardens and it is said that when Marco Polo visited and stayed with the Great Khan that he lived for some time within the grounds of what is today Beihai Park.

The cultural flow between Han Chinese and Mongolian rulers was two-way. A number of terms in the Chinese language which are accepted in daily usage today, actually evolved as Chinese transliterations of Mongolian phrases. As the Chinese architects who laid out the plans for the capital were designing the city for Mongolian rulers, it is not surprising that a number of Mongolian words became a common part of Beijing dialect.

For instance, the three lakes: Nanhai (South Sea), Zhonghai (Central Sea) and Beihai (North Sea), which form the location of the central government headquarters Zhongnanhai and the nearby Beihai Park have their name origin in the Mongolian language. For the Mongolians coming off of the hot dusty steppes and deserts of Mongolia, lakes were a symbol of absolute luxury. The three big lakes were therefore immediately incorporated into the palace garden grounds, and their names changed to "sea" reflecting the awe and admiration which the new rulers had for these paradises of cool flat water.

Likewise, the word hutong comes from the Mongolian language. In fact the term hutong had its origin in the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongolian people, which travel in tribal groups moving from one pasture land and water base to another. In the Mongolian language, the term hutong came to refer to a group of families living together which collectively were larger than a village. However, even this reference to communal living had a deeper origin. The actual word hutong in the Mongolian language refers specifically to a water well. Of course, the village came to exist as a collective unit in the dry grasslands as a result of there being a central water well. In the days of Kublei Khan, so did many hutongs.

Sure enough when the Chinese architects were designing the layout of Beijing, they adopted the Mongolian term applying it to residential areas, particularly in reference to the layout of streets connecting homes and communities. Soon the hutong term came to be an integral part of Beijing dialect, referring to any lane connecting the residential areas with the main commercial streets.

In fact, the word hutong as applied to street names since the time of the Yuan right through the Ming and Qing dynasties, was never written in Chinese characters at all, as it was entirely a Mongolian term. In old Beijing, verbal culture was important, and the names Of these narrow alleys and lanes were communicated verbally and rarely through writing. In other words, the Beijing of the Ming and Qing had no street signs! Only in 1934 when the western habit of placing placards to mark streets was adopted, were the Chinese characters hu and tong applied to represent the sound hutong in Mongolian.

During the Yuan Dynasty, hutongs as an architecture feature of Beijing city planning actually had very strict requirements. The ancient texts record that a hutong must be equivalent in width to six paces, while small streets were designated as being "twelve paces" in width and large avenues "twenty four paces" in width. One "pace" in those days also had a specific measurement being equivalent to 1.54 meters.

During the Yuan Dynasty, these planning rules were applied strictly in the layout of Dadu which was the name of the capital. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties however, these strict city planning measurements applying to streets and hutongs fell into disuse. The hutongs began to vary in width giving rise to the quaint disorderliness which characterizes them today.

There is an old Beijing saying that "There are 360 famous hutongs in the city, but as for nameless hutongs, they are as many as the hairs on a cow."

It is impossible to guide readers to the infinite "nameless" hutongs, and many of the 360 famous hutongs have already been burried by developers; Nevertheless, in surveying what remains of the old city, we have sought to provide a thumbnail reference to 100 historically famous hutongs where famous personalities have lived or historical events took place.

Corresponding maps and number refererences for each hutong, should help those wandering off of the beaten track in Beijing. This may"serve as a concise guide to the ancient city and what is left of an ancient way of life. Bicycle is recommended as the best way to explore the hutongs. Spring and fall are the best seasons.

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