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History of Hutong and Real life of Beijing

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Tour Beijing Hutong

The Vernacular Culture of Beijing has developed a new tourist project: threading the hutongs, which means visiting the alleyways of the capital city one by one.

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, 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."

Here, the word "threading" denotes an action similar to that of "threading beads with a string to make a necklace". But why is the word hutong used instead

Beijing Hutong

of the common word "alleyway" or "alley"? In order to understand this point, you need to learn something about the origin of this Chinese word. In the 13th century, China was under Mongolian domination. The Mongols established the Yuan Dynasty and designated Beijing as the capital city. Beijing had to take orders from their new masters. The word hutong was a phonetic translation of a word of the medieval Mongolian language which was pronounced somewhat like the English word water and somewhat like the Russian word voda. Anyhow it meant the liquid substance water. Chinese people, however, took the word as meaning a place where there was a well to fetch water from. Therefore, the word hotong came to mean a residential area where there are wells which supply the indispensable substance water. Thence the word hutong began to denote a kind of ancient urban alleyway which is specific to the capital city Beijing. It is not applicable to alleys elsewhere.

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 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 old-timer will utter the place names with familiarity penetrated with intimacy as if they were the names of his/her cronies.

Real life of Beijing

Some people say that the study of the culture of Beijing should begin from the Beijing inhabitants or old-timers. They assert that Beijing old-timers are mostly common people and that they have a common man's trait of simplicity and straightforwardness. There is no gainsaying this point. But how large a percentage of the population is constituted by the descendants of aristocracy?

It is claimed that the people in Beijing  are simple and easygoing, but they generally have an aristocratic air,

Real life of Beijing

which they have had since childhood. This assertion seems to be self-contradictory, for it is highly improbable that a person can put on airs and be easygoing at the same time. Furthermore, the common man of Beijing is said to be very humorous, but they don't make fun of other people by using vulgar expressions. Of course, the common man should have a sense of humor. But why should he make fun of other people, even if in a way that smacks of good breeding? Some people have answered these questions by saying that the culture of Beijing manifests plebeian interests of an aristocratic air or, on the contrary, the plebeianized aristocratic spirit of yore.

Walking along these long lanes, you will feel deep in your heart a calmness that you have not had for a long time, though the mingled dialects you hear make the place like Babel on a minor scale. The calmness you feel stems from the common but real life in the hutongs.

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