Week 2: Hutong Life

Beijing’s Hutongs


Courtyard Houses


Hutongs are the networks of narrow streets that made up much of old Beijing’s sprawling urban space. Their name derives from the Mongolian word “hootog”, meaning “water well”, a place where people gather to liveFirst established in the Yuan dynasty (1206-1341) and then expanded in the Ming (1368-1628) and Qing (1644-1908) dynasties, they were for 800 years the dominant form of housing in the capital. Today, relatively few of them survive and those that do are largely preserved either for Beijing’s elite politicians, businessmen and media stars, or for tourists to explore on the backs of pedalled rickshaws.

The destruction of the hutongs is viewed as highly symbolic both of China’s desire to modernise (and be seen to be modern) and its apparent disregard for the desires of its own people.

However, the truth is far more complex – if there is a single truth at all.


The image above shows an upmarket courtyard house, of the type occupied by court officials or dignitaries. Those lived in by poorer residents were (are) far less grand, but the basic principle is the same, as can be seen below (the issue with illustrations is that they look a little too ideal, of course -the photo below gives a better impression of the reality).


Both these houses are “three sided”, meaning that there are buildings on only three sides. However some courtyards were four-sided and even larger ones had two courtyards as in the illustration below. No matter what size, courtyard houses always followed balanced proportions


Houses almost always face south to get the best sunlight and perhaps to protect against northerly winds. This practice goes back to prehistory in China and has become enshrined in the principles of fengshui (“wind and water”). You can see in the image above3 a sense of hierarchy in what would have been the home of someone wealthy or important. The Principal house was the residence of the head of the household. The eastern wing would have been for the eldest son (east being better than west). The “opposite house” was reserved for servants or a spinster daughter, divorcee, or widowed daughter-in-law who had not borne children. Chinese society, as you can see, was rather hierarchical.

Houses are built on foundations being made of highly compressed soil. This technique has been used for centuries in China, including for the building of huge imperial tombs such as the one at Xi’an which houses the famous Terracotta Army. The fact these buildings still exist, or have survived being buried for centuries, is a testament to the technique which requires a lot of manpower, but relies on nothing but soil and a little water.


Roofs tend to be made of clay but in rural areas thatch and bamboo were also common.
As the illustration above shows, there were no windows in the outer wall, and there was a double entrance.


If you walk up to the door of a courtyard house you usually see what looks like a wall in front of you (this can be seen in the photograph above on the thin outer wall at the top of the courtyard). This is a screen which provides privacy, but is also an extra guard against spirits who were believed not to be able to turn corners. The screen in the photo below is a particularly ornate and large one, viewed from inside the courtyard.


The courtyard is accessed by a gate which is painted red, symbolising luck or happiness.


Outside the gate there are usually stone or bronze animals such as lions which are designed to ward off bad spirits. These have an architectural function as well, acting as a bearing stone (the example above is shaped like a drum).

Life in Hutongs


According to China Daily:

In many people’s minds, Beijing is associated with the hutongs. They are an important part of the culture and way of life of Beijingers, especially the older generation. Walking through the hutongs, it is common to see groups of elderly citizens sitting together playing cards, mahjong or Chinese chess. In the early mornings and evenings, they gather to practice traditional forms of exercise such as taijiquan [tai chi] as well as to dance and sing folk songs or Peking Opera arias. Also important to hutong life is the traditional foods being sold in carts or small stalls. These change according to the season, from flavoured ice in the summer to long kebabs of crab apples covered in sugar in the autumn and winter.

You can read the impressions of a foreign visitor living in a hutong here. Their overwhelming impressions are of noise (which they like) – the noise of animals at night, and of people in the day cycling up and down the narrow alleys calling out their trades for hire.


The hutongs are seemingly contradictory. The courtyard houses offer privacy from others, but the alleyways ensure that life is lived outside, on the streets and in public. It would be difficult to be reclusive in a hutong, but easy to maintain your privacy.

One of the major features of hutongs is shared space for simple things like hanging washing, playing board games or simply chatting. One particular tradition is the keeping of birds. Many Chinese have songbirds in cages and take them outside daily, either to a park or in to the street


But it is easy to be overly romantic about life in hutongs. Many of them are (or were) run down and insanitary. To some extent this is deliberate: decisions to flatten many of them would have led to a reduction in maintenance and it could be assumed that doing so would also entice residents to move into newer accommodation. To a certain extent there is a chicken and egg aspect: the hutongs should be cleared because they are run down, but they are run down because they are going to be cleared.

See part one of Paul Merton in China and part six of Lost in China for more on life in hutongs.


However, as mentioned above, many courtyard houses are being renovated and gentrified – a similar process has happened in other cities around the world such as New York and London (where once run-down areas of the city are now exclusively for the rich and famous).

A feature in the Chinese magazine Better Homes and Gardens from 2007 shows the interior of two hutong houses. They were saved from demolition but because those nearby were not, the future of these houses is in question again.


This does not prevent dwellings like this being highly sought after. According to one Beijing-based blogger, a home near Houjai lake recently sold for a record $14.2 million

Clearances and Hutongs Today


Clearance of the hutongs accelerated after Beijing won the race to host the 2008 Olympic Games. It is difficult to know who or what to blame for their disappearance. On the one hand you could argue (as many critics do) that the Beijing authorities want the city to look like a modern capital, and that the hutongs represented the past.
You could argue that the hutongs were effectively slums and the Olympics offered a chance to erase them and regenerate – this is, after all, similar to the “Olympic Legacy” promised in the east end of London after the 2012 games.

There is no doubt that the hutong style of housing does not fit the needs of most Chinese people and viewed from that perspective it is hard to argue with the decision to replace them with something else. But for many the decision represents the worst of Communist China – a failure to consult the people, or to listen to objections, or to consider history and tradition. The speed with which houses were designated for demolition and their eventual destruction left no time for appeal or preparation (this is discussed from a Shanghainese perspective in Getting Rich First).

Some attempts were made to modernise courtyard houses in the Nanchizi area of Beijing (as seen above) but it was not continued6.

Whatever the true reasons, the fact remains that the vast majority of Beijing’s hutongs have disappeared in the last few years, wiping away not just hundreds of years of history, but many hundreds of communities. Modernisation has been forced on the people of Beijing whether they like it or not.


I searched for some hutongs during my visit to Beijing in 2009. The first ones I looked for were gone – so well flattened that I did not realise until after I had left that I had read the map correctly. The second set, off a newly refurbished street south of Tianmen Square, were undergoing some sort of construction – at one point the road disappeared and I was walking on wooden boards above a sheer drop in to a deep trench. I wasn’t sure if the streets were being destroyed or renovated. My suspicion is the latter, and that they would reemerge gentrified for shoppers and tourists.


On my final day in Beijing I walked towards a city lake and got slightly lost taking a shortcut. This took me through some hutongs which were deathly quiet – not at all like the descriptions. I suspect this is a sign of gentrification, with the residents being people out at work and with no children or elderly people around. Further down I ended up on a street with large modern houses which were apparently the residences of officials in the Communist Party. But nearby I discovered a beautifully restored courtyard house which once belonged to Mei Lanfang, a star of Beijing opera and had been turned in to a museum7. A film or documentary about him was being filmed while I was there.

Once I left I headed into more narrow streets and the stone lions outside gates told me I was in a hutong, but again it was far too quiet. This too, it seems, had been turned into private rather than communal residences. At the end of the lane I reached the lake and was bombarded with offers by drivers of rickshaws offering tours of the nearby hutongs. It didn’t appeal, partly because it looked vaguely patronising to be taken round to look at the way people live in such a way, and partly because I’d just walked through them.


Around the lake were examples of large courtyard houses which had once housed very high-up officials in the Imperial court and had more recently been the place where former party officials had lived or, in one case, been under long-term house arrest. Behind these and before the imposing but traffic-surrounded Drum Tower, some hutongs had been converted in to a trendy shopping and bar district which looked more like Brighton’s Lanes than Beijing.

Life After Hutongs


One of the benefits of hutong living was the sense of community (although it’s likely this is over romanticised to some extent) and for those courtyard houses that were homes to one family, the benefit was multi-generational support and familial bonds.

However, it is debatable if younger generations were that keen on being so close to their families. As we will see later in the module there is a huge difference in the aspirations of modern youth compared with their parents or grandparents. The need for more privacy and self-determination, and the development of wider networks of friends as the major form of social support mean that the life represented by hutongs lost some of its attraction.


But for older generations, the alternatives to hutongs are not that appealing. While in comparison the new state-provided and growing supply of private housing is much more modern and comfortable, they threaten social isolation from neighbours and family. This is even more true if neighbourhoods are split up and moved to areas some distance away from the heart of the city (something discussed in Getting Rich First). The photograph above shows a typical apartment complex8. Below you see how these complexes stretch for some distance9.



Is Beijing right to get rid of the hutongs, or is it symptomatic of an authoritarian culture?

The case against is easy to find, and easy to make. So let’s play devil’s advocate for a while. In defence of the clearances, it is easy to see parallels between what happened in Beijing and the slum clearances that took place in Britain in the early-mid 20th century. In Dundee in 1931

The Scottish Office in London announces that following upon their circular to local authorities regarding slum clearances, there has been considerable activity during the last month. Dundee is completing a programme of 536 houses for 1932-33. At present the housing department is busy with plans for a scheme for 500 more slum clearance houses. Dundee has demolished about 500 houses in the last three years. On the sites of some of these houses the town council have already finished new blocks, the remainder being left as open spaces. There are 34 slum clearances areas of properties in the city which are being dealt with and it is hoped soon to have a further batch scheduled.

Dundee, like many industrial cities in Britain, had grown rapidly and without much urban planning, leading to the development of cramped and unhealthy living spaces. While there is a certain nostalgia when looking at photographs of the period, or for the lost London of the novels of Dickens, there are not many people who would wish to return to those times, or to live in such places themselves.

Consider then if you would be happy for some people in Dundee to live in such conditions purely so that tourists could wander round and look at them? This, to some extent, is the argument being put forward by opponents of the hutong clearances – it is the tourists who bemoan their losses more than the residents who quite frankly would love to see the back of them in favour of central heating and running water.

Hutongs as they existed hold little attraction for younger people, but for those who have spent their entire lives there, the rapid pace of change is undeniably traumatising. So could the pace of development slow down? And could information about it be more publicly available? Part of the emotional aspect of the story is the uncertainty about what would be pulled down and when, and the lack of warning. But what was the alternative? Letting the districts slowly run down as people moved out or died? It’s easy to criticise, but this is not much different to how we did it in Britain, moving entire communities from back to back housing into shiny new concrete towers almost overnight. In more recent times, as we’ve realised those towers are awful places to live, we’ve let them run down, encouraging people to move out over time and abandoning those who stay to life on ghost estates, wracked by vandalism and crime. In comparison, it’s possible to argue that the efficiency of the Chinese model, ruthless though it is, is quick.

Housing doesn’t exist for tourists. And cities don’t exist for tourists either. Mao’s vision for Beijing was ideological – he wanted it to look like a modern city modelled on Soviet Russian architecture and erase the imperial past. Modern government in Beijing needs the city to be able to function as a capital for the world’s largest country, and fastest growing economy.

Can this be done if much of the centre is dominated by empty but tourist-friendly residences? Hardly.

Over to you

The discussion above is deliberately one-sided but that does not mean it is not valid. What are your own thoughts on this? You can think of it from the point of view of China or, if you prefer, consider Dundee or another location. You will find there are many parallels between Dundee and China: immense factories, issues related to working conditions, efforts to reform practices, poor housing and, eventually (in the case of Dundee) decline of the local industries.

Further reading and viewing


Knapp (2005) Chinese Houses: The Architectural Heritage of a Nation Tuttle – a well illustrated volume

City of Heavenly Tranquility and Getting Rich First both contain several chapters that discuss the impact of rapid urban development. The first book also covers the Chinese attitude towards the country’s heritage.

If you are particularly interested in this subject, the book The Last Days of Old Beijing by Michael Meyer presents a compelling portrait of the city and its people during the destruction of the hutongs.

The building of the hutongs is covered in the series Beijing: Biography of an Imperial Capital and the third programme concludes with a short discussion of modern Beijing’s rise.

Part 1 of Paul Merton in China sees a visit to a hutong which is nearing its last days, and part 6 of Lost in China visits one and witnesses demolition up close.

The short film All About My Friends from the documentary series Shanghai Tales explores the different attitudes towards property between generations and highlights the point above that for many young people, hutong living would be unacceptable.

There are many websites with images and descriptions of hutongs, including this project which aims to give a new lease of life to hutongs by providing modern facilities without wrecking the original structure.

You can find a list of hutongs worth visiting here, while a brief article from China Daily gives another overview of the hutongs’ role in Beijing life.

This tourist guide gives a good overview of hutongs, but from a tourism perspective.

There are some good images and explanations at the Cultural China web site.

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