Towering through the Ages
Since the formation of the commercial area around the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), for over 800 years, the area has enjoyed enduring popularity.
With the promulgation of the imperial edict of “changing Zhongdu (“Central Capital”) into Dadu (“Great Capital”) in February 1272, a miraculous change took place in the city of Beijing. Just only several years later, as the seat of the new capital of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), Beijing began to possess a new identity as a world commercial city on the occasion of walking toward the peak of the nation’s political centre. Its business prosperity not only was numbered in China but also surpassed that of famous European cities such Paris and Rome.
At that time, there lived a man of letters called Xiong Mengxiang who newly came to Dadu from Fuzhou of Jiangxi. Since he was much interested in the capital city, he usually moved about in the city in his spare time. One day, inadvertently, he came to Qizheng Tower. The moment he set foot in the place, he was immediately intoxicated by the boisterous din. From then on, the busy street became firmly imprinted in his mind, and he recorded the street in his Xijin zhi (“annals of Xijin”).
A Prosperous Yuan Dynasty Scene
People in the Yuan Dynasty called Gulou (“Drum Tower”) as “Qizheng Tower.” As the landmark in the centre of Dadu, the tower was built in 1272. According to Beijing lishi ditu ji (“atlas of the history of Beijing”), it was situated in the southern section of the Old Drum Tower Street to the west of today’s Drum Tower.
While carrying out their political programmes, ancient Chinese feudal rulers always integrated their ruling ideas into the construction of the capital city. After Yuan conquered the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234), since Zhongdu (capital of the Jin Dynasty) was seriously damaged in the war between the Jin and Yuan dynasties, Kublai Khan (reign: 1260–1295), Emperor Shizu, decided to build a new capital 1.5 kilometres north of Zhongdu. In accordance with the planning principles of the capital stipulated in the Rites of Zhou, while constructing the court (imperial
palace) in the city, Kublai ordered to build the Imperial Ancestral Temple on the left side of the imperial palace and Altar of Land and Grain on the right side of the palace. Since the area of Drum Tower was situated behind the imperial city, it was naturally planned as the legal commercial area.
As the official commercial district, the area around the Drum Tower naturally became the venue where goods at home and abroad gathered. As the seat of the government of the Yuan Dynasty, Dadu not only boasted many government offices and mansions but also was swarming with merchants and various artisans. The rations and goods for everyday consumption of them must be satisfied by depending on the provision from other places. According to the History of Yuan, every year, the Yuan Government had to transport 120 million to 180 million kilograms of grain from the south of the country to meet the demand of the residents in Dadu. Other goods and materials such as silk, tea and bamboo, also depended on the regions south of the Yangtze River. However, the materials transported via marine routes or the Grand Canal from the south were only firstly transported to Tongzhou before being transported to Dadu through carriages and horses, which was very inconvenient.
In the spring of 1292, Kublai adopted the suggestion of Guo Shoujing (1231–1316), a hydraulic expert at that time and began to lead the spring water in the north- western mountainous area into Jishuitan Lake by digging the Tonghui River. As a result, Jishuitan Lake became a latent wharf with a water area of over 60 hectares, stretching over one kilometre east to west and more than0.5 kilometres from south to north. In the autumn of the next year, Tonghui River was open to navigation. Since this area had a vast expanse of water like the sea, people called it, Qianhai (“the Front Lake”) of Shichahai and Houhai (“the Rear Lake”) of Shichahai as “Haizi” (sea). Thanks to the navigation of Tonghui River, not only were the tributes from the south could be directly transported to Jishuitan Lake via Tongzhou, but also magnates from Sichuan, Shaanxi, Jiangsu and Hubei were able to transport their goods from the south to Jishuitan Lake with the help of Tonghui River. Therefore, Jishuitan Lake became a busy commercial wharf.
For the purpose of transporting the goods form Jishuitan Lake to the commercial area of Drum Tower in a timely manner, an oblique street exceptionally appeared in the neatly-planned capital city with nine arteries from east to west and the same number of arteries from south to north. It was the earliest xiejie (byway) in the city of Beijing, called West Gulou Street. Since then, various goods transported on the Canal could be carried to the commercial district of Drum Tower, accelerating the exchange of materials.
According to Xijin zhi, at that time, the area boasted not only the makeshift bazaars full of sundry goods, but also special markets bristled with shops for jewellery, satin, leather, cap, boot, rice, flour, and iron articles including household implements and defensive arms and firewood. In addition, Xiong described that as a world-famous commercial metropolitan city, the banter of merchants from Persia, Central Asia, Western
Asia and Europe were heard in the streets of Dadu, especially in bustling crowds in the area of the Bell and Drum towers.
Rare Records of a Thriving Commercial Zone
In 1420, in the wake of Emperor Yongle’s (reign:1403–1425) announcement of establishing the capital in Beijing, the Central Pavilion and Qizheng Tower which had been ruined were rebuilt on their original sites. The two buildings restored during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) were renamed the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, respectively. They were more magnificent than what they had been during the Yuan Dynasty. At that time, they not only occupied the much more protruding downtown area, but also became a centre for telling time in Beijing. Amid the sound of morning bells and evening drums, some firms resumed business. At that time, the commercial zone of the Drum Tower, on the strength of numerous shops and firms, was one of Beijing’s most prosperous commercial zones.
This time, it is a young man called Shen Bang (1540–1597) who unfolded to the world the bustling scene of the commercial area of the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower in the form of Chinese characters. One day in June 1590, an imperial edict of Emperor Wanli (reign: 1573–1620) reached Linxiang in Huguang (today’s Changsha in Hunan Province). According to the imperial edict, Shen Bang, who was the magistrate of Linxiang back then, was ordered to take up the post of the magistrate of Wanping County under Shuntian Prefecture. With the help of his attendants, he quickly packed his luggage before saying leaving his family and starting his northward journey.
In September 1590, Shen arrived in Wanping, Beijing. In spite of its proximity to the imperial palace, Wanping County was economically abject. Shen was aware that as an official from other place, he must have a good understanding of the politics, economy, history, geography, folk custom and poetic prose left by bygone figures in the county. At this time, Shen’s subordinates told him that the county had no historical records of its own. Surprised by the bad news, Shen was determined to compile Wanping County’s annals.
In 1592, in his free time, Shen took up Shuntianfu zhi (“annals of Shuntian Prefecture”), a book given to him by a friend of his. The book was compiled during the reign of Emperor Yongle. While thumbing through the rare annals, he suddenly caught sight of several pages regarding the commercial zone of the Drum Tower.
Shen was very interested in the record of Shuntianfu zhi. Therefore, he copied all the description about the commercial district of the Drum Tower into Wanshu zaji (“miscellaneous notes on Wanping”) which was being compiled by him. In 1593, the book was published. Later, due to the oblivion of Yongle Shuntianfu zhi (“annals of Shuntian Prefecture compiled during the reign of Emperor Yongle”) with the elapse of time, Wanshu zaji became one of the few annals describing the thriving scene of the commercial area of the Drum Tower during the Ming Dynasty.
According to Wanshu zaji, during the reign of Emperor Yongle, the three lanes including Rizhong, Jintai and Jinggong around the Drum Tower boasted 821 shops on a medium scale or higher. Such shops were naturally distributed along the street in front of the Drum Tower. The area of the Drum Tower was a gathering place for consumers at different levels of social strata, such as government officials, imperial princes and court ministers, craftsmen, civilian workers and military personnel. The purchasing power of these people prompted the area’s commercial development.
On the square between the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower was a civilian market intended for the residents in inner Beijing. It was commonly called the Drum Tower Market. Here one could get various baked pancakes, stew, wontons, fried sausages, fermented soya-bean milk, buckwheat cakes, bean jelly, jellied bean curd, gruel of millet flour and sugar, sweet-sour plum juice and snowflakelike ice drink. Not only people nearby but also foodies from the city’s four corners come here to enjoy the delicacies.
A Bygone Prosperity Reappears
In the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), the business in the area of the Bell and the Drum towers still occupied a certain status. Back then, due to the silt of the watercourse of Tonghui River, the water of Jishuitan Lake became gradually dwindled. It no longer served as the wharf of water transportation any longer. However, with the formation of the scenic area around Shichahai, imperial princes and court ministers built their mansions there. The high ranking officials lived in luxury, which facilitated the rapid development
of commerce in the area of the Drum Tower. There appeared hotels, restaurants, teahouses, department stores, cloth and silk firms, shops selling food, cigarettes, wine, edible oil and salt, jewellery shops, money houses and curiosity shops along the street in front of the Drum Tower and Yandai Byway. The commercial development led to the increasing population around the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower. Consequently, for a long time, the area of the Drum Tower was characterised by commerce and markets.
The area around the Drum Tower was still prosperous during the late Qing Dynasty. As described in historical records: “Recently, all the shops that were burned and looted have been rebuilt according to their own original appearance, which seem more splendid than before. With the din of the crowd and neighing of horses, the area is still a thriving world.” For this reason, a saying went that the busiest places in Beijing are “Dongsi, Xidan and the zone in front of the Drum Tower.”
Chen Lianhen, a famous man of letters during the Republic of China period (1912–1949), was sentimentally attached to the prosperity of Peiping (the old name of Beijing). He not only hung about the most bustling commercial district here all day long, but also wrote what he had seen into his book entitled Jinghua chunmeng lu (“records of the spring dreams in the capital”), in which he wrote: “Di’anmen Street used to be a most bustling place. During the midday, the market would be open on a distance of one kilometre from the southern part of Di’anmen Street to the Drum Tower located to the north of the Di’anmen Gate. The market place was always filled with people and crowded with commodities.”
During the reigns of emperors Daoguang (1821–1851)and Xianfeng (1851– 1862), there were a lot of famous shops such as Hat Shop of Weiyizhai, Herbal Medicine Shop of Chen Yitie, Bakery of Guiying and Qinghetang Restaurant. Besides, in front of the Drum Tower was once the Wannian Tea Garden where during the reigns of emperors Qianlong (reign: 1736–1795) and Jiaqing (reign: 1795–1821), famous troupes often gave their performances and variety shows were staged in the days when no play was performed.
Later, the area of the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower gradually developed into a folk recreational venue. In 1925, after Xue Dubi (1890–1973), mayor of Peiping, set up the Popular Educational House of Peiping in the Drum Tower, he opened a cinema at the foot of the Bell Tower. He changed the vacant land between the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower into a “Civilian Market.” He called on street peddlers and artists to do business here, along with other businessmen engaged in various lines of business such as green teahouses, barbershops, children’s toys, birds, goldfish, crickets and katydids, which were beyond enumeration. Since the time when the market opened, many tourists would visit daily, adding to the bustling and thriving scene.
Since the formation of the commercial area around the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower during the Yuan Dynasty, for over 800 years, the commercial area has enjoyed enduring popularity. The commercial district around the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower is clearly recognisable. Luckily, the space between the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower nowadays still retains the scale, shape and structure of its ancient commercial area.
Today, the plan of renovation and rejuvenation of Gulou West Street with a history of more than 800 years has been officially launched. Running from Di’anmen in the east to Deshengmen in the west, the artificially planned old byway, the only one of its kind in Beijing’s history, has a length of 1.7 kilometres. In the near future, the street will be transformed into a cultural leisure area. Under the unifying principle in accordance with the texture of the old city, the architectural type of the old oblique street after its renovation will display the different styles of different periods ranging from the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, and the Republic of China to the modern and contemporary times. It will also help to manifest the uninterrupted development of Beijing for the next 1,000 years.
The Bell Tower (left) and the Drum Tower in Beijing