A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Residence of a Contradiction…

One of the most famous 20th century novelists in China wrote under the pen name “Contradiction”. His most famous works are Ziye, a novel depicting life in cosmopolitan Shanghai, and Spring Silkworms. He also wrote many short stories

Guessed his name yet? Let me give you a clue. His real name was Shen Dehong…

Actually, his pen name was Mao Dun (矛盾), which he used to express the tensions inherent in the conflicting revolutionary ideology of China in the 1920s. As well as being a celebrated novelist, he was also the Minister of Culture of the PRC from 1949 to 1965, as well as working a while as Mao Zedong's secretary. He was dismissed from his position as minister in 1964 owing to the ideological upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, but he survived that and was afterwards ‘rehabilitated’.

Born in 1896, Mao Dun began his career as a writer in 1916. In 1920, he translated The Constitution of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union into Chinese, which was obviously a good move on his part as it later became the backbone of China’s own Communist Party Constitution. A year later, in Shanghai, Mao became the first writer to join the Communist Party of China.

In 1920, he helped found the Literary Study Society, an association promoting literary realism. Inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, Mao Dun took part in the May Fourth Movement in China. He also joined the Shanghai Communist Team, and helped to establish the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.

So it’s not surprising that Mao’s last residence has been converted into a little museum. It’s a typical Beijing-style Siheyuan within a short walk of the famed drum and bell towers.

In the centre of the front courtyard is a square trellis, supporting a vine. It’s from this that Mao fixed up a swing for his granddaughter. I only hope the little lady had a slim build, as I’d hate to risk supporting my weight from that trellis!

There’s an almost total lack of English captions throughout, so if you intend to go, and don’t speak Chinese, it would be time well spent exploring the contents of Wikipedia before you go! Either that, or take your mobile phone with Google Translate set up on it, for some instant image translation.

Mao Dun was born on July 4, 1896, into an elite family in Zhejiang province but was educated in Beijing. He lived at the back courtyard here from 1974 until his death. His father Shen Yongxi taught and designed a curriculum for his son, but he died when Mao Dun was ten. His mother Chen Aizhu then taught him.

In 1913, Mao entered the three-year foundation school offered by Peking University, in which he studied Chinese and Western literature. But owing to financial difficulties, he had to quit in the summer of 1916, before his graduation.

There are loads of photos and objects displayed in the eastern wing of the house, though even in Chinese there is often little in the way of explanatory text telling you what you are looking at. Here for instance we are simply told “Mao award medal”.

Likewise, this signature-clad “50th birthday memorial album” tells us nothing more, though a little digging on the internet tells us that over 500 guests came to celebrate his 50th birthday, including some Russian and American friends.

Here’s what is simply identified as “a letter written to Mao”. Surely someone could have done better than this!

Lonely Planet advises visitors to “look for the well-used 1940s fridge, standing in a glass case in the back courtyard”. Unfortunately, the back courtyard is no longer open to visitors, unless, like your favourite blogger, you pretend you can’t understand a word of all these signs everywhere and simply walk through. Huh! No fridge, well-used or otherwise!

On March 27, 1981, Mao Dun died in Beijing. On his deathbed, he donated royalties of 250,000 RMB to the Chinese Writers' Association as a fund to establish the Mao Dun Literature Award in order to encourage Chinese novelists.

A picture of Deng Xiaoping leading the General Assembly in paying tribute to Mao Dun on 11th April is also shown.

Take subway Line 6 or 8 to NanluoguXiang and leave from exit E. Walk due north up Nanluogu Hutong for 800m and turn right into Houyuan’ensi Hutong. The house is on the left 50m in.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Seeing Red in Downtown Beijing

Anyone who knows anything about China’s modern history will undoubtedly have heard of Hong Lou, or the Red Building. It was the former home of Peking University (BeiDa) and the birthplace of the patriotic May 4th Movement of 1919. The building also witnessed the birth of China's first Communist group, before the foundation of the Communist Party of China.

Hong Lou was originally built in 1916 as a student dormitory for Peking University, but by the time it opened in 1918 it had become the institution’s literature academy. Today, Hong Lou is the site of the Beijing Memorial Hall of the New Cultural Movement, and is part of the National Museum of China.
It is said that the design of the building was way ahead of its time in its architectural style. It was named for its distinctive red colour, not only on the outside but even with its floors and window frames painted in various shades of red.

Staff offices were located on the second floor, with the third and fourth floors consisting of classrooms. In the basement was a large printing press that was used to produce progressive magazines like Renaissance (Xin Chao) and New Youth (Xin Qingnian), both of them being publications of the New Culture Movement. Only the ground floor is open to the public today.

On the morning of May 4th, 1919, it was from this building that not just Peking University students, but some 3,000 students from over 10 universities in the city, set out for Tian'anmen Square to begin China's democratic revolution. On May 7th it was where students gathered once again to welcome back classmates released after their arrest during the demonstrations.

In the throes of the October Revolution in Russia, Marxism-Leninism seemed to be a pertinent solution to Chinese progressives and many intellectuals with a basic understanding of communism studied and disseminated Marxism to establish the early organisations of the Communist Party of China.

On display are early books of Sun Yat-sen…

As well as pictures of revolutionaries such as Lenin and Marx…

… not to mention, of course, early translations of works such as The Communist Manifesto, Class Struggle and The History of Socialism.

Born in 1889, Li Dazhao was one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party. He joined the staff of Peking University as a professor of economics and director of the library, where on June 30th 1918, he also founded the Young China Society.

Members of the Society not only included Mao Zedong, but Gao Junyu, Yun Daiying, Cai Hesen and Xu Deheng as well. Other well-known revolutionary figures including Chen Duxiu, and cultural masters Lu Xun, Cai Yuanpei and Hu Shi all worked here at various times.

So it is not in the slightest bit surprising that a whole gallery is devoted to the life and times of these revolutionaries.

The ground floor corridor is a bit sombre in appearance, looking like many a school corridor of yesteryear, I reckon.

But off it are a number of side rooms that one can enter.

This is the study of Cai Yuanpei, who served as the first Minister of Education in the Provisional Government of the Republic of China. In 1917 he assumed the Presidency of Peking University, which he transformed into a modern institution and where the New Culture Movement was born.

In the Lecture Hall, in August 1920, Lu Xun, then an employee in the Ministry of Education, was engaged by Cai Yuanpei as a lecturer to teach a history of Chinese novels. It is said that during his lectures, the hall was filled to capacity.

This was one of the University book collections. Chief Librarian Li Dazhao expanded the variety and range of subjects, through soliciting donations from the public. He paid particular attention to improving the collection of Marxist works. It is said that the university library ended up ranking first among university libraries across the country, thanks to his efforts.

And this is Li Dazhao’s office. In the wake of the Russian October Revolution, Li made systematic efforts at disseminating Marxism and in March 1920 he held discussions with Comintern representative Voitinsky on the question of setting up a Communist Party of China. Later that year he set up an early organisation known as the Communist Organisation of Beijing, with himself in charge.
Nowadays, the room contains a display of items of historical interest such as photographs, letters, manuscripts and books. Also on display are some of the magazines that carried his essays – New Youth, New Tide, Weekly Review, as well as copies of his posthumously published works ‘Essentials of Historiography and Populism’.

The second reading room on this floor was also known as the newspaper reading room.

In August 1918, Mao Zedong came to Beijing from Changsha for the purpose of organising members of the Xin Min Society and students from Hunan to go to France on a work-study programme. During this time he worked as an assistant under Li Dazhao, managing 15 foreign and Chinese language newspapers (at a salary of 8 yuan per month!).

Towards the end of 1918 students organised The Renaissance Society and launched a magazine which opposed the "stale old culture of feudalism”, advocating literary revolution. It became an important periodical in the New Culture Movement.

On May 4th, students headed by members of the Renaissance Society made more than 3000 flags and placards here.

All in all, this (free) museum is well worth a visit, albeit that it is not going to use up more than about half an hour of your time.

Head to Dongsi, Exit E on subway Lines 5/6. Then walk due west along Wusi Street for about one kilometre. Hong Lou is on your right. You need to show ID and go through a security arch to get in, but entrance is free. 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Forgotten History and Dodgy Convenience in the Heart of Beijing

There’s a part of Beijing’s history that appears to be half buried, to the point where few people seem to know much about it. I, myself, stumbled upon it quite by accident when I was walking in the area to the east of the Forbidden City. At first I came across a map posted up on a lamppost near the so-called Dong ’An Men Night Market.

I was intrigued to see mention of “Emperor City Park” – but try as I might, I could find no mention of this on the internet.

And then, almost by accident I came across two pits on either side of the road about two metres below the current road level, showing what looked like the remains of an old city wall. Both were totally deserted, and ignored by the passers-by. I went to investigate…

It turns out that they are the sole surviving remnants of the former Dong 'An Men, the only one of Beijing’s historic gates for which no known photos exist. The ruins are historically significant because they are the last remains of the Eastern Outer Gates of the former Imperial City of Beijing.

Basically, Dong 'An Men formed the border between what was known as the Tartar City and the Imperial City. The Tartar City was exclusively inhabited by Manchus within Beijing. The Imperial City, of course, was home to the ruling elite, Manchu nobility and the Imperial House. Within the Imperial City lay the Forbidden City itself.

Due to the symmetrical design of the Imperial City, Dong 'An Men – which was built in the first half of the 15th century – was placed exactly on the line extending from the eastern gate of the Forbidden City, known as Dong Hua Men (or East Flowery Gate), but one block further to the east.

Through archaeological excavations and old documents, the original Donghuang wall and the exact location of Dong ‘An Men were found in 2001. Dong 'An Men was a building 7-rooms wide with a single eave and a Chinese gable-and-hip roof.

An engraved map of the area has been placed on one of the walls.

And that’s practically all there is to see of it. There’s a pleasant little park to walk through, though nothing worth making a special journey for…

Across the road, a little more history…

Here used to be the HQ of the 1946 Military Mediation Department Section of the Communist Party. It’s called Cui Ming Manor and was built in the 1930s and restored in 1998. From January 1946 to February 1947 it was responsible for negotiating the cease-fire between the KMT and the CPC.

‘Wrapped’ around its perimeter wall are brass plaques – such as this one, which gives an “Introduction to the East Glorious Gate” – except where they have run out of space at the bottom of each column, it simply leaves you in mid-air as to what it is they are trying to tell you!

But there is also a rather attractive brass frieze that is certainly worthy of inspection.

If you have taken the trouble to come all the way here, then it would be invidious of me not to point you in the direction of a nice Chinglish sign, situated across the road from the frieze:

But wait… it gets better. Could this, perhaps, be the most dangerous toilet in Beijing?

Take a closer look…

Danger / Warning Daop Down / Warning Ovntilating / Must wear defence mask / Must fasten safety belt

I hate to think what some of that means, but I make a mental note to avoid this public loo should I ever get caught short in this locality. The consequences don’t bear thinking about.

Take Subway Line 1 to Wangfujing leaving from Exit C1. Walk west for 200 metres past the Beijing Hotel, and then turn right, walking for about a km.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

A fitting – if abbreviated – memorial to Lao She

Mention the name Lao She (老舍) to most Europeans or Americans, and I suspect they wouldn’t have a clue whom you were talking about. Yet there surely cannot be a single Chinese who hasn’t at least heard of him – or Shi Qingchun, to give him his real name.

And so it is that your favourite (ignorant) blogger makes his way to the former residence of one of the most significant figures of 20th-century Chinese literature, and best known for his novel Rickshaw Boy and the play Teahouse (oh, THAT guy!) to learn a little more about him.

Lao She's home is preserved as the Lao She Memorial Hall, and was opened to the public as a museum of the writer's life and work in 1999. It was originally purchased in 1950, when it was 10 Fengsheng Hutong, though now it is 19 Fengfu Hutong. Lao She lived here until his death 16 years later.

It’s easy to find, and as you edge ever closer to the entrance, yet more visual clues point you in the right direction.

There’s even a little inscription that reads “Lao She's son Shu Yi uesd to live here. Now this is the meeting room of mermorial” (sic)

I step through the entrance way and am given a free ticket – why one needs one, I have no idea, as no one wants to inspect it.

So that you cannot get “lost”, they have even posted up a map of the 400 sq. m. house (including, I note, the “utility romm”, which I never did get to see).

As you enter, there is a trough full of plastic flowers –

a fitting tribute (???) to the man and his wife who, we are told, loved flowers.

Inside the inner courtyard is a large bowl used by Lao She to keep fish. What he did with them in the winter, we are not told. Maybe he brought the bowl indoors then. Who knows?

The courtyard also contains persimmon trees planted by the writer in 1953. His wife called the house 'Red Persimmon Courtyard'.

There’s even a bust of the guy, though I’m not sure I’d want to be remembered by such a statue…

Three sides of the inner courtyard have rooms that have been turned into sections of the museum dealing with his life and times. As one of the notices tells us “this exhibit presents Lao She’s entire life and creative experience”.

I certainly won’t bother giving you a potted history of the guy – if you are interested, the web is full of such information.

I'm intrigued to learn that Lao She lived in London for three years teaching Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies. There's even an English Heritage 'blue plaque' on the wall of the house where he lived (at 31 St James's Gardens, Notting Hill… not 31 St James Plaza as the official blurb tells you).

The room on the east of the inner courtyard is the living room where Lao She met his guests. The official blurb gushes on about the fact that “He would also arrange all his furniture based on his own preference and had his own collection of gadgets as well as a few paintings hung on the wall and grow flowers”. Gosh!

About Lao She’s death, this memorial site is remarkably silent. “In the morning of August 25th 1966, Lao She walked out alone from the Red Persimmon Courtyard where he lived for 16 years and he spent his last day beside the Taiping Lake, located outside northwest corner of Beijing. He jumped into the lake at night...

What it doesn’t mention is that like many other intellectuals in China, he experienced mistreatment during the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s. Red Guards paraded him through the streets and beat him in public. The official line has him committing a poetic suicide in nearby Taiping Hu after enduring a "struggle session" at Kong Miao. According to the official record, this abuse left Lao She greatly humiliated both mentally and physically, and he committed suicide by drowning himself. But it also seems highly possible that he was in fact murdered by the Red Guards.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, Lao She was posthumously "rehabilitated" in 1978 and his works were republished.

Take Line 5 to Dengshikou and leave by Exit A. Walk due west along Baishu Hutong for 1km. At the T-junction, turn right and then turn left into Dengshikou West Street. Take second right into Fengfu Hutong. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

A Rare Temple – that Isn’t – in the Heart of Beijing

Pudu Temple is one of those places that is easily ignored in the hustle and bustle of the northern capital. There is scant mention of it on the internet, and being located down a side street, only the locals seem to know of its existence. But inside the grounds, the building – which is no longer used as a temple – is a rarity in Beijing, given that it maintains the architectural style of the Manchus.

The temple stands on the site of the God of the Northern Pole (of the Yuan Dynasty) and was later used as the site of the Hongqing Palace in the Ming Dynasty, which is when the present building was erected.

Pudu Temple was formerly named as the East Garden of the Imperial City (it being within spitting distance of the Forbidden City).

In the Ming dynasty, the main hall of Pudu Temple was actually part of the Imperial City. During the reign of Emperor Kangxi it was restructured into a temple. Originally it covered an area of 10,000 square metres, and in the early Qing Dynasty, it was the mansion of Duo Ergun, the prince regent.

The only principal building of Pudu Temple still standing is the nine-bay Ciji Hall, standing on a white marble Sumeru Seat, covered with open work of acanthus and lotus designs. There are 36 columns on the four sides. The three-eaved-roof of its veranda is covered with green glazed tiles with an edge of yellow glazed tiles. It was repaired and expanded in 1775 and the name of Pudu Temple was granted by Emperor Qianlong.

Since 1984, Pudu has been identified as a key cultural relic. The surrounding area has become a high-density residential district, and the hall was used for classrooms and warehouses of a school.

Nowadays it houses the Sanpin Art Gallery, which attracts few visitors to its exhibitions. The old side halls no longer exist.

Entry to the gallery is free (or it was when I went there) and you can pass an easy 15 minutes looking at the artwork on display.

Whether visitors go for the art, or simply to look at the building, I have no idea.

There’s a nice ceiling overhead in one of the galleries…

And some of the pictures on show when I was there were rather fetching (here’s Liu Do Air’s ‘White Moonlight’ with a cute looking leopard staring out from the canvas)…

I’m also rather taken with a tree-full of parrots (though I suspect this is totally down to the artist’s imagination, since parrots usually fly around in flocks).

Outside, a class in Taichi is just about to start…

… while a father shows his little boy the finer art of controlling a quadcopter, which comes perilously close on a couple of occasions to crashing into the roof.

No one seems to care overmuch. It’s a quiet and hot day. And at least the temple grounds had some visitors…

Pudu temple is on Nanchizi Street, Dongcheng District. Take a subway to Tian’anmen East and leave from exit B. Walk due east and then north up Chizi Nan Lu for 800 metres, then turn right for 50 metres. The temple is on your left.