As we walk through the hutongs, you may find most of them look almost the same, with gray-colored walls and bricks. Actually inside those walls are the courtyard houses, where people live. In Chinese we call them "siheyuan". "Si" literally means four, "he" means to surround, and "yuan"refers to the courtyard.
So a rectangular wall enclosing four houses, one built on each side facing into the center, is called a siheyuan. When they were first built, usually one siheyuan was owned by only one family, but today, with the growth of the population, most siheyuans are shared by 4 to 10 families.
The gate building of each siheyuan is the only thing that we can see along the hutongs. Chinese people used to try to protect their privacy from being intruded by strangers. So the gate building, in the ancient times, was a symbol to show the position of each house owner. You don't have to go inside the courtyard. Just look at the gate building, you can already tell whether it's an influential family or not.
Look at this one, the gate building is big and tall. The head and eave of the gate are well decorated with brick carvings. See the design? Plum blossoms and bamboo. It indicated that the original owner of this courtyard must have been an official serving in the emperor's court. But look at that one next door, it has the lion design, because that owner used to be a military officer.
In the past, transportation was not as convenient as today, so street vendors played a very important role in hutong life. They wandered from lane to lane selling various goods or providing all kind of services. People could judge the goods or services from their peddling or the sounds of their special instruments. The food they sold usually include baked pancakes, seasoned millet mush, or youzhaguo，fritters (a kind of deep-fried twisted dough sticks) and all kinds of vegetables.
The main attraction of hutong life is friendly and interpersonal communication. Children living in one courtyard play together and grow up together like one big family. So now our government is trying to preserve such hutong areas in Beijing. Without permission, nobody is allowed to tear down old houses to build high-rise apartments. We want to save it as a treasure to show our later generations what Beijing used to be like.