Tow­er­ing through the Ages

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Zhang Guoyao Edited by Mark Zuiderveld Photo by Zhang Zongyun

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

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