Beijing Water

Oral History: Three-Eyed Well in Xuanwu District

Below is the eighth in a series of oral histories about Beijing water, as told to Wang Jian by Wang Yumin, Chef, and Yin Jingxiu, Fitter and Turner.

Wang JianTranslated By: Madeleine Ross and Fang Li

Below is the eighth in a series of oral histories about Beijing water, as told to Wang Jian by Wang Yumin, Chef, and Yin Jingxiu, Fitter and Turner. Download the pdf here.

Wang Yumin, 57 years old, Han nationality, Chef

Yin Jingxiu, 70 years old, Han nationality, Fitter and Turner


I’ll talk about the lanes and wells first.

There used to be a siheyuan (family compound house) with an especially elegant courtyard in Three-Eyed Well Lane (Sanyan Jing hutong). At the front entrance grew two Chinese scholar trees, so large that three people couldn’t encircle one with their arms, and they cooled a huge area with their shade in summer. They were at least a few hundred years old, but in the eighties they were chopped down. What a shame! It made the lane really beautiful to have those two trees and that spacious restful area.

There were carved screen walls on both sides of the courtyard’s recessed south-facing gateway arch. The scholar trees flanked each side of the gate, along with two big lions. In 1958, the yard was converted into a workshop for plastic toys, reading glasses and things for students to use at school. After that, it was turned into a small hardware factory, and later into an electrical appliance factory.

In the courtyard, house number 13 had a well dating from the Ming Dynasty. Three holes like little eyes had been chiseled into a rock in the platform around the well, which is where the name “Three-eyed Well” came from.

People were afraid children would climb up using these “eyes” as toe holes and fall into the well, so they covered the well with slabs of rock. As a kid I climbed up onto the platform and when I peeked down through a crack, I could still see water sparkling inside the well.

Before we had running water, neighbourhoods like these relied on the water from wells. There were more than 700 wells in Beijing’s inner city area in those days, and more than 500 wells in the outer city. We had three wells not far from our house: Gan Jing (Sweet Well), Shi Jing (Moist Well) and Kushui Jing (Bitter Water Well). Before liberation, there were more than 80 hutongs (lanes) named after wells in old Beijing.

I have been to lots of hutongs because I started playing in them as a little kid. For example, in Beijing we have One Well Lane, Two Wells Lane, Three Wells Lane, Four Wells Lane and all the way up to Seven Wells Lane. In fact, there are more than ten places called Si Yan Jing (Four Wells Lane)! In Xizhimen there is a Gao Jing hutong (High Well Lane) and a Xi Jing hutong (West Well Lane); to the west of Caishi kou there’s Qi Jing hutong (Seven Wells Lane), on the south side of Liuli chang Xijie there is Liuli Jing hutong (Coloured Glaze Well Lane); south of Guloudong Dajie (East Drum Tower Street) there is Sha Jing hutong (Sand Well Lane); Longtou Jing hutong (Dragon Head Well Lane) is north of Di’anmenxi Dajie; Dongshui Jing hutong (East Water Well Lane) and Xishui Jing hutong (West Water Well Lane) are to the west of Chaoyangmennan Dajie; and south of Fuchengmennei Dajie is Nan Siyan Jing hutong (South Four Wells Lane); Si Jing hutong (Four Wells Lane) is to the east of Fuchengmennan Shuncheng Jie; Shuang Jing hutong (Double Well Lane) is to the south of Guangqumenwai Dajie; on the west side of Deshengmenwai Dajie there is Xi Xiao Jing hutong (West Small Well Lane); Da Jing hutong (Big Well Lane) is to the north of Ande Lu; Da Tianshui Jing hutong (Big Sweet Water Well Lane) is west of Wangfujing Dajie; Qian Jing hutong (Front Well Lane) is on the south bank of Shishahai Houhai; Datong Jing hutong (Big Bronze Well Lane) and Xiaotong Jing hutong (Little Bronze Well Lane) are to the west and east of Xinjiekoubei Dajie; then east of Qianmen Dajie there is Luojia Jing hutong (Luo Family Well Lane); and south of Dong Damochang there is Ban Jing hutong (Plank Well Lane); further south there is Tongjing Dayuan hutong (Copper Well Big Courtyard Lane); finally, north of Xijiaomin Xiang you will find Jing Lou hutong (Well Tower Lane). Before liberation there were dozens of hutongs just called “Jing er Hutong” (Well Lane)!

The lanes in the old city didn’t have a connection with wells only, but with anything involving water: streams, rivers, lakes and the sea. For example, there were many lanes that had names connected with rivers: Dajiang hutong (Great River Lane), Xiaojiang hutong (Little River Lane) and Zhenjiang hutong (Cool River Lane), Sanli He hutong (Three Mile River Lane), Hebochang hutong (Riverpond Yard Lane), Mohe hutong (Ink River Lane) and Xihe yan hutong (Western River Bank Lane), Sanchuan liu hutong (Three Valleys Willow Lane), Dachuandian hutong (Great Valley Shallows Lane) and Xiaochuandian hutong (Little Valley Shallows Lane); associated with lakes there was Xihu ying hutong (West Lake Camp Lane); and with the sea there was Haiyun cang hutong (Sea Transport Warehouse Lane), Haibai hutong (Sea cypress Lane) and Haibin hutong (Seashore Lane); connected with ponds there was Shuitang hutong (Waterpond Lane); and with springs there was Longquan hutong (Dragon Spring Lane); connected with canals there was Dagou yan hutong (Great Canal Bank Lane) and Yinsigou hutong (Silver Thread Canal Lane); connected with pools there was Hanjiatan hutong (Han Family Pool Lane) and Jishui tan (Still Water Pool); connected with rain there was Yuer hutong (Rain Lane) and Ganyu hutong (Sweet Rain Lane); connected with snow there was Xuechi hutong (Snow Pool Lane). There were also Nanshuiguan hutong (South Water Gate Lane), Shuidaozi hutong (Water Canal Lane), Shuiche hutong (Water Car Lane), and then there were the other hutongs – Ganshi qiao (Sweet Stone Bridge), Ganshui qiao (Sweet Water Bridge), Xiaoshi qiao (Small Stone Bridge), Beihe cao (North Riverbed), Houshui pao (Back Water Bubble) and Jinyu hutong (Goldfish) Lanes … my goodness, there were so many lanes involving water!

Running water was introduced in Beijing in 1910 but not every household got it. Most homes still had to rely on water carts to deliver water. The carts were made of wood, and only had two wheels, so people living in the lanes were all very familiar with the “creak, creak” sound they made. Each cart carried a large oval wooden barrel full of water with a little hole at one end stopped up with a cork, used to draw off the water. Two other buckets on the cart – scrubbed as clean as anything with a brush – were just for catching water. The cork was taken out of the barrel and just as the bucket was filled, the barrel was plugged up again, so that not even a drop of water was wasted. People who didn’t buy water could go and fetch it themselves at communal taps in the lanes. Earlier, in the 1950s, anyone passing by could just go there and collect water. But in the 1960s, a metal box was put on the taps and each family was issued with a key, because from then on, we were charged for water usage, so passers-by couldn’t just take water as they pleased.

Next I’ll talk about how it rained really heavily when I was small.

In 1962, there was such a huge downpour that we couldn’t go out. I was a little kid then and really happy about it, but the grownups were worried; there was nothing to eat, the house leaked and the drains got blocked up. Water wouldn’t drain properly and the street was full of water. The older one-storey homes leaked a lot and some people’s houses were really bad, but they had nowhere to go. Then the primary school in Charcoal Lane stopped classes and cleared out the classrooms for people from the neighbourhood to stay in. In 1972, there was another huge downpour. At the time I was working in Mentougou, and the water came gurgling down the mountain, making the river really broad and creating waves. Since then I haven’t seen such heavy rain. Now if it even rains a bit, people are as happy as can be.

The drains in the lanes were laid in 1957; the clay pipes buried about one metre deep. By modern standards they are rather narrow, but nowadays no matter how much it rains, the water flows away perfectly well and never blocks up. But because of this, water can’t return to its origins in the natural world, which isn’t much good. And another thing, people want water too fast, so in another 50 years, how low will the water table be? It won’t be possible to fix it then and what will our descendants do?


What left the deepest impression on me were the huge rains in 1954 that fell continuously for days on end and caused real problems for the wheat harvest. In summer, grain gets mouldy and rots. There was no lack of water then, not like today – there’s none at all now. In 1954, I was living near Dong Da Qiao (East Big Bridge) and there was one Sunday when it poured so much that the water level nearly came up to the chassis of the bus, the motor wouldn’t start and there was nothing that passengers could do but get off the bus and wade through the water. You should have seen the fish, they were everywhere, so I got a sieve from home and scooped out more than 20 pounds of them and gave them all to the factory canteen. Going south from where I lived near East Big Bridge to South Yong’anli and all the way to the traffic police station, the area to the west of Guanghua Road was covered with big water channels. Now it’s all been filled in and built on.

When it used to rain a little, it seeped into the ground bit by bit, very naturally. In those days, if there was a big storm the road was like an ocean and you couldn’t see the ground. Now rain water all flows away into the drains and it’s gone. We all thought it was great having newly laid drains; after rain there was no water flooding the roads and we didn’t have to wade through mud any more. Now I realize that it is actually a waste. In another 100 years, what will people do? If things go on like this, what a mess it will be! No water left, crops won’t grow, there’ll be nothing even edible, so what kind of life will it be?

When it rained a lot, water would flow gurgling and churning through Qingfeng Sluice, which was to the south of Dabeiyao. My master’s house was near there and Tonghui River flowed only 50 metres from the front door of his house. One year, he saw a man fishing from a little boat made of tires strapped together. Suddenly the man fell off the boat into the river. My master jumped in to save him without thinking about how high the water level was at the time, and neither of the two men survived.

When I was young, there were sand and clay pits full of water on both sides of the road to the west and east of Anding Gate, right up to what is now the Jingchang (Beijing-Changping) highway. Where had all those clay pits come from? In order to build houses in the city, they needed to dig out the sand and clay to make and fire bricks. Water accumulated in the holes left behind because the water table was so high and because when it rained, water accumulated in the pits. In 1956, I used to swim with my master in the clay pits outside Lishui Bridge, where the water came right over a person’s head. In the 1970s, when sand was being excavated from there, it was still a small-scale operation. But in the 1980s, there began to be less water and the pits got bigger and bigger – where else did all the sand come from to build all the buildings that were put up in those years? It was all taken out of the pits. In earlier days the level of the water table was high and the pits were full of water, which was also very clear. I often went there to fish and the fish were very good. Now are there fish anywhere? Even big pits have no water, not to mention any fish. Lots of them were turned into rubbish dumps, and in fact the Tiantongyuan Building was built on top of a clay pit that had been filled in.

In 1957, there were reed beds covering the entire area from Dongtoutiao outside You’an Gate, all the way to the railway station. The reeds weren’t very high, and the water was only a bit more than a foot deep. To get to the railway station at Yongding Gate you had to walk on little pathways with water on each side. It was after the Cultural Revolution that there was less water. How have I remembered this so clearly? Someone stuck up a “reactionary poster” 1 at the time and when the police raced over to solve the crime, their trouser legs got wet and were covered in mud. Now that area is called Kaiyangli residential district, and it’s full of high-rise apartments. Something else, there used to be fish about the length of a man’s hand in the streams on both sides of a cobbled road that ran from outside You’an Gate all the way to the area near Huangtu Mound. In winter, the ice on those streams was about an inch thick, and the fish were still under there. The area of Nanyuan was all planted with paddy rice in the 1960s, and the paddy fields were full of little fish. During the famine of the early 1960s2, we could still go into the fields and find little fish to eat. Are there any left anymore? They all dried up ages ago! Why was it that the water in the paddy fields didn’t seep away in those days? It was because ground water saturated the soil – there was plenty of it.

When our sanitation machinery factory was being built in Majialou, water would come seeping out if we dug down about a foot from the surface. The water table was quite high. In fact, in those days, the wells that pumped water to the factory water towers were never more than 10 metres deep. But in 1972, factory workshops were being put up and the ground water level had gone down very fast for some unknown reason. Water would come out only after digging down 3 or 4 metres. To dig and lay the foundations, two pumps were specially brought in to draw the water out. From 1957 to 1974, the level of the ground water went down by about the height of a house. By 1984, we were short of water and the quality was no good any more. If you asked someone to dig another well, they’d dig for 30 or more metres to get water. Testing showed that the water quality was good and also there was plenty of it – quite possibly because they had reached another layer of ground water. So from the 1960s to now, the level of the water table has fallen 30 metres. Now there are high-rise buildings on both sides of the road near Majialou, and the water there disappeared long ago.


The layout of Beijing was inseparably connected with its wells. When Kublai Khan entered China to establish the capital of the Yuan Dynasty in 1279 AD the people relied on well water to survive, they built their houses around the wells, and the passages between courtyards became hutongs (lanes).

From the time of the Qing Dynasty, Beijing was separated into the inner and outer cities, and a moat was dug out around the inner city. Military defense was naturally the main purpose, with the added benefit that it prevented destruction of the city by floods. Thus, as the unique layout of the city came into being, the moat unexpectedly became a component of Beijing’s ecosystem. Although it is a man-made river, it was fortunately constructed in an era without cement, using natural materials, and has become a solace for people who yearn for something of the natural world in an increasingly modernized Beijing.

When the narrators were young, Beijing had much heavier and more frequent rain than now. The city area wasn’t as large then as it is now, the population wasn’t as great, and the level of the water table was quite high. Because of the city’s need for sand and clay as construction material over the years, numerous little ponds and pits surrounded the city. They went through the stages of having plentiful water to having less water and are now filled in.

[1] Aggrieved citizens who complained about the country’s top leaders, the government or the Communist Party in illegal posters were accused of “reactionary conduct.” This was considered a serious crime in China before the late 1980s in general and in the Cultural Revolution period (1966-1976) in particular.

[2] China suffered a terrible famine from the spring of 1959 to the end of 1961 brought on by the failed policies of the Great Leap Forward and bad weather. As many as 30 million Chinese citizens are estimated to have starved to death.

Categories: Beijing Water

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