Dashila’r, Beijing’s Thriving Business Street
Dashila’r was an ancient thriving commercial and entertaining area. Stories lie secretly behind each lane in this popular yet sequestered area.
Lanes appeared in Dashila'r as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), and the place formerly became a district during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Since the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Dashila'r became one of the most prosperous business and entertainment centres in Beijing. One story secretly lies behind each of these streets and lanes— Langfang Toutiao (first lane), Yangmeizhu Xiejie (byway), Dashila'r West Street, east Liulichang district, and the “Eight Great Lanes,” portraying prosperous scenes with a strong Beijing culture.
One day in 1705, Qing poet Zha Shenxing came to Dashila'r on his visit to an old friend who had just settled in Beijing. From then on, he never forgot this rich and populous district in the south city proper of Beijing. In his Ren hai ji (“notes on society”), Zha Shenxing described Dashila'r as a place for “gathering the quintessence of Beijing and presenting unmatched scenes.”
A Desolate Place with a Golden Opportunity
No written record of Dashila'r was found in historical literature over a long period, and it wasn''t until the discovery of a memorial tablet in a tomb that some clues alluding to the early history of Dashila'r were available. One day in March 1770, while excavating earth for making coloured glaze, some kiln workers stumbled upon the tomb of Li Neizhen, a censor-in-chief of the Liao Dynasty (AD 916–1125). According to inscriptions on the tablet, Li died in June AD 978, and was buried at Haiwang Village, Yanxia Township, in east Nanjing (today's Beijing, the secondary capital of the Liao Dynasty). These inscriptions evidenced that the tomb site was part of Haiwang Village, a village located outside the Eastern Gate of Nanjing. Like its neighbour Liulichang, the district of Dashila'r, which occupied a vast space of land, was also dotted with villages and few residents. Although Nanjing later became Zhongdu (the Central Capital) of the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234) and Dadu (the Great Capital) of the Yuan Dynasty, its suburbs remained unchanged. It never occurred to villagers here that their hometown
would one day become a prosperous land. Yet big changes really took place.
Later, Ming Emperor Zhu Di (reign: 1402– 1424) re- established Peiping as the capital and launched large-scale construction of the city. In November 1419, a big change was made for Beijing's layout. The southern city wall of the original Great Capital of the Yuan Dynasty was expanded southward from today's Chang'an Avenue to the road lined with Chongwenmen, Zhengyangmen and Xuanwumen (“Front Three Gates”). This laid the foundation for the layout of Beijing's inner city during the Ming and Qing dynasties. From then on, Dashila'r became a residential community close to the southern city wall of Beijing.
The construction of Langfang (literally “corridor house”) and the accompanying business during the reign of Emperor Yongle (1403–1425) played a significant role in promoting Dashila'r's development. It was until then that the district experienced vast changes, growing overnight from a sparsely inhabited village into the most bustling and prosperous place in the capital.
Ren hai ji is a sketchbook written by Zha Shenxing, a famous poet from the early Qing Dynasty, during his 30-year life in Beijing after he left his hometown. Divided into two volumes, the book has 397 entries, mainly documenting historical anecdotes of the Ming and Qing dynasties, local specialities in Beijing, anecdotes of the regime of the Ming Dynasty and what he met and heard while working at the inner court and collating literature. The book abounds in anecdotes about the imperial court and the life of the common people, places of interest, and various folk habits. For example, these entries describe the separate stationing of the troops under the “Eight Banners” (the military administrative system in the Qing Dynasty), the pay and provision for soldiers of Man and Han ethnic groups, the landcultivation rituals in the Ming Dynasty, and the names of palaces in the residential area of the Forbidden City. As the materials collected in the book were obtained first-handed, they were of great value as a reference for researching the history of the imperial courts of the Ming and Qing and history of Beijing.
The book records the business prosperity at the area of Dashila'r during the reign of Emperor Yongle: “Shops and houses were built for inviting people to do business, to store commodities and to live at the four city gates and Bell and Drum Towers of Beijing in the early period of the reign of Emperor Yongle. The general term for these places was “langfang” (corridor houses).” These “corridor houses” later became the shopping streets of today.
Rent and taxes were paid at three levels according to varying degrees of importance based on the locations of corridor houses. The government selected one person to serve as “head of the corridor” to be responsible for collecting payable banknotes or charging rent and taxes in kind from local merchants and ordinary people. Collected rent and taxes would be sent to the warehouse of the Palace Treasury to serve as expenses for holding court banquets or for granting awards to people. “Langfang Hutong” (corridor house lane) located south of the Zhengyangmen was named after the “Langfang” in the early reign of Emperor Yongle. Upon the removal of the southern city wall to the Front Three Gates, geographical advantages of the area south of Zhengyangmen, with “corridor houses” built as a governmental measure to advocate trading, brought great business opportunities to Dashila'r. With the gradual gathering of people, streets and lanes were named “corridor houses” which were sequenced evenly.
Undergoing Transformation to Achieve Prosperity
In 1553, to guard against the attack of enemy bandits from the north, Emperor Jiajing (reign: 1522–1567) hurriedly had the outer city of Beijing built, with the city wall located in today's southern section of the Second Ring Road. Seven years later, a local chronicle titled Jingshi wucheng fangxiang hutong ji (“collection of lanes in five cities of Beijing”) was circulated. Based on the collection of official documents and private materials, which recorded the names of lanes and alleys in Beijing during the mid-ming Dynasty. The author was Zhang Jue, commander of the Imperial Guard.
Little record about Zhang Jue was found in history books. The only trace left by him was his capacity of Commander of the Imperial Guard and his words left upon the publication of his book. “I would record each and every lane in the five districts documented in the government offices as well as the customs and habits circulating in these lanes. I compiled information about these lanes according to their distance as well as size. Also recorded in this book are eight famous scenic spots of Beijing, historic sites, mountains and waters, government offices, schools, gardens and farms, warehouses and yards, temples, ancestral temples, altars and tombs, and passes and bridges.”
The book names of “Langfang first, second, third and fourth lanes”first appeared west of the south of the city proper of Beijing. These were the earliest names of Dashila'r in history; and the complete transformation of these four lanes marked the final formation of Dashila'r as a prosperous business street.
During the reign of Emperor Hongzhi (1488–1505), the number of people migrating into Beijing increased as a result of natural disasters and heavily-levied taxes. To prevent theft and to hunt for criminals, the wicker gates were installed near streets and lanes within the inner city following a government order. When evening drew on, the wicker gates were closed, admitting the entry of no unoccupied people. Nearly one thousand wicker gates installed everywhere in Beijing were used as doors to prevent thieves from breaking in.
The defensive wicker gates were installed at both ends of the lanes. During the Qing Dynasty, the outer city of Beijing was divided into “Five Cities (East, South, Middle, North and West Cities)” extending from east to west, with each sprawling from north to south. During the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (reign: 1723–1736), the government again instituted a strict system of opening and closing the city gates. To reinforce urban security, the wicker gates were installed at both ends of the lanes in the outer city of Beijing, and the lanes were subject to management by designated officials — the “Censors of Five Cities”.
Such a system was further implemented during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736–1795). Officials were arranged to inspect whether the wicker gates were kept in good condition and opened and closed on time every day. The wicker gates were topped with wooden plates on which the names of the lanes were written. If any damage to a wicker gate was discovered, the official would order the shops and those living in the lane to have it repaired. The well- established shops needed more protection. These shops raised money to have high and solid wicker gates, which were unlike others installed at the east and west ends of the Four Langfang Lanes. These gates became decorative marks of the lanes, and are referred to as “Dashila'r (big wicker gates)”. After a long time, “Dashila'r” became the formal names of the lanes and their original names Langfang Sitiao (“Four Langfang Lanes”) were forgotten. The name “Dashila'r” was also marked on the “Qianlong jingcheng quantu“(“Map of the Whole Beijing during the reign of Emperor Qianlong”), and became an historic symbol of prosperous business.
During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, Wu Changyuan, a man born in Hangzhou who lived in Beijing for a long time, updated and enlarged two books— Rixia jiuwen (“old stories of the capital city”) and Rixia jiuwen kao (“investigations into old stories of the capital city”) by making field investigations and comparing his investigation findings with what was recorded in historical books and tablets. He also corrected mistakes and answered questions these two books raised. His findings were recorded in Chenyuan shilüe (“a brief account of the capital”). Chenyuan shilüe has high historical value as it records the history, scenic spots, government offices, former residences of wellknown people, guildhalls of counties and other administrative areas in Beijing, and incorporates 18 maps in the beginning, including a map of all of Beijing, the map of the imperial palace, the map of the boundaries between Eight Banners, and maps of the gardens and farms in the West Mountain. These maps were the earliest tourist maps in Beijing's history.
Beijing remained the capital of China in both the Ming and Qing dynasties. The functions of Dashila'r as a business district also remained unchanged; it became all the more prosperous. In his Chenyuan shilüe, Wu Changyuan called the district to the west of the Qianmen (Front Gate) Street which wasn't far from the inner city “a market place where stores, hotels, merchants and theatre actors are gathered,” and claimed that Dashila'r was much more prosperous than any other place within Beijing's outer city.
During Dashila'r's development over the years, many shops operating business here have become time-honoured brands.
For example, Liubiju, a sauce and pickle shop, opened its business here during the Ming Dynasty; Tongrentang, a shop of traditional Chinese medicine opened its business here during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (reign: 1662–1723) in the Qing Dynasty; Majuyuan, a shop that sold caps, Neiliansheng, a shoe shop, and Ruifuxiang, which later opened four other outlets and was one of the eight major shops that specialised in silk and cloth goods whose names all include the character “Xiang” (meaning auspicious), started businesses here during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing (reign: 1795–1821).
The emergence of time- honoured shops was usually associated with the services they provided for imperial families, high- ranking officials and aristocrats. This was a characteristic unique to business operation in Beijing. The imperial families set strict demands for quality and types of products, yet they also provided sufficient funds and stable sales channels, which were conditions favourable for businesses to create their brands and to enjoy a reputation and popularity among the common people. Details were recorded in Wu Changyuan's book. For example, Tongrentang, which opened its business in 1669, has been well known for providing imperial families with pills, powders, ointments and pellets. Majuyuan, which opened its business in 1811, specialised in producing caps and satin shoes for imperial family members, dukes and ministers. Neiliansheng, which opened its business in 1853, specialised in making shoes for imperial family members and court officials. Compiled by Neiliansheng, the book Lüzhong beizai recorded the sizes of shoes for these clients, showing the business acumen of bosses of Neiliansheng. Ever since it opened its business in 1893, Ruifuxiang has been among the top “Eight Big Xiang” stores (referring to the eight stores which specialise in the cloth and silk goods industry in Beijing and have the character “Xiang” in their names). It is still the most time- honoured shop among all shops engaged in this line of trade. As Beijing's financial centre, Dashila'r gathered 26 furnace houses that forged silver ingots, 87 private banks, 26 private banking houses, 40 goldsmith's shops and a number of banks. The prosperity of businesses in Dashila'r reached its apex during the late Qing Dynasty and the early period of the Republic of China (1912–1949).
The business prosperity and gathering population drove the entertainment industry to success. During the Qing Dynasty, it was explicitly forbidden to open theatres inside the inner city, so theatres in the southern part of the city were opened south of Qianmen, including Qingle Theatre, Sanqing Theatre, Guangde Theatre, Guanghe Theatre and Tongle Theatre. With the opening of these theatres, Dashila'r became more popular than any other place in Beijing.
During the period of the Republic of China, Beijing witnessed political chaos and wars after it underwent political struggles. Businesses in Dashila'r District also experienced setbacks and frustrations in their development. In this period of chaos and suffering, the businesses inherited traditions and preserved time-honoured brands which originated from the Ming and Qing dynasties. They ushered in new opportunities of development after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. About 800 shops gathered here, including timehonoured brands such as Changchuntang Pharmacy, Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, Duyichu Shaomai Restaurant, Yueshengzhai Meat Products Shop and Guanghe Theatre. Since the initiation of opening-up and reform policies, these old shops have launched reform and established holding companies. Backed by new operations of modern enterprises and deep-rooted historical traditions, these old shops having witnessed vicissitudes for centuries are bursting with new life.
In 2007, the Beijing Municipal Government started a renovation of this district to help restore what Dashila'r previously looked like and to inherit its business culture. In July 2008, the Dashila'r Business District reopened after overall renovation. With its uniqueness, entirety and tourist value of its restored appearance, Dashila'r formed an important part of urban memory of Beijing as an ancient capital, and created for itself cultural, business and tourist opportunities.
Jingshi wucheng fangxiang hutong ji (“collection of lanes in five cities of Beijing”)