According to linguistic experts, "hutong" originally meant "well" in the Mongolian, Uygur and Manchu languages. Due most likely to the absorption of these peoples into the Chinese nation, the word became incorporated into the Han vocabulary.
According to a 1986 survey, Beijing's hutongs are located along 6,104 streets, lanes, hutongs and villages, 1,136 bearing the name. When they first appeared in the Yuan Dynasty, they were built residential areas conforming to the Zhou Dynasty social structure.
Even the width of their roads was ordained - major streets at 24 steps, minor at 12 steps and hutongs at six steps. However, since most hutongs were established in the Ming and Qing dynasties, dimensions vary.
Most hutongs are lined by quadrangles, inward-facing, one-level family units centered on a shaded, secluded courtyard. Before the Qing Dynasty, most were occupied by the families of business people. Since commerce was a low status occupation, the hutongs were modest in size.
This changed with the 1800s coming of foreign cultural influences, with the hutongs located further from city center and distinguished by their assortment of building styles from the earlier monotony of mainly blank exterior walls.
As China's feudal system inexorably disintegrated, warlord wars and foreign interference increased, with the hutong lifestyle and buildings following Beijing's decline, into dilapidation
Even after the founding of the People's Republic, hutongs continued on hard times, even though some living conditions improved. Sections were bulldozed in the 1980s to make room for multi-story apartment blocks.
Despite their travails, hutongs still house about half of Beijing's population -- about seven million people living along roadways which, if strung out, would rival the length of the Great Wall. It must be assumed they and their lifestyle will remain.
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