Misleading hutong names


Danwei noted last year that some Beijing residents were agitating to change the common place-name , "grave", to something similar-sounding but less morbid, or at least more cultured, like 'mausoleum'.

This sort of image improvement has been going on in Beijing for centuries, writes the Mirror in an article that examines streets in Beijing whose origins don't really live up to their names because of the substitution of similar-sounding words. Note that some of the explanations below may be folk etymologies that do not reflect the true history of a particular place name.

  • 墨河胡同 Inky River hutong. The site of a granary in the Qing dynasty, many family members of Manchu nobility lived here. Pensions were small, so they generated extra money by making inkstones — the original name was 墨盒胡同, pronounced the same. This hutong no longer exists.
  • 报房胡同: Pressroom hutong. This street has nothing to do with newspapers; leopards (豹子) were raised here in the Ming Dynasty, but by the Qing that practice had been dropped and the name ("leopard house hutong") was changed to a sound-alike.
  • 沙拉胡同: Salad hutong. Currently called 纱络胡同, it takes its name from the Manchu word for coral, transliterated variously as 沙剌, 沙料, and 舒噜.
  • 胭脂胡同: Rouge hutong. One of the Eight Big Hutongs. Rouge is a euphemism for prostitutes, indicating the type of commerce that took place here. The Mirror piece says the name is actually 淫址胡同 ("licentious locale hutong"), but that seems unlikely.
  • 杨梅竹斜街: Bayberry Bamboo Street. A widow named Yang was a very successful matchmaker on this street, so it acquired the name 杨媒婆斜街, 'Matchmaker Yang Street," later shortened to 杨媒斜街. This was considered uncultured, and floral names were preferred instead.
  • 锣鼓巷: Gong and Drum Alley. One story goes that an old hunchback (罗锅) lived until he was 99 and the alley was named after him. In another story, the alley itself is the hunchback, high in the middle and low at both ends. When Emperor Qianlong prepared a map of Beijing, the name was thought to be too crude.
  • 下岗胡同: Laid-off hutong. Before it meant 'layoff', 下岗 referred to soldiers going off-duty. But the hutong name here is geographical: a sentry-post was located on a hill here in the Yuan dynasty, and while the Ming pulled it down, the ruins remained as the area turned more residential. The region right around the ruins was known as 上岗胡同 "upper hill hutong", so 下岗胡同 "lower hill hutong" naturally followed.
  • 巨山村: Massive Mountain Village. The hills near this town in Haidian District aren't exactly massive. One explanation has it that the village was originally named 聚山村 ("Village congregated on the mountain"), since the town arose next to the hill. Another says that the hill was known as 蕨山 ("brake fern mountain") because of the brake ferns growing on it. In either case, the key character was too time-consuming to write, and was replaced by 巨.
  • 文章胡同: Essay hutong: So called because the Wenchang Palace (文昌宫) was nearby.
  • 干面胡同: Dried Noodle hutong. This street got its name from a jokey nickname given it by the locals — it used to be a dirt road, and passing horses and carts would kick up clouds of dust.
  • 养蜂夹道: Beekeeping Lane. Currently called Wenjin Street (文津街), it started out as an area where sheep were raised during the Ming dynasty and had the name 羊房夹道. When the sheep left, the name was changed to the more pleasant-sounding 养房夹道 ("Lane of the Cultivated House"). It was changed to Beekeeping Lane during the Republican period, though no one raised bees.

Much of the material in the Mirror article seems to have been taken from the book A Treasury of Beijing Place Names (北京地名典).

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