Jiuwan Hutong: Taking A Turn Through History

Hutong is a Mongolian word, meaning “water well”. In Beijing, hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences. Many neighbourhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. Since the mid-20th century, the number of Beijing hutongs has dropped dramatically as they are demolished to make way for new roads and buildings. More recently, some hutongs have been designated as protected areas in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history.

People say that the real culture of Beijing is “the culture of hutong” and “the culture of courtyard”. How true that is. Often, they attract tourists from home and abroad rather than the high-rise buildings.

Beijing hutongs are a labyrinth of alleys that wind and twist through the capital. Hutongs can be disorienting, and perhaps none more than Jiuwan. Jiuwan Hutong is officially the most convoluted of all of Beijing’s hutongs, with 13 turns tightly held in its short length.

A little ways south of Qianmen Street, Jiuwan provides the perfect excuse to get into a really old neighborhood that is entirely lacking in tourist amenities. Travelers curious about how old Beijingers live need look no further. Families occupying this hutong have been here for generations.

Jiuwan translates to “nine curves” but the hutong has apparently grown more since its inauguration. The disorienting route demands the full attention of those who navigate it on two wheels as it haphazardly careens in new directions and presses through some surprisingly tight squeezes.

However Jiuwan isn’t a hutong to rush through. The rustic details are where the charm sleeps: patched up doorways and weathered brick walls that catch the shadows of linens drying in the sun. In warmer weather, locals sun themselves on an outdoor couch, happy to chitchat with passers by. Jiuwan is the perfect un-tourist destination.   Foreigners come to visit Hutong not only to see the old buildings but to admire the hutong culture because hutongs represent a kind of Beijing lifestyle. In apartment buildings, people don’t even know their neighbors. But there is no barrier among people who live here.

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A dog manages to find its way through Jiuwan Hutong.

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The Jiuwan Hutong corridor funnels into a surprisingly tight squeeze.

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Beauty and history that can’t be found in museums is on display in Jiuwan Hutong.

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A cozy corridor in Jiuwan Hutong.

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