Beijing Hutongs
Social Living

Old men stooping at a gameboardTraditionally, the Chinese have believed that there is an energy in the earth and that living close to it keeps you connected to that energy. They feel it’s important to keep their feet on the ground, which is why the housing is only one or two stories high. The energy and economic activity combine to make the hutong something almost as alive as the residents that occupy it. The result is a neighborhood with families and businesses that watch out for each other. Neighbors “took in one another’s laundry when it rained and stood watch for thieves” (Marquand). Strangers are noticed, and there are no missing children in the hutong.


Two girls blowing soap bubbles on a sidewalkOver the years the hutong have absorbed a wide range of people, from menial laborers and craftspeople to white collar and professionals and artists. They’ve also included Buddhists, Muslims and atheists as well as both the wealthy and the poor. The hutong is a very diverse community, and those that move in from rural areas are able to join and become a part of it.

It is communal living with multi-generational and extended families as well as public restrooms. Close friends become honored as aunts or uncles. The lack of privacy actually brings them together. It’s common to see people talking over lunch or dinner. You can almost always find elderly men playing cards or checkers throughout the day with the music of caged songbirds in the background. A unique small town atmosphere in the hutong makes them “each a little world” (Sorkin).