Hutongs (胡同) are Beijing’s ancient alleyways, where you can find traditional Beijing architecture. They date back to when Beijing was the capital of the Yuan Dynasty (1266-1368). Most buildings in hutongs are made in the traditional courtyard (四合院) style. Many of these courtyard homes were originally occupied by aristocrats, though after the Communist takeover in 1949 the aristocrats were pushed out and replaced with poor families. Hutongs can still be found throughout the area within the 2nd Ring Road, though many are being demolished to make way for new buildings and wider roads. Laid out in a chessboard pattern which was established as early as the Ming Dynasty, these hutongs crosscut the city into tiny squares. In those days the capital was divided into the eastern, western, northern, southern and central districts, with a total of 33 neighborhoods, divided again into hutongs were established under the Ming emperors Hongwu (reigned 1368-1398) and Jianwen (reigned 1399-1402).
At present, there are about 4,550 hutongs, the broadest over four meters wide and the smallest — the eastern part of Dongfu’ an Hutong, a mere 70 cm across — just wide enough for a single person to traverse. Although the city has changed a great deal over the last 500 years, the hutongs remain much the same as during Ming and Qing times.