In ancient times, the siheyuan of high-ranking officials and wealthy merchants featured beautifully carved and painted roof beams and pillars and carefully landscaped garden. The hutongs they formed were orderly ,lined by spacious homes and walled gardens. While the siheyuan of civilians are smaller in scale,and simpler in design and decoration, the hutongs formed by them are narrower.
The term "hutong" appeared first during the Yuan Dynasty, and is believed to be a term of Mongolian language originally meaning "wells”.
Hutongs represent an important cultural element of Beijing. Thanks to Beijing's long history and status as the capital for six dynasties, almost every hutong has its anecdotes, and some are even associated with historic events.
In stark contrast to the court life and elite culture represented by the Forbidden City, summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven, the hutongs reflect the culture of grassroots Beijingers. The hutongs are residential neighborhoods and also the heart of Old Beijing.