I must have been there dozens of times; yet it wasn’t until that long ago that I discovered that Zhengyangmen (正阳门, which means "gate of the zenith Sun") has a museum inside showing dioramas of the old city walls and pictures of Beijing’s old roads, markets, and houses. It is certainly somewhere I will be taking friends of mine in the future when they come to Beijing.
Not familiar with Zhengyangmen? I’ll bet you are really! Except you maybe know it by its more familiar name of Qianmen, which is the gate south of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Actually, strictly speaking, Zhengyangmen together with its Arrow Tower (Jian Lou) are collectively known as “Qianmen”. The main gateway of the gatehouse is aligned on the same north-south axis as the Yongdingmen Gate to the south, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong and the Monument to the People's Heroes in Tiananmen Square, the Tiananmen Gate itself, the Meridian Gate, and the imperial throne in the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City, the city's Drum and Bell Towers and the entrance to the Olympic Green in the far north.
It was also the route the emperor took whenever he went to Tiantan (The Altar of Heaven), in the outer city, to make offerings. In fact the gateway would only be opened when emperors were passing through to give offerings to Heaven or to carry out imperial inspections.
Zhengyangmen was first built in 1419 and once consisted of the gatehouse proper and an archery tower, which were connected by side walls and together with side gates, formed a large barbican. The city's first railway station, known as Qianmen Station, was built just outside the gate, but that wasn’t until a few hundred years later I guess.
During the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the gate sustained considerable damage but it was extensively reconstructed in 1914, only to have the Barbican’s side gates torn down the next year. In 1949, the Zhengyangmen gatehouse was occupied by the Beijing garrison of the People's Liberation Army, who only vacated it in 1980; but now it has rightly become a big tourist attraction.
Yes … even when they do make barriers to your progress, the tourists still find a way of getting in!
… though In fairness, the tourists are well catered for…
Unfortunately, “progress” waits for no man, and Zhengyangmen was one of only a handful of gates that survived the demolition of city walls in the late 1960s and 1970s during the building of the Beijing Subway. (Go on Line 2 and practically every station has a name harking back to the numerous gates surrounding the city.) Line 2's Qianmen Station is even located between the two structures inside the space once surrounded by the barbican. So sad!
Depending on which web site you believe, Zhengyangmen stands 38 metres high, or 40, or 42 (with variations in between) … and the gatehouse was, and remains, the tallest of all the gates in Beijing's city wall.
Anyway, enough of the background. The gate has a very interesting museum which covers the history of Old Beijing, and contains many notable items in its collection. For instance, there is a super-long painting of Emperor Qianlong's first tour to Jiangsu and Zhejiang in 1751. It was drawn by court painter Xu Yang and consists of a number of scrolls each measuring 868.6cm x 1988.6cm. Or rather, the original is in the China National Museum, and this is a copy. But it’s still lovely despite that, and few visitors are any the wiser!
The detail is exquisite and clearly shows the entire barbican with the two towers to north and south.
And the amount of entourage that accompanied the emperor is clearly shown.
If you love old photographs, as I do, then you will be taken with shots of what this area was like before the rebuilding started in 1914 (or 1915, as the caption tells us).
There are even photos of the inside of the so-called Moon Fortress …
Architectural drawings are to be found giving precise measurements of the towers…
During the Ming dynasty the many gates leading into Beijing’s Inner City were managed by Inner Officials who were all eunuchs. But from 1674 the gates were put under the management of the Chief Commission of Infantry which looked after defence and security in the capital. It guarded not just the nine gates of the inner city but also the seven gates of the outer city. Troops lead by the Chief Commission of Infantry regularly amounted to some 30,000 soldiers.
In 1644 the uprising led by Li Zicheng toppled the Ming dynasty. When Li Zicheng led his troops out of Beijing he set fire to the palaces and nine gates of the Inner City. Zhengyangmen was destroyed, but was later rebuilt in the Qing dynasty.
In 1780 a fire broke out in a shop nearby, which spread to, and destroyed, the Archery Tower. Another fire broke out in 1849. And on June 16, 1900 the Boxers set fire to a pharmacy spreading once again to the Archery tower. Shortly after, a company of Indian mercenaries stationed in the Moon Fortress accidently caused another fire which destroyed the Gatehouse Tower. The final rebuilding of the tower was launched in 1903, and was completed in 1907.
With so much destruction and rebuilding, I guess it’s as well we can still see photos of what the place looked like throughout the years. Here, for instance, we are taken back to 1900 and the parade of the Allied Force of the Eight powers before the Gate.
A decade or so later, American troops posed for photos by the same tower.
As I mentioned earlier, in order to alleviate traffic congestion, the Moon Fortress enclosure was demolished in 1915 and two side gateways were opened in the walls flanking the Gatehouse tower. Roads were paved; a zigzag ascending path was built for the Archery Tower and decorated in the Western style.
So this was what it looked like just after the rebuilding in 1915.
If you think the reconstructed archery tower shows a strong European style, that’s because it followed the design of a German engineer called Rothkeger.
Other famous moments in history were captured at the tower, such as on May 27, 1929, when Sun Yat-sen's coffin passed through the Gatehouse when it was conveyed to Nanjing for interment.
On July 7, 1937 the Marco Polo Bridge incident broke out, marking the start of China entering the second world war, known locally as the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. On July 28 Japanese forces captured Beiping (as it was then known) and entered the Inner City via Zhengyangmen on August 8th.
But on January 31, 1949, Beiping was peacefully liberated; and on February 3rd the PLA marched into the city in a grand ceremony.
Here’s a close up of the PLA passing through the gate…
If we fast forward to 1990, this is what the Gatehouse and Archery towers looked like…
And 14 years later, on October 9, 2004, the opening ceremony of the Sino-French Culture Year was held at Tiananmen with the Gatehouse Tower used as a backdrop for the French flag in not very subtle lighting.
2008, of course, was when the Oympics came to town; and the Chinese used the event to show off the country to the world. Ten million RMB were invested in the repair of the Gatehouse and Archery tower.
The museum also has loads of little did-you-know factoids positioned throughout. Did you know, for instance, that in the Ming, Qing and ROC period, women in Beijing would go to touch the doornails of the gate on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month every year since it was said that they would give birth to boys if they did this. Wow. Talk about gullible! (Do you think anyone asked for their money back?)
Another little factoid…Daqianmen cigarettes were launched by the British and American Tobacco Company in 1916. The trademark of Daqianmen was put into state ownership in 1962 and jointly owned by Shanghai, Qingdao and Tianjin cigarette factories
And one more factoid to keep you interested. The kilometre zero point for highways in China (a bit like the original milepost for London being at Charing Cross station) is located just outside Zhengyangmen. It is marked with a plaque in the ground, with the four cardinal points, four animals, and "Zero Point of Highways, China" written in both English and Chinese. Zero Point was approved by the State Council and installed in September 2006. Four ancient Chinese mythical animals – a Qinglong (Green Dragon), Baihu (White Tiger), Zhuque (Vermilion bird) and Xuanwu (Black Tortoise) represent East, West, South and North. Meanwhile the wheel in the centre represents the system of highways radiating to all parts of China.