Dashila’r, Bei­jing’s Thriv­ing Busi­ness Street

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Li Yi Edited by Mark Zuiderveld

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.

Time-hon­oured Brands

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”)

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.