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In the north of China, especially in Beijing, there are many traditional residences called Siheyuan, a courtyard surrounded by one-story houses on all four sides. From the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), Hutongs were built, and they are a type of narrow street or alley formed by these kinds of Siheyuan.

In ancient China, citizens of higher social status were permitted to live closer to the Forbidden City, or the east and west of the imperial palace. Their large Siheyuan often featured beautifully carved and painted roof beams and pillars and carefully landscaped gardens, while the commoners, merchants, artisans, and laborers lived farther from the palace, for example, its north and south. Their Siheyuan was far smaller in scale and simpler in design and decoration, and the Hutongs were narrower.

Since the mid-20th century, many Beijing Hutongs were demolished to make the new roads and buildings, and even the new sports grounds for the Olympics Games of 2008. Now many Hutongs have been designated as protected architecture to preserve Chinese traditional culture.

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