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My favorite tour in Beijing was by cycle rickshaw through a section of the Hutong area, where I ate lunch in a private residence.

The earliest hutong was built during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368); most of the remaining buildings are from the Ming (1368-1628) and Qing (1644-1908) Dynasties. Surrounding the Forbidden City, (home to emperors, their eunuchs, and concubines), they initially housed government officials and civil servants, with the higher ranking living closer to the emperor’s palace.

As we wove through the narrow streets on the rickshaw, Apple, my lovely guide who speaks excellent English, shared history, tradition, and stories. (I wish I’d had a voice recorder because I forgot so much.) She told me “hutong” is Mongul word meaning “water well.” During the Hun occupation, as they took their cattle down the narrow alleys for water each morning, the Chinese asked where they were going. The Huns responded, “the hutong.” The Chinese, misinterpreting, took that to mean the narrow streets.

Apple also explained that the narrow alleys (streets) are created by quadrangles (“siheyuan”) consisting of a center courtyard surrounded by four large apartments. Originally, one family lived here, with space for the parents, children, grandparents, servants, and possibly a concubine or two. Now as many as 10 or more families occupy this space.

This doorway leads into one such courtyard. The door and frame are painted with the traditional red, which symbolizes good fortune and joy. The threshhold, now worn, kept out evil spirits who could hop only so high.

Look through the doorway. The bicycles, boots, stool, mop, and flowers all hint at the lives of these ordinary people who choose to live in this historic and crowded neighborhood rather than in the more modern areas of Beijing.

Look through this door into the lives of ordinary people.

You can learn more about the hutongs here: