Beneath rapidly growing skyscrapers of today's Beijing, traditional hutong and siheyuan still linger, surrounding the Forbidden City.
Hutong means a lane or alley; the word comes from the Mongolian hottog meaning "water well". During the growth of Chinese towns and cities, wells dug by villagers formed the centers of new communities. In Beijing, hutongs are alleys as narrow as half a meter - formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences. Many Beijing hutongs were built during the Yuan (1206-1341), Ming (1368-1628) and Qing (1644-1908) dynasties.
Following the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, many of the old hutongs have disappeared to give way to wide boulevards and modern buildings. Many hutong dwellers were forced to move to new housings, many refuse to do so and stay living in the ruins.
More recently, some hutongs have been designated as protected areas in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history. Some old neighborhoods survive today, offering a glimpse of life in the capital city as it has been for generations.
In Beijing, the hutongs in the vicinity of the Bell Tower and Shichahai Lake are well preserved. Some are several hundred years old, attracting tourists who explore the quarters in rickshaws/pedicabs. The best way to discover hutong is to come without a map and get lost in the maze of narrow lanes and grey houses. The deeper you penetrate, the friendlier the hutong dwellers are.


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