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Fantasies Of Beijing Hutong

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The capital city Beijing is interwoven by hutongs which crisscross the space where hundreds of thousands of excellent persons and things are assembled. In the hutongs there are countless warm and affectionate families. This is the root cause of the feeling of deep love that Beijing people have for the hutongs. In order to understand the true feeling of the Beijing old-timers and sympathize with them, touring the hutongs is necessarily on your itinerary.

If we say that the once forbidden city is the heart of Beijing, then the hutongs are the blood capillaries because they are countless in number. The oft repeated saying that "High walls tower on the two sides with one narrow passageway sandwiched in between,"is a realistic description of a hutong. Another saying,

Beijing Hutong

which emphasizes the immense number of hutongs of old Beijing, runs as follows: "The counting of well-known hutongs runs up to three thousand and six hundred, while those which are fit only to remain in oblivion are as numerous as the hair of an ox."

Beijing Hutong

The line upon line of blue grey narrow and long passageways form by crisscross interweaving a city map which seems to be haphazardly planned but is actually highly methodical. A native of some other place who has arrived in Beijing for the first time will try to read out the names of the hutongs in tones that fall far short of the requirement of the standard common speech of spoken Chinese. He will feel that these names are tongue twisters. His eyes will blink with a sense of estrangement and isolation. He will perhaps seek the help of a Beijing old-timer, who will tell him the name of the place in the Beijing dialect, which is rich in the tongue manipulations difficult for people from other places to imitate with exactness. The Beijing old-timer will utter the place names with familiarity penetrated with intimacy as if they were the names of his/her cronies.

In regard to the names of the hutongs of various sizes, if you should attempt to translate them into English phonetically, you would destroy the cultural

Beijing Hutong

interest that they contain, for the reader would find it impossible to get even an inkling of the true meaning of each name. The reason is that these Chinese names are full of the sentiments of pastoral poetry, the dense smell of the native soil and the feeling of human empathy. Let’s try to find from the following names of old streets and lanes traces of the "pastoral city"that Beijing once was: four -aperture well, Bamboo-pole lane, Fishing terrace, and


Tobacco-pouch oblique street. Many names are connected with people’s daily life, for example, Rice-market hutong, Oil-shop hutong, Salt-shop hutong, and Sauce-shop hutong. Some names are based on the shapes, for example, a lane in the form of a circle is called the Grinding-stone hutong, a slender lane is called the Penholder hutong or the Arrow-shaft hutong. It may be named the Bean-sprout hutong if it is not very straight. A curved lane may be named the Crescent hutong, or a little rudely, the Dog's- tail hutong. If a lane is narrow at one end but broad at the other, it may be called the Trumpet hutong. These names give people a feeling of intimacy, don't they?


Hutongs are in a sense reminiscences of the past era. You might be interested to know some details of their glorious past. There were once more than 6,000 alleyways in Beijing, of which only 1330 were named hutongs. The others, though popularly also called hutongs, bore other titles, such as lane, way, and even street or road. The narrowest hutong that Beijing has ever had was the Money-market hutong, which was only 40 cm wide at its narrowest part.

How are you going to stroll around the hutongs? If you go on foot, the city is too big for you. You can’t afford the time and the energy. If you ride in a pedicab, you will have to spend too much money. Besides, the pedicab will whiz you past places without giving you the opportunity to see anything clearly. The conclusion is that the best way to thread the hutongs will be riding on a bicycle. But where are bicycles to be hired. As you are not familiar with Beijing, you will have to make inquiries. People will be glad to tell you where shops are which hire out bicycles. Generally speaking, such shops hire out a bicycle for a single person at 10 Yuan an hour and a tandem bicycle at 20 Yuan an hour. A deposit of 500 Yuan should be made for each bicycle hired. You can also find individuals with bicycles to be let out on hire at half of the above rates and demanding only 300 Yuan as the deposit. A third possibility is to find a place where bicycles are hired out by the day. The rate is generally much lower, perhaps at 20 Yuan a day.

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