The hutong were originally designed during the Zhou Dynasty when the residential areas of Beijing began to take shape. The word hutong comes from the Mongolian word hottog which means "water well." The term came into use under the reign of Kublai Khan, grandson of Ghengis Khan, during the Yuan Dynasty, because communities start and grow around water supplies such as the lakes in many of the hutongs. Organized by class status, in keeping with traditional principles of feng-shui, the hutong had aristocrats living to the east and west of the palace in finely built homes while the common people lived to the north and south in much simpler dwellings. "A siheyuan is a quadrangle courtyard house" (Acharya) and, together with the east-west and north-south streets, forms the pattern of the neighborhood. Other cities have siheyuan, but the hutong are truly specific to Beijing. Today some of them are over 900 years old and in the words of local author, Li Cunbao, "Each hutong, is like a novel, a long historical story" (du Cros, Bauer, Lo, & Rui).
In the hutong, front doors faced south for sunshine and protection from the cold northern winds. Roof "tiles were laid on packed dirt that allows the rooms to breathe in summer" (Marquand). Originally six horse paces was a hutong, but now they range in length from as little as 100 yards to over 4 miles. The narrowness of some of the alleys led to the nickname "the lanes," and those slender streets can often end suddenly, making automobile traffic very risky.
Community, modernization, and politics are important countrywide but take on greater meaning in Beijing and converge in the hutong. "There were over 7,000 hutongs in Beijing in 1949, but by the 1980s there were only 3,900 left. In recent years, hutongs have been disappearing at a rate of 600 per year" (Collins). They are victims of the conflict between the desire for cultural preservation and the need for modernization and development.
The "Chai character" is the symbol for pending development, aka the "hand." It's literal meaning is "raze," and it's appearance indicates a building is scheduled for demolition. Homes may have up to ten families but lack indoor plumbing. In addition to the overcrowding, the lack of central heating and using ovens to burn charcoal make some of this urban redevelopment necessary. Additionally, the earthquake in 1976, 7.8 on the Richter Scale, caused a lot of structural damage and accelerated the need for urban rehabilitation. Ironically, it also brought more people into the city from rural areas, exacerbating the issue of over crowding. Lastly, "upheavals of the Cultural Revolution permitted unplanned redevelopment, which further affected the integrity of the Hutongs" (du Cros, et al).
Wu Liangyong, a professor of architecture at Tsinghua University in Beijing, sums it up best when he says, "A typical hutong block has three characteristics: the accessibility to both main streets and to individual dwellings; the mixed land use by ordinary houses as well as shops, temples, offices and mansions, and the integrated system of alleys and courtyard houses. With these characteristics, hutong offers its residents a quiet and safe living environment and yet a close knitted social network" (Qian).