Written: 胡同. This is the Mandarin word used to describe the unique back-alleys of old Beijing and it has become synonymous with the popular culture of the cities' ordinary citizens. It seems it may even be slipping quietly into English thanks to tourist guides like the Lonely Planet. Here it's not the man in the street, it's the 老百姓 'laobaixing' (the 'Old Hundred Surnames - the Chinese expression for the common people) in the hutong who count.

Originally hutong were the small lanes between the courtyard houses which became the typical architecture of Beijing when the city was greatly expanded by its Mongol conquerors - they made it the capital of the Yuan Dynasty they founded in the 13th century.

The alleys tend to run east-west, to allow the courtyard homes to catch the sun, but streets at all angles can be found, as well as dog-legs and dead ends. One of the greatest pleasures of visiting Beijing is to lose yourself in a hutong maze and observe the vibrant everyday life of the citizenry, not apparent from the windswept major arteries such as Chang'an Jie - the 'Street of Eternal Peace' which passes through Tiananmen Square as it bisects the metropolis, and thus the prime destination of much tourist traffic.

It is claimed that the word is of Mongolian origin, and it does not appear prior to their occupation of the city. In that language "hottog" means "water well." Mongol nomads, like most sensible people, would establish a group of fixed dwellings close to source of fresh water. The Chinese rendition of this begins with the character 胡' hu' which denotes 'barbarian' or 'of foreign origin', which tends to support this etymology.

Apparently ancient China laid down clear distinctions between what constituted a street and what was a lane. Anything over 36 metres wide constituted a 大街 'dajie' - a 'great street' or thoroughfare (such as Chang'an mentioned above). At 18 metres wide was the 小街 'xiaojie' - a 'small street'. Anything 9 metres wide or less was a hutong.

Beijingers say that no-one has ever successfully counted all the hutong of the Tartar capital, as they are 'more numerous than the hairs on an ox'.

Sadly, the task may become somewhat easier in the future, as the older areas of the city disappear under the wrecking ball. The modernisation of the capital of the world's most populous nation is gathering pace, and will no doubt only continue to do so as Beijing prepares to host the 2008 Olympic Games.

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