Hutong (胡同), refers to the narrow lanes or alleys between the traditional folk houses in Old Beijing. These houses were originally built during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), as public housing after the Mongolians had invaded China. Following the defeat of China’s Song Dynasty, many of the houses had been burnt down from the fighting. Thus, the Mongolians built the hutongs so that the civilians may have a place to stay.

The Ancient Temple

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There is an ancient temple near the hutongs. This temple was built in 1421 by the Ming Dynasty. It is entirely made of wood from the Yunnan province. The trees from this province were highly valued for their very large trunks. This wood was only used for important buildings since it took almost four years to transport to Beijing in one piece. The ancient temple used to be painted in red and yellow. These colors represent luck and fortune in Chinese culture. In order to paint the wood red, pig blood would be painted onto the log for a total of six to eight layers. However, the colors have faded over time and oxidized.

Furthermore, the television manufacturing company that used to be here had a fire, causing the wood to burn and turn black. When the temples were being restored, it was very difficult to find wooden poles that were the same size as before, therefore some of the wooden poles have a metal strap around them to secure two pieces of wood together. Now, the temple is restored and is almost an art gallery with several statues on display.

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Decors That Determine Class

The decorations on the hutongs indicate the class or rank of the person living in it. Some of the windows have a lattice pattern on them made of wood. This pattern indicates that the person living there was in the second highest class, under the emperor. The emperor’s windows have more elaborate designs and paintings. The animals on the roof of the hutongs also indicate the rank. The more animals there are on the roof, the higher ranked the person is. For example, the temple has three animals. This means that the temple was not a highly ranked building. Only members of the royal family may have more than five animals on the roof. If there were five or more animals on the roof of a non-royal citizen, they would be killed.

Additionally, some hutongs have protruding hexagonal shapes near the doorway. The more of these were in the entrance of the hutong, the wealthier the family is. When there are four of these shapes, it most likely means that there was a government official living in that building. When there are six of them, it means that members of the royal family house in that hutong.

Img 1282 The entryway of a wealthy family's hutong.
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Finally, the tiles of the roof play a role in determining the class. Most buildings had flat tiles on the roof. However, if the building has circular tiles, it means that the building was important. The hutong in this image has circular tiles on the roof, meaning that whoever lived in that building was of a higher rank.

These hutongs represent an important part of Chinese history, however many of these hutongs are quickly being replaced with high-rise buildings in an effort to further modernize Beijing.