Memories of a Noble Lady
The area around Shichahai is a nostalgic place of old Beijing, be it Shichahai lake or the old mansions and heritage in hutong, they're all engraved with memories of the past. Many former residences of famous people can be found in hutong, including that of Soong Ching-ling's.
Soong Ching-ling lived from 1893 to 1981. She was the life partner and comradein-arms of China's great revolutionary, Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925). Having been involved in many local and international affairs, she was named a “gem of the nation” by Premier Zhou Enlai (1898–1976) and “the most noble lady of the 20th century” by internationalists and journalist Israel Epstein (1915–2005).
Soong lived in Beijing for more than 30 years, spending 18 years residing at 46 Houhai Beiyan, a historical courtyard that witnessed the prosperity and decline of the Qing Dynasty, and been through days of turmoil and enjoyed times of peace.
Inside the Former Residence
Soong's former residence is located on the northwest bank of Houhai Lake. In the early Qing Dynasty, this was the mansion of the grand secretary which later became a prince's palace. In the late Qing Dynasty, this was the mansion of the Guangxu Emperor's father. After it was passed down to Zaifeng (Guangxu's brother), Puyi (1906–1967), China's last emperor of China, was born here. The pavilions in the garden were built in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Famous plants and flowers, rare stones and rockeries are all full of historical culture and represent palace garden culture, ranking second to the Imperial Gardens.
In 1963, this place was rebuilt into Soong's residence. For eighteen years, Soong lived and worked in this mansion, managing state affairs for the People's Republic of China, international relations and world peace. Soong passed away on May 29, 1981 and her residence was opened to the public on May 29 the following year.
A quadrangle courtyard is in the premises. The living room is located in front of the south wing, and the dining room known as Changjinzhai is behind the north wing. In front of Changjinzhai stands two old midget crabapple trees that continue to grow.
The west wing room is skillfully modelled after an ancient style two-floor design where there is a small living and dining area below and Soong's bedroom and study is above. We can see Soong's desk with basic stationeries and a pair of glasses as we enter the room. A bell that Soong used to summon her workers is placed above the ink box. In the middle of the room is a small sofa, a tea table and two soft chairs, with Soong's bed placed against the west wall. When Soong was critically ill, medical equipment was placed near her bed.
Under the window, a simple dresser which she had been using for many years was worn out on both sides. When her workers advised her to have it replaced, she pointed to the middle of the dresser and said, “Look, it can still be used.” Beside the door is an old black Strauss piano from her brother Soong Tse-ven. This is probably the most luxurious possession in her residence. Soong would often play the piano behind closed doors, reminiscing about the happy times with her family in Shanghai and carefree college days.
A bookshelf placed against the wall in her study has a collection of thousands of local and foreign books. An English typewriter is placed on a small work desk opposite the bookshelf. Soong could frequently be heard typing away while seated on a small round stool.
Even though Soong was already 70 years old when she moved into this residence, she remained a very beautiful lady who looked modest, elegant and refined. She paid attention to her image as she had to attend many functions and events. However, she was very thrifty in her daily life. She hardly bought any new clothes after the 1950s but was already ready to help out when her workers ran into financial problems.
Premier Zhou praised her as the “gem of the nation” on various occasions. In 1992, to commemorate Soong's 100th birthday, the “Gem Pavilion” was built on the western hill in the garden. In 2001, on the 20th anniversary of Soong's death, China Soong Ching Ling Foundation held a ceremony to place a white marble sculpture in front of the bamboo grove east of the square.
Soong's former residence has attracted nearly 6 million visitors ever since it opened to the public 30 years ago. In the residence's west wing were some cultural objects and an exhibition on Soong's life. The exhibition has a display according to different themes based on a timeline of her life. There was an exhibition tour on Soong's life, which influenced many mainland provinces and regions including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and countries like the U.S., Singapore and Malaysia. The exhibition tour served as a window to Soong's ideals and spirit.
Life of a Revolutionary
Soong, a Wenchang Hainanese, was born into a wealthy family in Shanghai on January 27, 1893. At that time, China was going through turmoil. The Qing government pursued policies that were traitorous. There was no peace in the country and the masses had no means to live. Meanwhile, a group of patriotic revolutionists were getting ready to overturn the Qing government in order to save their nation. Among these revolutionaries, Sun Yat- sen stood out the most.
Sun Yat-sen was a frequent visitor to Soong's house in her early childhood days. Soong's father, Charlie Soong, studied theology and worked in the U.S. when he was younger. After returning, he worked as a pastor in Shanghai and later became engaged in trade and commerce. During this period, he became acquainted with Sun and was influenced by his democratic
revolutionary ideas. He also sympathised with the revolutionaries.
He allowed his house to be used as a meeting place for revolutionists and his printing shop printed leaflets for inciting revolution. Charlie Soong was determined to raise funds to help them overthrow the Qing government. Soong Ching-ling grew up under this influence and admired Sun, seeing him as a role model.
In the summer of 1907, the 14year old Soong went to the U.S. with her sister for their studies. She first studied foreign language in a private school and subsequently enrolled at Wesleyan College. As a student, Soong was diligent and eager to learn. Her intelligence, cultivation and eloquence left a deep impression on her teachers and classmates. Even though she was miles away, she stayed rooted to her homeland. Soong often said to her classmates: “I will never forget my motherland, for life would be meaningless.”
Soong later became familiar with the Xinhai revolution started by Sun Yatsen and immediately wrote an article in her college journal to express joy for her nation's upcoming change and road to freedom and equality. When her father sent her a new flag, she removed the dragon flag of the Qing Dynasty and replaced with the new flag.
In the summer of 1913, Soong graduated from college. She considered serving the country as an important task of overseas graduates. She once expressed her view in a student publication in 1911 that “China faces a big problem and is awaiting reform by overseas students.” This led her to return to help serve the nation.
During her stopover in Japan, she visited Sun Yat-sen's parents in exile in Tokyo. At that time, Sun was working on organisational strengths after he failed in the second revolution and had to escape. Soong was touched by his tough spirit and visited him seven times during her stay in September to find out more about the revolution and situation.
In the spring of 1914, Soong's elder sister Eling Soong got married and Soong took over her job as Sun Yat-sen's secretary. Even though the future remained in question regarding their revolutionary cause, Soong devoted herself to the job. It was patriotism that made her want to support the exiled Sun Yat-sen and she eventually married him in October 1915, going against her family's wishes.
Many years after Sun's death, Soong mentioned this to her good friend and journalist Edgar Snow (1905–1972), “I married Sun out of admiration for his heroic deeds, not love. I sneaked out secretly to help him out of romance. But this was all in good intention because I wanted to play my part in saving China. Doctor Sun proved himself capable and all I wanted to do was help.”
At the time, Soong took the initiative to help Sun Yat-sen, then exiled in Tokyo. Soon, she received a letter from him requesting her to make a trip to Japan. Soong's parents opposed but Soong secretly left the house while her parents were resting. “From the first day I got to know Doctor Sun, up until the day he passed away, I had always been loyal towards him, and still am.”
In her ten years spent with Sun, Soong was Sun's companion as well as comrade-in-arms, assisting him in the collation of documents, correspondence and summing up of experiences.
She shuttled between Shanghai and Guangzhou for the anti-yuan mission. To oppose the governance of warlords and for democracy, she accompanied Sun to inspect the artillery battery. Soong led an unstable life, always on the move for revolution, but she remained still as she believed in sacrifice as a revolutionary.
In June 1922, Sun Yat-sen's office was under siege and the situation became more grave. Soong, who was gentle and frail, acted courageously and refused to evacuate with Sun. She said to him, “China can do without me, but not without you.” After Sun had left, Soong disguised herself as a village lady and left the office under protection. It was not until a month later that she reunited with Sun.
Memories of Beijing
Soong had been to Beijing (then known as Beiping) twice before 1949. The first time was from December 31, 1924 to April 10, 1925 and the second time was from May 18 to 26, 1929. Her stay in Beijing was short but unforgettable.
In 1925, she first stayed at Beijing
Hotel with Sun Yat-sen and later moved into the residence of Gu Weijun ( V. K. Wellington Koo, 1888–1985) in Tieshizi Hutong where she worked day and night and accompanied Sun in his final days. In 1929, she arrived in Beijing again to attend a grand ceremony, escorting Sun's coffin to the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum.
In 1949, when the new China was about to be established, Mao Zedong (1893–1976) and Zhou Enlai assigned Deng Yingzhao (1904–1992) to send a handwritten letter to Shanghai, inviting Soong to Beijing for a discussion. Soong who had always placed importance on state affairs, made her way to Beijing to attend a conference of the People's Government, and was chosen as the vice president of the central government.
Soong's first formal residence in Beijing was at 44 Fangjinxiang, near Jianguomen. Previously the residence of a Japanese merchant, Soong lived on the second floor while the living and dining rooms were on the first floor. She received many international guests and state leaders in her ten years of living there.
In celebrating ten years of building the nation, Beijing began construction of a new train station near Fangjinxiang in 1959. She had no choice but to leave for a new home.
Soong's second residence was at 18 Houhai xiyan. Once an auxiliary building of Prince Gong's Mansion, it was an ancient architecture with red lacquered door. Soong moved in on National Day in 1959. Since construction was still ongoing, Soong gave the workers a treat in the hall, celebrating National Day with them.
Due to tight deadlines for construction work, the room was damp and the environment was unsuitable as Soong suffered from rheumatism (rheumatoid arthritis). In addition, the house faced the icy Shichahai lake, and loud music often awoke her. Premier Zhou noticed these circumstances and the central government intended to choose another site to build a new residence for Soong.
Upon hearing the news, Soong wrote a letter to Wang Guangmei (1921–2006), wife of Chinese President Liu Shaoqi (1898–1969), expressing her views. She said, “We are in the stage of building our nation, which requires finances. Building a new house would only increase our country's expenses. This makes me uneasy and I don't intend to relocate.”
However, the central government did not accept her opinions in consideration of her status and health. Premier Zhou personally chose her house at Houhai Beiyan, which was originally the garden mansion of Prince Chun, the father of China's last emperor. Premier Zhou oversaw the location's planning and reconstruction.
In April 1963, Soong moved into 46 Houhai Beiyan, with peaceful surroundings and beautiful landscape. The newly built two-storey house that faces a grass lawn is linked to the garden. Soong's study and bedroom are on the second floor while her living room and dining room are below. The courtyard is embellished with ancient trees, fresh flowers and pavilions. As a nostalgic person, Soong brought a grape plant with her, a few pomegranate trees and doves from her two previous residences.
A friend from the U. S. sent Soong a letter in 1966, asking her if she was really living in a palace. Soong replied, “This was once the mansion of Prince Chun, where Pu Yi was born. A stream flows around the garden with many beautiful trees and the grass is green almost year- round. In the garden lies a twostorey house. In the past, members of the imperial family would come here to listen to the birds chirping. I am indeed enjoying royal treatment here, but I'm not happy, because many meritorious people are still living in humble houses.” In fact, it was clear to everyone that this mansion was nothing more than an affirmation and recognition by the state and the people for Soong's merits and contributions.
Soong spent nearly 20 years residing in 46 Houhai Beiyan until she passed away on May 29, 1981. In this mansion, she left behind her laughter while chatting with local and foreign friends, her melancholy during troubled times, as well as her hopes and joys during a new socialist era.
The residence of Soong Ching-ling was originally the garden of Prince Chun’s Mansion.
Soong Ching-ling’s bedroom