Hutong (alleys) is a Mongol word, meaning “water well.” Hutong, the signature urban architecture in Beijing, first emerged during the Yuan Dynasty, and bloomed during the Ming and Qing dynasties. With many twists and turns, hutong are lined by siheyuan (quadrangles), major residences of people in old Beijing. Hutong and siheyuan, dovetailing with each other, form stretches of neighbourhoods brimming with folk culture.
Hutong have been revered as the must-see tourist attraction for their vivid presentations of old Beijing. Visitors are welcomed to embark on their own adventures in alleys and quadrangles to savour the bustling yet orderly life.
The Oldest Zhuanta Hutong
For hundreds of years, alleys have witnessed the passage of time. Zhuanta (Brick-tower) Hutong, located in Beijing’s Xisi area, boasts a history of over 700 years. Probably the oldest alley in Beijing, Zhuanta Hutong earns its name because of the lofty Brick Tower here. For many generations, Zhuanta Hutong had always been an entertainment centre, where pubs and inns were scattered and different opera troupes also flourished.
At that time, Beijing locals would watch opera performances in small groups and enjoy delicacies and wine. During the Qing Dynasty, the alley was taken over by military institutions. Later, it was converted to an ordinary lane, and the Brick Tower also underwent several renovations. Zhuanta Hutong accommodated several social figures, like Lu Xun (1881–1936, a Chinese writer) and Zhang Henshui (1895–1967, a Chinese writer). It was in the north room at No. 61, Zhuanta Hutong that Lu Xun completed his famous novels, like A Happy Family and Soap.
The Longest Dongjiaominxiang
Most hutong in Beijing are only hundreds of metres long, with Dongjiaominxiang being
an exception. It is Beijing's longest alley with a length of three kilometres. Initially, it was called Jiangmixiang, with mi meaning “rice,” as it served transport of grains. During the reign of Emperor Yongle, this alley was divided into Dongjiangmixiang and Xijiangmixiang. After the Second Opium War (1856–1860), throngs of foreigners swarmed into Jiangmixiang. Even some aristocratic princes had to make way for these new comers. Later, countries like Japan, the United States, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands started to establish their embassies here. After the Boxer Protocol was signed in 1901, Jiangmixiang was renamed “Legation Street” and marked as “Dongjiaominxiang” on Chinese maps. Soon, foreign banks were set up here, such as the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited (HSBC), along with facilities like post offices and hospitals.
After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, many shabby buildings in Dongjiaominxiang were torn down to improve transportation. Now, this longest hutong in Beijing is more like a broad avenue.
The Shortest Yichi Dajie
Chen Zongfan (1879–1954), a successful candidate in the highest imperial examinations in the late Qing Dynasty, once depicted this hutong in his book Yandu congkao (“inquiring into Beijing”). Yichi Dajie is the shortest hutong in Beijing, measuring 25 metres long. In the west section of Yangmeizhu Xiejie (a byway), a part from the north entrance of Tongzi Hutong to that of Yingtao Hutong, used to be the original Yichi Dajie. There were six old shops along the alley with their addresses registered under Yangmeizhu Xiejie.
According to Beijing local Chuban zhi (“record of publication”), there used to be a bookstore called Shanghai Bookstore on Yichi Dajie. According to Yinshi fuwu zhi (“record of catering services”), in 1920, there stood an inscription shop called Wenqizhai apart from Longhuazhai. At that time, shops engaged in engraving characters strewed that section stretching from the Liulichang East Street northwest of Yichi Dajie to the eastern Yangmeizhu Xiejie. Today, there stands a landmark of Yichi Dajie, bringing attention to traditional culture of old Beijing.
Beijing's streets mostly stretch south–north, or east–west, with some exceptions. Myriads of alleys, xiejie (byways) and avenues interweave, resembling a chessboard.
Yandai Xiejie, Commercial Hub of Ming and Qing
The streets in the Dongdan area, Xisi area and in front of the Drum Tower were the most prosperous commercial areas during the Ming Dynasty. About 100 metres in front
of the Drum Tower is the Yandai Xiejie (PipeStem Lane) stretching southwest, the oldest byway in Beijing. In the early Ming Dynasty, it was called Dayuting Xiejie, but during the Qing Dynasty, it was renamed Yandai Xiejie. Coincidentally, the street is shaped like the stem of a large tobacco pipe.
According to Rixia jiuwen kao (a collection of verified records of Beijing) completed during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, this street came to be lined with shops selling tobacco pipes due to increasing demand.
At sunrise and sunset, the sound of the bell from the Bell Tower, and that of the drum from the Drum Tower can be heard respectively. Leaning against its windows, one could enjoy the charm of this street from daylight to nightfall. In old days, a restaurant called Qingyunlou was located at its west entrance. Now, it is known as Kaorou Ji (Ji's Grilled Meat). Diners can enjoy the delicious food while appreciating beautiful scenery around the Qianhai Lake.
Yangmeizhu Xiejie, Notable Cultural Destination
The name of Yangmei Xiejie appeared on Beijing's map drawn in 1750 during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. Its name originated from an anecdote. Long ago, there once lived a smart matchmaker surnamed Yang, renowned for her accomplishments. Residents named this street Yangmei Xiejie, with Yangmei referring to “matchmaker Yang.” Later, the name was refined as Yangmeizhu Xiejie.
The street was home to many famous publishing houses, including Shijie, Zhongzheng, Kaiming, Guangyi, Huanqiu, Dazhong and Zhonghua publishing houses. Many European-style structures could also be found here. Today, an eye- catching building called Qingyunge still stands here. It used to be the lead of the four big commercial centres, but only an archway of it is well preserved.
Tieshu Xiejie, Birthplace of Mei Lanfang
This 600-metre-long byway is famous for being the birthplace of Peking Opera master Mei Lanfang (1894–1961), who was born at No. 62, Litieguai Xiejie, or the east wing room of the Mei family's residence at No. 101 of today's Tieshu Xiejie.
The site of Jin Zhongdu lies southwest of Beijing City. The pond of the imperial park of Jin Zhongdu is known as today's Lotus Pond to the south of Beijing West Railway Station. The site of Yuan Dadu is only a few miles away from that of Jin Zhongdu. Gradually, the byway Tieshu Xiejie slowly took shape between the two places. During the Ming Dynasty, residents merely called it Xiejie.
During the Qing Dynasty, because there was a well-known ironware stall owned by a man surnamed Li, it was given the name Litieguo Xiejie (“a byway where Li makes iron pots”). Later, due to similarity in pronunciation between guai (crutch) and guo (pot) in Chinese, it was renamed Litieguai Xiejie. In 1965, it got its current name—tieshu Xiejie.
Yingtao Xiejie, Home to Operatic Circle Society
Since people walked to and fro, it gave rise to Yingtao Xiejie as well as many other byways like nearby Tieshu Xiejie, Yangmeizhu Xiejie and Zongshu Xiejie. Yingtao Xiejie winds southeast—southwest from Dashilar West Street to Datangzi Street. During the Ming Dynasty, there once stood a woollen products workshop, so there is a record of Yangzhan Hutong, with zhan meaning “felt,” in Jingshi wucheng fangxiang hutong ji (a book with collected records of Beijing's lanes).
Such a name was given probably either because “杨” (yang, “poplar”) is pronounced the same way as “羊” (yang, “sheep”) or this workshop was owned by a man surnamed Yang. During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, it was renamed Yingtao Xiejie. This new name originated from the fact that there were cherry trees along the street with a sloping style.
Yingtao Xiejie was mainly occupied by residences, and once housed the Guizhou Guild Hall. In 1928, Beiping Operatic Circle Charity was jointly established by Peking Opera performers Ye Chunshan (1875–1935), Hou Xirui (1892–1983) and others. Located in Yingtao Xiejie, it aimed to assist poverty stricken Peking Opera performers. In 1936, it was reshuffled and renamed Beiping Operatic Circle Society. Yang Xiaolou, Mei Lanfang and other Peking opera masters were elected as its directors.
Beijing locals enjoy a wide range of activities like reading, sightseeing and watching opera performances. Many of these entertainment activities take place in time honoured buildings with fascinating culture.
Imperial Library of Peking, Forerunner of Chinese Libraries
The Imperial Library of Peking was the predecessor of the National Library of China. The early 20th century witnessed eastward spreading of Western culture. A group of elites strongly advocated the reform and requested that the Qing government build libraries and schools to carry forward national culture and learn advanced technologies from the West.
On September 9, 1909, Emperor Xuantong granted the permission to construct the Imperial Library of Peking. It was situated in Beijing Guanghua Temple and headed by Miao Quansun (1844–1919), a compiler and fourth- grade official of the Imperial Academy.
After the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, the ministry of education of the Beijing government took over the library and began to offer public access from August 27, 1912. In 1916, it officially received deposit copies of domestic publications, a herald of its performance of some functions as a national library of China.
In 1917, it relocated to the former site of Guozijian's Nanxue (dormitory and study) area in Fangjia Hutong. In July 1928, it was renamed the National Beiping Library, and relocated to Zhongnanhai Juren Hall. In August 1929, it merged with Beiping Beihai Library, and still adopted its original name.
In 1931, Wenjin Street Library ( today's National Museum of Classic Books) was inaugurated, representing the completion of the largest and most advanced library in the country then. Externally, the newly- built library adopted a traditional Chinese palace- style layout with gorgeous decorations. The library was equipped with advanced Western facilities. It never paled in comparison with the American Library of Congress of the time.
Wanshengyuan, China’s First Zoo
Wanshengyuan (Garden of Ten Thousand Animals), attached to the agricultural testing field run by the Qing government, was the predecessor of today's Beijing Zoo. Speaking of Wanshengyuan, its construction was ordered by Cixi on a whim.
In fact, there was a variety of rare animals in the imperial palace, but they were kept only as embellishments. In the early 20th century, natural history flourished and many Western countries started to build many zoological parks. The Qing government also included the agenda of establishing Wanshengyuan in its plan for agricultural research.
In 1907 during the reign of Emperor Guangxu, Duanfang (1861–1911), Liangjiang Zongdu (viceroy governing an area involving today's Shanghai Municipality, and Jiangsu, Anhui and Jiangxi provinces), purchased a number of animals and birds in Hamburg, German. He bought an Indian female elephant and dedicated it to Cixi.
By the end of the Qing Dynasty, there were already over 100 kinds of animals including mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds. In 1949, it was named Xijiao Park by the People's Government of Beijing Municipality. In April 1955, it was renamed Beijing Zoo, and the inscription of its name by Mao Zedong (1893–1976, founder of the People's Republic of China) is still in use today.
Zhengyici, the Oldest Wooden Opera Theatre
Built in 1688 during the reign of Emperor Kangxi, Zhengyici ( Temple Theatre Beijing Opera House) boasts a history of over 300 years and is honoured as a living fossil of China's history of opera theatre culture. It is the only existing intact wooden opera theatre in Beijing.
With Peking Opera gaining its popularity, this theatre also flourished. Founders of Peking Opera, like Cheng Changgeng (1811– 1880) and Lu Shengkui (1822–1889), and Peking Opera masters such as Tan Xinpei and Mei Lanfang staged performances here. The theatre once caused a sensation in Beijing with amazing performances by famous Peking Opera performers . However, its glory came to an end in 1936.
It is a relief that Zhengyici, just like an old tree with intertwined roots, come to sprout new twigs basking in the bright spring sun and sated with rich rainwater. It showcases the same artistic charm as that in old days. Every night, Zhengyici invites performers of different types of operas like Peking Opera Kunqu Opera and Hebei Bangzi (a local opera) onstage to entertain audiences.
The Brick Tower in Xisi area built in the Yuan Dynasty
Yandai Xiejie (Pipe-stem Lane) in front of the Drum Tower
National Museum of Classic Books
Zhengyici, Beijing‘s oldest wooden opera theatre