Chinese Architectures - Beijing Hutongs, the Chinese Quadrangle, Passes

Chinese architecture is very distinctive. Get lost in the depths of Beijing Hutong, or be shocked by the impregnable walls and passes, or marvel at the ingenuity of Fujian Hakka Castle-Like Dwellings. This article will give you a quick look at China's fascinating architectural culture.

Hutongs of Beijing

The alleyways in Beijing are known as "hutong," the transliteration of a Mongolian word because most of the hutongs were a heritage of the Yuan Dynasty, which established its capital city in Beijing in 1283. Thus, the hutongs are 800 years old. There are so many of them in Beijing. As the saying goes, "There are 360 large hutongs and countless smaller ones."

Statistics indicate that there used to be 4,550 hutongs in urban Beijing that were laid out in a Ming-dynasty pattern, and they were as wide as four meters and as narrow as 62 cm. These alleyways are a magnum opus in their own right, recorded as they do numerous cultural artifacts, places of historical and cultural interests, fascinating tales of dignitaries, and anecdotes about the city and its people.

Hutongs of BeijingHutongs of Beijing

The hutongs were named in a variety of ways. Some are named after government departments, such as Xingbu (Bureau of Punishment) Hutong, Cayuan (Investigation Bureau) Hutong, Silijian (Directorate of Ceremonial) Hutong, and Huoyaoju (Gunpowder Bureau) Hutong. The Lumicang, Nanxincang, Beixincang, and Haiyuncang hutongs were named after the major imperial granaries in the East District. Xishiku and Houku hutongs in West District got their names from warehouses in the service of the imperial family.
Naizifu (Department of Nursing Ladies) Hutong was so named because, in the old days, it was inhabited by women whose job was to supply the imperial family with milk from their own breasts. Many are named after Famous people, such as Yongkang Hutong (the location of the residence of Xu Zhong, who was Marquis Yongkang) and Maojiawan Hutong (Where the mansion of Mao Wenjian of the Ming Dynasty was situated). There is no lack of hutongs named after craftsmen or peddlers; these include Liulansu (Sculptor Liu Lan) Hutong, Mudao'r (Knife Sharpening) Hutong, Fengfangliu (Bean Noodle Maker Liu) Hutong, and Doufuchen (Beancurd Master Chen) Hutong. Some hutongs derived their names from their shapes, such as Chaoshou (Folded Arms) Hutong, Lesser Biandan (Carrying Pole) Hutong, Guaibang (Walking Stick) Hutong, Erduoyanr (External Auditory Canal) Hutong, and Gouweiba (Dog's Tail) Hutong. The hutongs in south Beijing are mostly related to commodities, such as Xianyukou (Fresh Fish) Hutong, Luomashi (Horse Market), Zhubaoshi (Jewellery Market), Guozishi (Fruit Market), Shuazishi (Brush Market), and Roushi (Meat Market) Hutong. Some are named after trees, including Huaishu (Scholar Tree), Songshu (Pine Tree), Sigengbo (Four Cypresses), Shuangliu (Twin Willows), Zongshu (Palm Tree), and Yingtao (Cherry Tree) hutongs.

Ten hutongs are named after Chunshu, the Chinese toon tree. Some have names that do not sound good, such as Fenchang (Night Soil Field), Kudang (Crotch), and Kushuijing (Bitter Water Well) hutongs, and most of these names have been changed.

The hutongs are a truthful reflection of the fact that the eastern district of Beijing was rich, the west district noble, the south district poor, and the north district dilapidated. As a legacy of history, the hutongs are rich in historical and cultural connotations.

A tour of the hutongs has become a major tourist program Beijing has to offer.

The Chinese Quadrangle

Traditionally, most urban Chinese used to live in quadrangles called siheyuan or "four-side enclosed courtyards". These courts, as the name implies, are formed by inward-facing houses on four sides, closed in by enclosure walls.

A small or medium-sized siheyuan usually has its main or only entrance gate built at the southeastern corner of the quadrangle with a screen wall just inside to prevent outsiders from peeping in.

Such a residence offers space, comfort, and quiet privacy. It is also good for security as well as protection against dust and storms. Grown with plants and flowers, the court is also a sort of garden.

The Gate of A Chinese QuadrangleThe Gate of A Chinese Quadrangle

All the quadrangles, as products of feudal society, were built in accordance with a strict set of rules. From their size and style, one could tell whether they belonged to private individuals or the powerful and rich. The simple house of an ordinary person has only one courtyard with the main building on the north facing, across the court, the southern building with rooms of northern exposure and flanked on the sides by the buildings of eastern and western chambers. The mansion of a titled or very rich family would have two or more courtyards, one behind another, with the main building separated from the view of the southern building by a wall with a fancy gate or by a quoting (walkthrough pavilion). Behind the main building, there would be a lesser house in the rear and, connected with the main quadrangle, small "corner courtyards."

The lord and lady of the house lived in the sunny main building, and their children in the side chambers. The southern row on the opposite side, those nearest to the entrance gate, were generally used as the study, the reception room, the manservants' dwelling, or for sundry purposes.

Not only residences but ancient palaces, government offices, temples, and monasteries were built basically on the pattern of the siheyuan, a common feature of traditional Chinese architecture.

Beijing City Gates

In times of yore, Beijing consisted of an outer city and an inner city, with the imperial city (otherwise known as Forbidden City or the Former Imperial Palace) contained in the inner city. Altogether, there were 20 city gates. Entering or exiting these gates by carts and horses was governed by hard-and-fast regulations. The following is a brief introduction to it.

There are nine gates for the inner city, which used to be on what is today's Second Ring Road.

First, Zhengyang (South-Facing) Gate. The Zhengyang Gate is for the exclusive use of royal sedan chairs and carts to show the supremacy of the feudal monarchs. The gate stands to the south of Tian'anmen Square; during the Ming and Qing, it was the front gate of the inner city of Beijing. Built in 1419, or the 17th year of the Yongle reign of the Ming, it is by far the only well-preserved city gate tower in Beijing.

Second, Xuanwu Gate, or Gate of Military Virtue. Known in the old days as the Gate of Complaisant Rule, it was the gate for prison vans. Felons sentenced to death by decapitation were escorted through this gate to the executioner's ground at Caishikou, south of the city.

Thirdly, the Fucheng Gate or Mound-Formed Gate. It was the gateway for coal transportation in ancient times. In ancient times, Beijing got its coal supplied from Mentougou on the western outskirt, and the Fucheng Gate was the only gateway for coal shipping carts.

Fourth, Xizhi Gate or Straight West Gate. Known in the past as the Gate of Peaceful Righteousness, the Xizhi Gate was for tanks transporting water from Yuquan Hill to the imperial city. At the time, the emperors drank water from Yuquan Hill to the imperial city. At the time, the emperor drank water only from Yuquan Hill.
Fifth, Desheng Gate, or Gate of Moral Triumph. It was the gate through which the imperial army returned to the capital from an expedition.

Sixth, the Anding Gate, or Gate of Peace and Stability. The Anding Gate was for carts transporting night soil out of the city. There is something symbolic about the name of this gate, which means Gate of Stability.

Seventh, Dongzhi Gate, or Gate of Worship of Benevolence, was opened exclusively for timber transportation. For this reason, it is also known as the Gateway of Firewood.

Eighth, Chaoyang Gate or Sun-Facing Gate, also known as the Gate of Homogeneous Civilization. It was the city's passageway for grain transportation. That is why there were quite a few imperial granaries inside the gate. These included the Lumi Granary, the Nanmen Granary, and the Qianliang Granary.

Ninth, Chongwen Gate or the Gate of Literary Virtue. Known otherwise as Hade (or Hada) Gate, it was the gateway through which liquor and wine were brought into the city.

There were seven gates for the outer city: Guangqu, Guang'an, Zuo'an, You're, Dongbian, Xibian, and Yongding. During the Ming, to protect south Beijing as a commercial and handicraft center, the imperial court had planned for the construction of an outer city wall around the imperial city, but due to financial difficulties, only part of the wall was erected in southern Beijing.

Seven gates were opened into this wall for the convenience of local residents.

Access to the imperial city was by four gates, Tianjin, Di'an, Dong'an, and Xi'an, which were for the exclusive use of officials and generals going to and from the imperial court. These gates were off-limits to commoners.

Few of these gates exist now, as most of them have been torn down, but their names have remained.
Here is a detailed Beijing city guide.


Passes were defense fortifications in ancient China. Born of war, they were built at points of strategic importance.

In the early days, passes were built of rammed earth and masonry at places easily defended and hard to be conquered. Later, cities were developed around the passes. Countless passes were built in ancient China. The nine best-known ones are the Shanhai Pass, Juyong Pass, Zijing Pass, Niangzi Pass, Pingxing Pass, Yanmen Pass, Jiayu Pass, Wusheng Pass, and Youyi Pass.

Juyong PassJuyong Pass

The passes fall roughly in two types: those on the Great Wall and those on postal routes.

The passes built on the Great Wall were regarded as national defense facilities. At the eastern terminus of the Great Wall to the northeast of Qinhuangdao stands Sanhai Pass, which holds vital access between northeast and central China. Reputedly, the most important pass on the eastern section of the Ming dynasty Great Wall, Sanhai Pass, is therefore billed as "No. I Pass on the Great Wall". On the western terminus of the Great Wall stands Jiayu Pass, an imposing citadel with the Gobi desert to the north and the Qilian Mountains to the south. For its vital strategic importance as a major transportation hub on the celebrated Silk Road for economic and cultural exchange between China and the West in ancient times, Jiayu Pass is billed as the "First Formidable Pass under Heaven." Other major passes on the Great Wall that played a major role in resisting foreign invaders and defending the national territory include the Juyong Pass of Beijing and the Niangzi Pass of Shanxi Province. Many of the passes on the Great Wall have been placed under government protection as key cultural heritage sites.

The passes on postal roads may be regarded as regional fortresses. A common feature about these passes is that virtually all of them were on provincial or county boundaries. Though not as large as those on the Great Wall, they were also strategically located for defense purposes. In warring periods, they were often bones of contention between rivaling strategists. The major postal road passes in existence today are the Loushan Pass of Guizhou, Jianmen Pass of Sichuan, Yanmin Pass of Shanxi, Tiemen Pass of Xinjiang, and Guimen Pass of Guangxi, which have all become popular scenic spots today.

Lingxing Gate

The Lingxing Gate, also known as Heavenly Gate or Gate of Dragon and Phoenix, was a kind of ancient structure built in different places with different meanings. More often than not, they stood in front of mausoleums, altars, and temples dedicated to emperors. The Lingxing Gate comprises baluster columns and decorated tie beams. The space between the columns has three to nine partitions, which are either blocked with walls or left open with gates to symbolize access meaning that the deceased could ascend the sky once through this gate.

The Lingxing Gate is also found in front of Confucian temples to symbolize the Confucian school's willingness to accept people with talent and virtue.

Hakka Castle-Like Dwellings

The Hakka people inhabiting southeast China are known for the distinctive style of their dwellings in a variety of castle-like designs. They are round or square, and there are also those in the style of big mansions or in the shape of the Eight Diagrams.

These castle-like dwellings go back a long way in history. The Hakkas, who had moved from central China and settled in the south after the Western Jin Dynasty, developed this unique style of house construction. but it was not until after the Qing that their dwellings began to grow in height and size to function as fortifications. A mixture of clay, ash, and bran was the major construction material for these dwellings, which are reinforced with bamboo and timber. A typical Hakka dwelling is a 10-meter-high structure with three to five floors, and the walls, more than one meter in thickness, were built of earth repeatedly rammed until they became sturdy enough against earthquakes and intruders.

Each dwelling covers an area of over 1,000 square meters, with 30 or so houses on each floor. Thus, a dwelling with more than 100 rooms is large enough to accommodate 100-300 people. Access to such a dwelling is by a single gate, and a well was dug inside it to supply drinking water. Some Hakka dwellings are fashioned in the shape of a palace richly decorated with carved beams and lacquered pillars. Most phenomenal of all the Hakka dwellings is a kind of round castle, in which houses are arranged in three mutually containing circles. In some places, a single castle-like Hakka dwelling is seen atop a mountain, or several or a dozen such dwellings are clustered in a tiny basin. They are evocative of ancient Roman castles, yet each looks distinctive in its Hakka architectural style.

The term "Hakka" means "outsiders" - the Hakka people were settlers from the north. That is why elements of central Chinese architecture, such as symmetry and a clear distinction between the centerpiece and the ancillary structures, are palpable in their dwellings. As newcomers small in number and meager in strength, they were in dire need of a kind of dwelling that could ward them off invaders, allow them to live in a compact community, and rally their strength against any possible invasion.

The castle-like dwellings in Yongding, Fujian Province, are definitely the finest examples of Hakka architecture, which attracts a constant stream of visitors from home and abroad.

Hakka Castle-Like DwellingsHakka Castle-Like Dwellings

Eaves Tiles

Eaves tiles are small accessories in classical Chinese architecture fixed at the end of rafters for decoration and for shielding the eaves from wind and rain.

Eaves tiles emerged as a culture in their own light during the Zhou (c. 11th century 771 B.C.) and reached their zenith during the Qin and Han (221 B.C.- 220 A.D.). In the intervening years, they underwent the transition from a half-round design to a cylindrical design, from plain surface to decorative patterns, from intaglio to bas-relief carvings, from lifelike imagery to abstraction, and from patterns to inscriptions, until they became an art that involved language, literature, aesthetics, calligraphy, carving, decoration, and architecture, with themes that ran the gamut from nature and ecology to mythology, totems, history, palaces, yamens, mausoleums, place names, auspicious phrases, folklore, and family names. Together, the eaves tiles form a history book that reflects the natural scenery, humanities, political science, and economics vividly. The Beijing Museum of Ancient Ceramic Civilization is billed as the nation's first exhibition center of ancient eaves tiles: its collection of more than 400 eaves tiles has no lack of rare and valuable pieces of art.

Cave Dwellings

Many laboring people on the Loess Plateau in northwest China (Shanxi Province) live in caves dug into the mountains. The caves are laid out in rows, one atop the other, looking like buildings of multiple floors in the distance.

These cave dwellings were either tunneled into the face of a stupendous cliff or scooped into a cross-section of the Loess Plateau. A cave dwelling is usually six meters deep and four meters wide. Stone slabs are piled up to form a semicircle at the entrance, which is decorated with exquisitely latticed windows in a variety of styles. There are also arched cave dwellings of masonry that are covered with earth, which is definitely a variation between stone and loess structures.

The beauty of the cave dwellings is that they help maintain local topography and save on farmlands by making use of space that would have been otherwise left unused. They are warm in winter and cool in summer. The temperature inside is usually 13 degrees Celsius higher than in the open in winter and 10 degrees Celsius lower in summer. Moreover, the cave dwellings are sequestered in peace and quiet as they are shut from the noise of the outside world. There are drawbacks as well. For example, daylighting is poor, humidity is high in summer, and ventilation leaves much to be desired.

Statistics show that 40 million live in cave dwellings that are scattered over an area of 600,000 square km in the middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River. In recent years, curious visitors and scholars have been arriving in droves to study the loess cave dwellings.

Embrasured Watchtower and Barbican Entrance

Standing opposite every city gate of old Beijing was an embrasured watchtower, an imposing and distinctive structure that added tremendously to the landscape of the city in the old days. Today, only two of them are still there: the Zhengyang Gate and the Desheng Gate.

In days of yore, the watchtower was a defense fortification whose tall and sturdy structure, vast vistas, and impregnability had won the favor of many an emperor in this country. A typical embrasured watchtower is found in the southeast corner of Beijing. Scooped into its walls are 144 embrasures in four rows.

A barbican entrance was built between a city gate and a watchtower, with a gateway built into either side of the barbican wall to facilitate the traffic of pedestrians, carts, and horses. The barbican entrance was an ancillary defense facility that contained a tiny temple and a store selling pots and basins of varying sizes. When the city was under siege, a heavy sluice gate was lowered to close down the city gate, soldiers hidden in the watchtower shot arrows at the enemy, and on the city walls, the defenders filled pots and basins with boiling water and poured it at the enemy troops attempting to gain the top of the city wall by scaling ladders. Thus, the store selling pots and basins was actually an integral part of the defense system of the city gates.

Aobao (Mongolian Stone Heaps for Worship)

Travelers to inner Mongolia are impressed by pillbox-shaped heaps that stand singularly or in clusters on the grassland. The local people call them "Aobao," and they are built of stone in areas where stone abounds, and sand and earth are encircled with willow branches where there is no stone. Buried inside an Aobao is a Buddhist statue or a metal weapon, and the top of it and the area around it are decorated with streamers and what resemble totem poles. In the beginning, they were used as road signs or boundary marks; later, local herdsmen began to worship them as dwellings of a certain divine protector. Legend has it that every time Gengghis Khan launched an expedition, the first thing he did was to offer sacrifices and libation to an Aobao and pray for victory. Later, the Aobao sacrificial ceremony also included the citation of soldiers who had performed meritorious deeds or who had died a hero's death. Aobao worship can be organized by individuals or local governments.

When passing by an Aobao, the Mongols make it a point to dismount from whatever they are riding. He may also pick up a few stones or lumps of earth and place them on it or offer sacrifices and kowtow to it to ask for blessings for safety, a rich harvest, and national stability.

Yellow Tiles and Vermillion Walls

The imperial palaces in Beijing were graced with yellow-glazed tiles and vermilion walls because they looked pleasant and reflected the wealth, dignity, and authority of the emperors.

The tiles are generally glazed yellow, green, blue, and black. Yellow-glazed tiles for the exclusive use of roofs of palaces, mausoleums, gardens, temples, and other imperial structures. Yellow was chosen as the royal color and a symbol of dignity because, in the "five elements" theory (gold, wood. water, fire, and earth), yellow earth is in the center of the universe. In the imperial garden, such as the Summer Palace, however. roofs are covered with tiles of different colors. Only the houses in which the emperor lived or administered state affairs are covered with yellow-glazed roofs, while the houses for officials feature green-glazed roofs, and scenic buildings and commoners' dwellings are covered with black-glazed tiles. However, non-imperial buildings sometimes also featured yellow-glazed roofs, such as the Confucian Temple and Lord Guan's Temple, because of the fact that the Chinese emperors had worshiped Confucius as Duke for the Propagation of Culture and the Qing emperors decorated Lord Guan as "Emperor Guan." All the buildings in the Imperial Palace are supposed to have their roofs covered with yellow-glazed tiles. The exception, however, is the national library (Chamber of Literary Profundity), whose roof is decorated with black-glazed tiles because black is the color of the water. As the library is prone to fire hazards, the use of black tiles was meant to subdue fire with water. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in the Temple of Heaven is covered with a blue-tiled roof to symbolize the color of the sky. It is clear that the colors adopted for the ancient Chinese structures have symbolic meanings.

The appeal of the yellow-glazed roofs is supplemented with the vermilion (darkish red) color of the walls. By Chinese tradition, red is the color for festivities, and that is why, even today, the lanterns and streamers used during holidays and festivals are mostly red in color. The imperial buildings are decorated with yellow tiles and vermilion walls to imply the emperor's wish for happiness. Many Buddhist temples in this country also featured yellow-glazed roofs and vermilion walls with the mandate of the royal family. During the Ming and Qing, yellow-glazed tiles could be used for imperial palaces, mausoleums for emperors, and temples and altars built in compliance with the order of the emperors. Those who violated the rule could be sentenced to death.

Grand Canal of China

The Grand Canal, which cuts a 2,700-kilometer-long course from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south, is extolled as a great water conservancy project of ancient China. It is also one of the longest of its kind in the world. It took three major engineering campaigns to bring the canal to its present shape: First, the predecessor to the canal was the 150-kilometer-long Hangou Ditch dug near present-day Yangzhou in 485 B.C. (towards the end of the Spring and Autumn Period) in the State of Wu to link the Yangtze with the Huai River.

Second, during the 1st-6th year (605-610 A.D.) of the Dayi reign of the Sui Dynasty, a canal 2,700 kilometers in length and 30¬70 meters in width - known as the "Sui Emperor Yangdi's South-North Grand Canal"-was dug with the capital city of Luoyang in the middle to connect the Haihe, Yellow, Huai. The Yangtze. and Qiantang Rivers into a unified water shipping network.

Third, during the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368), Beijing became the northern terminal of a 1,794-kilometre-long canal that flows all the way to Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province by way of Hebei, Shandong, and Jiangsu provinces. This canal, known in history as the "Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal," was actually 900 kilometers shorter than its Sui dynasty counterpart. Hence, the difference between the South-North Grand Canal and the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal.

In 1949, the Chinese government conducted a large-scale refurbishment of the Grand Canal. Some of the sections were widened or deepened, some of the zigzagging sections were straightened out, and plenty of water conservancy and ship locks were added. Today, quite a few sections of this canal are large enough to accommodate large shipping fleets of over 1,000 tons in capacity. The canal has also provided ample irrigation water for the farmlands on both sides. Cruise tours have been opened along the section that connects Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Wuxi to the delight of travelers from home and abroad.

Quick Question

Your Trip Ideas:
Full Name:
  • Title
  • Mr
  • Ms
*Email Address:
Send Inquiry
We take your privacy very seriously.

What Our Clients Say

"Great Customized Service", "Trip of A Lifetime", "Exceed All Expectations"

travel expert


1-to-1 Service | Reply within 24hrs | Expert's Advice


Subscribe to our newsletter for a chance to win a free 7-day South Korea tour! And more insider travel news, exclusive offers, and inspiration will be sent straight to your inbox.

We respect your privacy. You could unsubscribe at any time.