Records of a Bygone Beijing
Beijing’s conventional activities during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) have been documented in Beijing suihua ji (“records of bygone Beijing”) by Lu Qihong, a good read for curious readers of Beijing’s customs.
As a writer, Lu Qihong gave a vivid description of festivals and customs of Beijingers during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).” This comment by Zhu Yizun (1629–1709), the compiler of Rixia jiuwen (“old news of Beijing”), was written when he wrote a letter to a relative. When Rixia jiuwen was submitted for publication and caused a sensation in the capital, all browsers caught sight of the praise given to Lu Qihong in the preface. To satisfy their curiosity, they quickly hunted for the lost Beijing suihua ji (“records of bygone Beijing”). Before long, the annals about Beijing's conventional activities in the Ming Dynasty spread all over vast streets and small alleys, becoming a highly-praised book by readers. Beijing suihua ji by Lu Qihong has become a necessity for those researching Beijing's customs.
A Jubilant Past
Beijing suihua ji was written in 1644. On March 19 of that year, Chinese rebel leader Li Zicheng (1606–1645) commanded his troops to capture the city of Beijing, leading to the downfall of the Ming Dynasty. Soon, aided by Wu Sangui (1612–1678), a former general of the Ming Dynasty, Manchu prince Dorgon (1612– 1650) led his army to enter Beijing where Fulin (1638–1661) ascended the throne by offering sacrifices to the heavens, land and his ancestral temple. He called his dynasty Qing (1644–1911), which marked the beginning of the reign of Emperor Shunzhi (1644–1662). The new Qing government opened the door to former ministers and subjects of the disintegrated Ming Dynasty. Then, all the people of the
Ming Dynasty including Lu Qihong faced their political choice. Though Lu was faced with complicated affairs in life, he still loved the city. Whenever in a grave situation, he remembered the jubilant Mid-autumn Festival (the 15th day of the 8th lunar month) when he came to Beijing for the first time.
Lu wrote in his book, “The 15th day of the 8th lunar month is called the MidAutumn Festival when people presented moon cakes to each other, intended for reunions. In three or five days before the festival, all the main roads and markets are crowded with sheds in which tall tables are placed. On the tables are boxes and baskets full of fresh peaches, pomegranates, pears, jujubes, grapes and apples. In the evening, under the lamplight, you can catch sight of red and green fruits with an intense fragrance while fruit sellers sell their fruits in the street. During the market in daytime, there are various commodities such as clay rabbits, those wearing helmets and armour like generals, those wearing blouses and carrying things like peddlers, and those sitting or dancing like feasters. All the commodities together with those like colour paintings and clay human beings and horses are placed on tall shelves for sale to amuse children. On the evening of the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, fresh fruits and moon cakes, cockscombs, and soybean twigs are arranged under the moon. While burning incense, women kneel, followed by the men. Since women are considered to belong to yin (the feminine or negative principle in nature) like the moon, they are given priority at the ceremony of offering sacrifices to the moon, taking on appropriate meaning. After the ceremony, all family members assemble with melons and fruits. They drink together in the yard, called a wine reunion.”
More than 40 years later, during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662–1723), the country was at peace. Although Zhu Yizun thumbed through numerous records about Beijing's seasonal occasions, only the documents by Lu moved him the most.
Before leafing through Beijing suihua ji, Zhu had looked up records of seasonal occasions of Beijing in other local annals. Of them, Xijin zhi (“annals of Xijin”) is a book of annals which gave the earliest records of Beijing's history and its surrounding area. In this book, the “Suiji” chapter depicts seasonal occasions. It gave a chronological description of the festivals and customs of Dadu (the Great Capital) during the Yuan Dynasty (1271– 1368) year-round.
Compiled by other scholars Liu Tong (c. 1593–1636) and Yu Yizheng (1597–1636), Dijing jingwu lüe (“a brief introduction to the scenery of imperial capital”) is the extant work which gave the most detailed narration of the natural conditions and social customs of Beijing in the Ming Dynasty. The book includes a
special chapter for documenting Beijing's seasons and scenery. “Chunchang” gives a vivid and detailed description of festivals in ancient China such as whipping oxen during the beginning of spring, paying respect to a New Year's call, the Lantern Festival, Tomb-sweeping Day, Dragon Boat Festival, Chinese Valentine's Day and the Lunar New Year's Eve.
Shuntianfu zhi (“annals of Shuntian Prefecture”) includes customs in the first volume, including contents of seasonal occasions chronologically described on a monthly basis.
Lu's Beijing suihua ji not only records trivial details of Beijing's seasonal occasions in the Ming Dynasty but also tells stories of its evolution lasting as long as hundreds of years. Because of this, Zhu highly praised the annals.
In the beginning, Zhu thought that only those who grew up in Beijing and were familiar with its history could complete such annals recording both big events and small trifles. However, when he learned about Lu Qihong from his friend, he became surprised.
Twenty Years’ of Love for Beijing
Talking of motivation behind creating Beijing suihua ji, Lu Qihong once told his friends, “Since I've lived in Beijing for twenty years, I know a little about seasonal occasions and customs. In the autumn of 1644, I asked passersby about Beijing in the past and wrote down with my pen what I was able to remember. The emperor has now put forward a plan of reconstruction and designated Beijing as the capital in a different time, which has been seen by roaming officials.”
In Chinese history, it's often seen that works in various styles were written because of festivals, with works usually about what had been seen, felt and thought during festivals. Furthermore, the historical tradition characterised by special records of festival customs of a specific locality for a short period of time came into being. The reason why an “historical tradition” came into being is not only that a series of works including Jingchu suishi ji (“festivals in the Jingchu Area”), Qinzhong suishi ji (“festivals in Central Shaanxi”), Dijing jingwu lüe and Minggong shi (“history of the imperial palace of the Ming Dynasty”) appeared, but also that most of the works or related parts in them were written by writers according to what they had experienced or seen at seasonal festivals. In most cases, they adhered to authentic records based on a traditional calendar or they compiled contents by following a timed calendar in an obvious or obscure manner, thus forming a relatively consistent narrative.
Beijing suihua ji constitutes a characteristic link in the traditional chain about the documentation of festivals and Chinese folk life. It can be found in Lu's description of folklore that he stuck to the principle of veritable documents and followed a timed calendar.
Born in Pinghu, Zhejiang Province, Lu lived in the period between the end of the Ming Dynasty and the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). He was fond of learning since childhood. At age 10, he was able to write prose in an old style. At age 20, he already read many classical and historical books. He liked talking about the past and present, and spoke freely and comfortably in public.
There are not many historical records on Lu Qihong. He travelled to Nanjing in his early years and left behind a romantic story of buying lotus flowers, included in Ming shi hua (“notes on classical poetry of the Ming Dynasty”) which has been handed down today. According to records, one day Lu Qihong brought wine on a boat. By hiring girl singers from former opera houses, he entertained many ci poets on the Qinhuai River. While drinking wine, a girl sighed regrettably, “It's a pity that no lotus on both banks can add to the fun.” This complaint was heard by Lu. The next day, he entertained guests again. At the feast, a night breeze was blowing. To the surprise of guests, a lotus fragrance of lotus came to them. It turned out that Lu offered a high price for several hundred pots of lotus flowers before crumbling them and putting them in the water. This made him famous for a time.
Lu lived in Beijing for as long as 20 years. During this period, he made friends and travelled. Beijing already became his second home. Dijing jingwu lüe, printed for the first time in 1635, quoted six poems by Lu Qihong. Judging from these poems, it shows that Lu was familiar with Beijing culture and sentimentally attached. Instead of recording superficial phenomena, Beijing suihua ji recounted Lu's life experience with meticulous anecdotes.
Sincere Feelings Lead to Perfect Records
In 1644, Beijing suihua ji was published. But due to the turbulent politics at the time, the book soon became oblivious. Because it caught Zhu Yizun's attention, the book couldn't be seen widely by readers today.
Zhu Yizun so admired the annals he found that he even copied chapters of the book into his Rixia jiuwen. Having quoted a lot from Beijing suihua ji, Rixia jiuwen was revised and enlarged into Rixia jiuwen kao (“study of old news of Beijing”). Later, the revised book became widely popular, contributing to understanding and using Beijing suihua ji on the part of later generations. Rixia jiuwen kao was expanded on the basis of Rixia jiuwen by scholar Yu Minzhong (1714–1799), Yinglian (1707–1783) and the like during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736–1795). Since the enlargement was based on the principle of “retaining quotations of the original book and adding supplements by
modern people to the back,” Rixia jiuwen kao reserved quotations of Rixia jiuwen from Beijing suihua ji. The completion of Rixia jiuwen kao made the quotations to Beijing suihua ji quoted from Rixia jiuwen kao itself, for example, related contents in Shuntianfu zhi (“annals of Shuntian Prefecture”) revised by Wu Lüfu (1817–1887) and compiled by Miao Quansun (1844–1919) in 1886. Most of the quotations in Beijing suihua ji by later generations came from Rixia jiuwen kao.
Under Lu's design, Beijing suihua ji was compiled according to chronology. It goes on describing festivals, remaining seasonal occasions and miscellaneous affairs in each lunar month, forming a narrative with festivals and miscellaneous affairs in a month as one unit. In this way, annual folk life of Beijing and surrounding areas in the Ming Dynasty was documented chronologically.
With plain language, Lu faithfully recorded the appearance of the capital city at the end of the Ming Dynasty. During the middle and late period of the Ming Dynasty, with the development of a commodity economy, the prosperity of cities and the concept of a renewal of life of the time as well as an increasing spice of life, Beijing as an imperial capital witnessed changes in people's life during seasonal occasions. One of these changes was the growing popularity of sightseeing in festivals and the formation of tourist attractions. At that time, sightseeing activities weren't only held during traditional festivals such as New Year's Day, the Lantern Festival, the Qingming Festival, Dragon Boat Festival and Double Ninth Festival; in addition, days when people burnt incense at temple fairs and other days also became a time for people to go on sightseeing excursions.
From the description of Beijing suihua ji, readers today can better understand the pursuit of fashion on the part of people in the imperial capital towards the end of the Ming Dynasty. Such a pursuit was characterised by novelty with an emphasis on timeliness. The common practice was that some people, at a costly expense, managed to possess and enjoy novelties or rare goods and services.
For example, during the Spring Festival, off-season vegetables such as cucumbers and bean pods were common at banquets. Peonies, Chinese herbaceous peonies and roses are off-season flowers. Jasmines and jasiminum grandiflorums are not only out of season flowers but also grow in southern China. However, these flowers were seen in families of nobles and those of court jesters. The price of such flowers was extremely high, and the standard of trading according to quality was temporarily abandoned. Intangible fashion already possessed a high price and was the typical expression of fashion.
As part and parcel of folk activities in ancient China, rituals in seasonal festivals are conventional activities observed by traditional Chinese for thousands of years. With a time-honoured history, Beijing has been the national political and cultural centre since the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. With the development of society and history, Beijing's cultural traditions is moving towards maturity and continues to develop.
Thanks to Beijing suihua ji as an independent chronological text and document of the customs of joyous festivals on seasonal occasions in old Beijing in annals such as Shuntianfu zhi and Beijing zhi (“annals of Beijing”), descendants can get a clearer understanding of old Beijing's festive and seasonal periods. Over time, a traditional culture remains. Beijing suihua ji and other annals not only have more literary and cultural value, but also have already become a pivot linking Beijing's past and present cultures. Because of its existence it has forged a complete Beijing in the recesses of history.