Chinese history

The Hutongs and Quadrangles of Beijing

Chinese history

Dr. Keith Ray looks at traditional Chinese housing. This article is reprinted from China in Focus magazine (2001).

What does the future hold for them?

Anyone who has travelled round the hutong areas in Beijing will find it hard not to be fascinated by this antique piece of architecture and social engineering. The hutongs, and their associated courtyard houses (or siheyuan, meaning four sided courtyard or quadrangle) are still an essential part of the unique character of Beijing. But for how much longer will they be there? This article outlines the history and character of the hutongs and their houses, and the threats to their continued survival.

© Sally & Richard Greenhill Photo Library

History of the Hutongs

The hutongs are the ancient alleyways or lanes formed between lines of courtyard houses. Up until around 60 years ago most of the residential areas of Beijing were composed of hutongs and quadrangles. The word 'hutong' is Mongolian in origin, meaning a 'water well'. According to historical records, about 3,000 years ago, there was a small city where Beijing now stands. But it was not until the Jin Dynasty in the 12th century that Beijing (or Dadu as it was then called) first became the capital city. At that time there were no hutongs, just streets and roads. In the early 13th century the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, occupied Beijing, then the capital of the Jin Dynasty. In 1260 Kubla Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, set up the Yuan Dynasty, and Kubla Khan decided that Beijing would be his capital. During the takeover by the Mongols the old city had been largely destroyed, and so had to be rebuilt.

Liu Bingzhong, a highly accomplished scholar of the period, was made the architect-in-chief of the new city. He used architectural principles from the book Kao Gong Ji, which was written at least 2000 years ago during the Zhou Dynasty (1100-770 BC). In this book the unknown author stated that "in designing a capital city, the architect should lay it out nine by nine 'li' (about 4.5 kilometres) with nine streets and avenues, and three gates each side. The ancestral temple and an altar should be to the left of the palace, with office buildings in front and a market place behind". Old Beijing was laid out exactly to this plan, and is still the best preserved amongst the ancient capitals. Despite recent developments the inner city of Beijing still reflects this ancient concept of the capital plan. You can still see it on modem maps of the metropolis. Surrounding the Imperial Palace, hutongs were built throughout the Yuan (1206-1341), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties. Most of the hutongs we see today were formed during the Ming and Qinq, although a few still survive from the Yuan Dynasty.

The New City

At the time of construction of the new city there were clear definitions of streets, lanes and hutongs. A 36 metre wide road was called a 'big street'. An 18 metre wide one a 'small street', and a 9 metre wide lane was called a 'hutong'.


Originally, when the new city was built, there were about 390 passages formed by the rows of courtyard houses, some of them 'streets' and some 'hutongs'. Over the centuries the number grew, and by 1940 the total reached 3200. Now the total of passages is around 6100, of which some 1316 are still referred to as 'hutongs', although the original strict definition of what constitutes a hutong has relaxed. They vary enormously in character. Some are ancient some are modern; one at least, san-miao-jie hutong, is around 800 years old. Some hutongs are neat and straight, some are constantly turning corners. Some are very wide (the widest is Ling Jing Hutong at 32m), some are very narrow (Xiao La Ba hutong narrows to just 40cm at its northern end). Some are long (at 3km Dong Xi Jiao Min Xiang is the longest and one of the most attractive hutongs), and some are short (Yi Chi Da Jie at 25m is the shortest). But generally speaking they are not well suited to modem traffic, as anyone who has had to constantly dodge taxis to walk down one of the narrower ones will recall.

© Sally & Richard Greenhill Photo Library

Courtyard Houses

What gives the hutongs their unique character are the courtyard houses, hiding behind their long attractive curtain walls, with just the doorways giving a clue as to what lies behind. The main buildings in the hutongs were almost always quadrangles. The courtyard house is one of the most interesting features of traditional Chinese architecture. As we know it today, it originates from the early Han dynasty (200 BC-300 AD) and has a history as long as the city itself, having slowly developed over nearly 2000 years. They varied in size according to the social status of the household. The big quadrangles closer to the Imperial Palace, and mainly to the east and west, housed courtiers and aristocrats and could be up to one or two hectares in area, with many separate courts and numerous buildings. Further out, mainly to the far north and far south of the palace, the merchants and ordinary people lived in simpler surroundings, often just one courtyard with four rooms. The diagrams show the typical plan of a medium sized and a large house.

In the large quadrangle the courtyard concept has become quite a significant garden. Of course these houses are not confined to Beijing. In some cities, most notably in Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, the idea of the courtyard house is taken to extremes, with the same basic idea of curtain walls and separate but joined rooms, with the courtyard becoming gardens of several acres, and of outstanding beauty.

The quadrangles in Beijing generally face south for better lighting, and so a lot of hutongs run east to west. Between the big hutongs many smaller ones run north south for convenient passage. Some houses are deep with several courtyards separated by single storey buildings. Some are just a single courtyard, with four rooms facing each other across a court of maybe 6 metres square. 'The nature of the curtain wall sometimes makes it difficult to judge the scale of what lies behind, but the status of the occupants, and the size of the house, can be assessed from the type of doorway. The height of the gates, the quality of their decoration, the pair of lions standing guard and the number of bolts on the doors all give clues.

Courtyard Design

In feudal times the courtyard dwellings were built according to the traditional concepts of the five elements that were believed to compose the universe, and the eight trigrams of divination. The gate was set at the south east corner which was the wind corner, and the house was made to face south with the main building on the north side which was believed to belong to water- an element to prevent fire. There were strict rules for different rooms in the courtyards. The taller better-furnished rooms facing the gate were for the heads of the family. Sons and daughters in law lived in the row of rooms beside the gate which faced north.

The majority of the quadrangles we see today are actually quite modem, dating from the late 19th century, many having been rebuilt many times on the same site to the same plan. Until the revolution they had undergone very little change in their built form and still closely resembled the model from which they evolved 2000 years earlier.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2002, reprinted from SACU's magazine China in Focus Issue 11, 2001

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