“H-u-t-o-n-g”, what does hu tong mean?
According to experts, the word “hu tong” originated from the Mongolian language, meaning "well". In ancient times, people tended to gather and live around wells, so the original meaning of hu tong should be a place where people gather and live. Another explanation says that during the yuan dynasty, around the 13th century, residential areas in the city were divided into many divisions. Between the smaller divisions were passageways for people to travel through and those passageways also functioned as isolation belts against fire risks.
In the Mongolian language, passageways of this kind were called hu tong. No matter what hu tong exactly means, one thing is for sure - hu tong first appeared in Beijing during the Yuan Dynasty.
In the early 13th century, a Mongolian tribe from the north became very strong. Led by Genghis khan, the Mongolians occupied Beijing, the capital of the Jin Dynasty. In the year 1271, Kublai khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, founded the Yuan Dynasty and set Beijing as the capital city in the following year. Unfortunately, the old city was completely destroyed during the war. so they had to rebuild it. In old china, all the structures and roads were required to be symmetrical. so the city was well designed. First, they had to find a center, and then built a regular square city. The layout of the city was very much like a chessboard. About 50 residential areas were constructed, with straight roads and hutongs in between.
At the time, there was a clear definition for avenue, street and hu tong. A 37-meter-wide road was called an avenue, an 18-meter-wide one was called a street and a 9-meter-wide lane was called a hu tong. Most of today's hu tong were formed during the Ming and Qing dynasties that followed. Nobody knows exactly how many hu tongs there are in today in Beijing. but one thing is for sure, if we connected all the hutongs together, their total length would even be longer than the famous Great Wall, which is about 4,000 miles long. Or to make it clear，it could stretch the length of a highway from Seattle to Boston, all across America！Today you can find various hutongs with different shapes, lengths or directions. The shortest one is only 40 centimeters wide, which means a person like me has to walk sideways to get through. And some hutongs have more than 20 turns. With the growth of the population, many old hutongs have disappeared to make way for high-rise apartments.