“Do you want to do a Hutong Tour on my rickshaw?”
A rickshaw driver jumped in front of us while we were strolling around Beijing.
I looked at my friend Lydi. We were both pretty tired from flying to China from Germany, being driven around in a rickshaw – although pretty touristy – sounded kind of perfect. We had planned to check out the architecture of the hutongs around the forbidden city anyways, so we climbed on our new friend Jinjing's rickshaw.
The hutongs are ancient alleyways formed between courtyard houses. Up until sixty years ago, most of the residential areas in Beijing were composed of hutongs and quadrangles.
The alleyways are usually pretty narrow (apparently there is one, where not even two people can pass through at the same time), therefore most hutongs are car-free.
Hutong is a Mongolian word meaning “water well”, residents often chose the location of their homes according to the proximity of a well.
The hutongs were designed based on the book Kao Gong Ji, which was written at least 2000 years ago. In this book, it is stated that "in designing a capital city, the architect should lay it out nine by nine li (about 4,5km) with nine streets and avenues, and three gates each side. The ancestral temple and an altar should be to the left of the palace, with office buildings in front and a market behind it" (sacu, the hutongs and quadrangles of Beijing).
Old Beijing was planned based on this book and even the recent constructions in the city reflect this concept.
We started off at the Laku Hutong and drove around the streets surrounding it.
Jinjing realized quickly, that we were mainly interested in the architecture, so he kept stopping for me to take pictures of details and pointed out the interesting parts.
Most buildings in the hutongs are courtyard houses, hidden behind walls, only the door giving away what lies behind it. They vary in size according to the social status of the household.
The quadrangles usually face south for better lighting, therefore many hutongs run east to west.
While the courtyard houses usually hide behind walls, the type of doorway gives away who lived behind it with height of the gate, the quality of the decoration and sometimes a pair of stone lions standing guard.
Above the doors, you often find stars, which also give a clue about the social significance of the owner.
Jingjing was excited, when I pointed out that the high doorstep was probably built to scare off ghosts (who apparently can't jump) – a fun fact I learned in Indonesia a while back and that seems to go for Chinese ghosts as well as for Indonesian ones.
These tiles are small accessories in classical Chinese architecture fixed at the end of the rafters for decoration.
The carvings tell stories from nature and mythology, forming their own history book on every roof.
They go from a simple grey to highly decorated, so it's worth looking up wherever you are in a hutong.
Jinjing explained that red stands for luck and yellow for power.
Most doorways in the hutongs are painted red. Symbolizing good fortune and joy, the colour is supposed to help only bringing the right people in.
While yellow isn't seen much in the hutongs, it is the most important colour in Chinese tradition and Jinjing made sure to explain its meaning and pointing out, that we will mainly see it around the palaces and temples.
We turned around a corner while Jinjing yelled: “Corner! Bad Feng Shui” and stopped back on the busy streets of Beijing.
Laku Hutong, Beijing
How to get there:
it's right next to the exit of the forbidden city
we paid Jinjing 100 RMD, which is probably too much, but we liked him a lot and it was totally worth it