The alleyways in Beijing are known as “hutong”, the transliteration of a Mongolian word because most of the hutongs were a heritage of the Yuan Dynasty which established its capital city in Beijing in 1283. Thus the hutongs are 800 years old. In the Mongolian version, hutong means water well, nobody knows how and why it was related to the wells. Some of the assumption showed that it was just perhaps the nomadic mongos thought the only reason for people to dwell was the access to water since their life was always on the way to water existed and where the grass grew, and when they found people in Beijing well dwelled in the alley areas with courtyard houses nearby, they believed that people might have an access to wells.
There was once a saying, there are 360 large hutongs and coutless smaller ones. Statistics indicate that there used to be 4,550 hutongs in urban Beijing that were laid out in a Ming-dynasty pattern, and there were as wide as four meters and as narrow as 62 cm.
In the past, the hutongs were named in a variety of ways. Some were named after government department, some of them were named after the imperial granaries, some of them were named after the business in the neighborhood, and some of them were named after the craftsmen and peddlers, etc. As witness of Beijing, these hutongs had undergone the historical changes of Beijing, as well as her heyday and decline.
Back in the past, people could tell somebody’s social status according to where his or her home located. The rich lived in the east, the noble dwelled in the west, the poor were in the south while the baseness were sheltered at the north.
When China was established by Mao, he encouraged to demolish these old hutongs, instead, the Soviet Union style condos were massively built in order to accommodate the growing population. It was pretty sad that almost 95% of the hutongs were gone, and today, though some of the renovations were done, the remaining parts are still poorly managed. This definitely the wrong thing done by the communist government during the Mao’s time.