Honouring Village History
There are many village exhibition halls across Beijing that document rural culture and history, which help people from these areas reconnect with their memories and beliefs.
In one of his poems, Wang Wei (AD 701–761, a poet) of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907) described a feeling about his hometown: “You who have come from my old country, Tell me what has happened there! Was the plum, when you passed my silken window, Opening its first cold blossom?” Nowadays, people still think aobut their hometowns and how they used to look. People can see the original appearances of their hometowns at village exhibition halls in Beijing's rural areas. They have been preserved here in various ways, though many changes continue to occur in the towns and villages.
History of Zhangjiawan
There is a museum in Zhangjiawan Town in Tongzhou District that serves as a village exhibition hall. It is also China's first town-level museum. Located near the Zhangjiawan Village Committee, the museum has a total area of about 2,000 square metres (sq.m.). One can learn about many stories of Zhangjiawan there.
Zhangjiawan is a thousand-year-old town and boasted “the first wharf of the Grand Canal [Beijing–hangzhou Canal]” in ancient times. The Grand Canal was one of the greatest engineering works in ancient China and enabled smooth water transportation between the regions south of the Yangtze River and northern China. The Grand Canal played a role in developing Beijing into a majestic capital, ensuring the supply of grain to northern China and promoting prosperity in the areas it ran through, which led to numerous thriving towns. Zhangjiawan was one of them. The Grand Canal led to a booming economy in Zhangjiawan and also promoted its cultural development. Zhangjiawan features many heritage sites, including the Tongyun Bridge, the Guangfu Temple and Youminguan (a temple in honour of a goddess), which attracted Emperor Shunzhi (reign: 1644– 1661) of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) to pray for a son according to legend. Moreover, in history, many celebrities, such as Empress Dowager Xiao (regency: AD 982– 1009) of the Liao Dynasty (AD 907–1125), Matteo Ricci (1552–1610, an Italian Jesuit priest) and Cao Xueqin (1715–1763, the author of A Dream of Red Mansions), visited or lived in Zhangjiawan.
One can learn about the history of Zhangjiawan through its tangible and intangible heritage housed by the Zhangjiawan Museum. The Zhangjiawan Museum was completed and opened to the public in 2015. Famous Chinese scholar Feng Qiyong did the calligraphy for the name of the two-storey museum, which is inscribed on the wall above its main gate. The ground floor contains exhibition halls about the history and culture of Zhangjiawan; the exhibition on the first floor showcases the rise and prosperity of Grand Canal culture.
At the museum's lobby, one can have an overview of Zhangjiawan's history. An ancient boat in the hall witnessed the heyday of Zhangjiawan and represents the crowded ships and boats in the town. Photos on the walls showcase attractions in cities along the Grand Canal. One can also learn about the history of Zhangjiawan by watching programmes on LED screens.
The Dream Back to the Ancient Town Exhibition Hall is next. Walking on “Tongyun Bridge,” a 1:4 scale replica, and touching various stone lion sculptures on balustrades, one can see simulated Grand Canal water, as if it were endless stretches of history. Another name for the Tongyu River is the Xiaotaihou River (referring to Empress Dowager Xiao of the Liao Dynasty). Therefore, the Tongyu Bridge is also called the Empress Dowager Xiao Bridge. In ancient times, grain, timber and passengers were transported to Zhangjiawan and went into urban Beijing by land. The timber bridge could not bear the heavy loads as time went on though. In 1603, Emperor Wangli (reign: 1573–1620) of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) issued an imperial edict to replace the bridge with a stone bridge and gave the name: tongyun (“connection and transportation”). Standing on the replica bridge, one can see the copy of a painting from the Qing Dynasty depicting a busy water transportation scene along the Grand Canal. Tongzhou fu ( The Ode of Tongzhou) written by Wang Zifu (an author who was born in Tongzhou) is showcased at the exhibition hall. Traditional Chinese paintings and calligraphy are projected on a wall and display special relief effects, enabling visitors to be immersed in history as if they were transported to Zhangjiawan Town in ancient times, with streams of people busily coming and going and crowded boats and ships travelling along the Grand Canal. At the end of the replica bridge, one can see a stone stele with an inscription of one of the imperial edicts that was issued by a Ming Dynasty emperor and three stone steles that came from guild halls in Shanxi Province that were made during the Qing Dynasty.
After visiting the Dream Back to the Ancient Town Exhibition Hall, one can visit the Main Hall to learn more about Zhangjiawan's culture. A photo wall, porcelain wares and civilian kilns help visitors experience the busy water transportation of the Grand Canal. Some artefacts showcase the relation between Zhangjiawan and Cao Xuqian and his famous work A Dream of Red Mansions. Exhibition halls on the first floor introduce food, attractions and celebrities from the Grand Canal region.
Cao Xueqin and Zhangjiawan
Redology, the academic study of Cao Xueqin's A Dream of Red Mansions, is the theme of the Zhangjiawan Museum. Zhangjiawan is where Cao Xueqin's tombstone was unearthed and features the inspirations for Shili Street and Huazhi Lane, which are part of the setting in A Dream of Red Mansions. Zhangjiawan has become a treasure for people who research this book and related information.
When Cao Xueqin's tombstone was unearthed, it caused a sensation in redology circles. It is now located in the main exhibition hall of the museum. At first glance, it looks like an ordinary stone and is about one metre (m) long, 40 centimetres (cm) wide and 15 cm thick. Its surface is not flat, and there are many parallel notches. The side of the tombstone is rougher and also not straight. However, the lettering on it, reading “the tomb of Cao Zhan,” makes it extraordinary. The characters for “Ren Wu” are inscribed on the bottom left corner of the tombstone. Though incomplete, the character “Wu” can still be identified.
Cao Xueqin is the pseudonym of Cao Zhan. Most people know that Cao Xueqin is the author of A Dream of Red Mansions, but few know Cao Zhan is his real name. A Dream of Red Mansions is a masterpiece of Chinese literature, but there are not many records of the author's life experiences, resulting in countless mysteries. Researchers and academics are always excited when new information has become available about him.
It is said that in the autumn of 1968, 20-year-old villager Li Jingzhu found Cao Zhan's tombstone when he was working on a farm at “Dashaner Land” to the west of Zhangwan village. Li Jingzhu, a junior high school graduate, recognised it was the tombstone of Cao Xueqin. A male skeleton was also unearthed with the tombstone. At that time, the villagers speculated that a buried male must have a luminous pearl in his mouth, but nothing but earth was found. Disappointed, they buried the scattered bones in a haphazard manner. The tombstone was preserved by Li Jingzhu at his home until 1992 though.
When the tombstone became known by the public, it caused a tit-for-tat debate about the two major mysteries in redology, i.e. the place of burial and the year of death of Cao Xueqin, which had been heatedly debated for over half a century, without resulting in any conclusive answers. Prior to the unearthing of the tombstone, the views of scholars were based on textual evidence. The unearthing of the tombstone provided material evidence for the two mysteries.
Judging by the area where the tombstone was unearthed, it is doubtless that Cao Xueqin was buried in Zhangjiawan. Scholars previously inferred from the clues in A Dream of Red Mansions that he died on the eve of Chinese New Year of Ren Wu, i.e. on February 12, 1763. In the Chinese lunar calendar, the year of Kui Wei started on February 12, 1763, and the days before that still belonged to the year of Ren Wu. In 1947, Zhou Ruchang judged that Cao Xueqin died in the year of Kui Wei according to relevant historical materials.
Whether Cao Xueqin died in the year of Ren Wu or Kui Wei has always been a focus of debate, giving rise to two distinct schools. The characters for “Ren Wu” on the bottom left corner of the tombstone provided self-evident proof. Feng Qiyong wrote that he previously considered Cao to have died in the year of Kui Wei, but he changed mind after seeing the clearlyinscribed characters on the tombstone.
Although there is no more heated debate, the story of the tombstone is still popular. After the Zhangjiawan Museum was established, some scholars of redology donated academic books. Every two years, the scholars gather at Zhangjiawan, participate in seminars, explore the mysteries of redology and make redology more widely known through the platform built by the museum.
Contributions from Villagers
The Zhangjiawan Museum has rich collections. Some of the items were provided by the Tongzhou District Museum and the Grand Canal Museum, including treasured relics such as the monument of Shanxi Guild Hall, an imperial edict monument, the tombstone of Cao Xueqin and ancient iron anchors. Other items were donated by experts
and villagers, such as academic books, porcelain fragments and the ancient ship.
According to Yan Xiuli, a staff member from the Publicity Department of the Zhangjiawan Town Committee of the Communist Party of China, the government of Tongzhou District and Zhangjiawan Town called on the villagers to donate exhibits when the museum was established. The villagers showed great passion. Zhangwan village provided a free 800-sq.m badminton stadium as the venue. Liersi village donated bricks from the Han Dynasty. The villagers donated more than 6,000 relics and old objects featuring the local flavour and customs of Zhangjiawan Town.
The valuable cultural relics and old objects donated by the villagers are displayed in the museum, waiting for visitors to explore the history and culture behind them. The ancient ship is said to be over 100 years old. It is 6.4 m long and 1.6 m wide, with three large cabins and one small cabin. It is made of Chinese fir and is light, flexible and resistant to corrosion. It has been identified by experts as a barge that was used to ship grain during the Qing Dynasty period. Barges were mainly used for the transfer of small goods from river banks to rivers and big ships. Zhangjiawan was the northernmost port of the BeijingHangzhou Grand Canal. In ancient times, large cargo ships from southern China were parked here and their goods were delivered to different parts of the city by barge. According to Yan Xiuli, this barge was found in the home of a resident of Cangshang village, Zhangjiawan Town, which he inherited from his ancestors. In 2015, when the museum was built, the villager donated this barge to the museum and mentioned that “the barge is the best remaining witness of the Grand Canal's prosperous grain shipping industry.”
In the main exhibition hall, there is a wall with over 100 old photos donated by Zhou Fengguo, a villager of Zhangwan village. It is said that these photos were collected by Zhou Fengguo from the Panjiayuan market over the course of seven or eight years. The Grand Canal is full of sails and ships in the photos, and countless people are loading and unloading cargo onto and off of the dock, presenting a spectacular scene. Gate bridges, the name of which is widely known but the shape of which is seldom seen, can be seen in the old photos. There are also records of ancient postmen, Xihaizi Tower and the period when Tongzhou was invaded and occupied by the Japanese. These photos restored the architecture, customs and historical events of Tongzhou.
The porcelain exhibit of the main exhibition hall features exquisite porcelain fragments and some pieces of molded folk kiln salvaged from the Grand Canal. They were donated by Wang Shiwei, a librarian at the Beijing International Studies University. These porcelain fragments and molded folk kiln pieces were unearthed in Zhangjiawan and were identified by experts as relics from the Yuan (1271–1368), Ming (1368– 1644) and Qing Dynasties. There is also a huge iron anchor that was also salvaged from the Grand Canal. It is on loan from the Tongzhou District Museum.
These cultural relics and historical objects donated by local people represent the passion of villagers for their hometown and their interest in the inheritance and development of local culture.
Some people are unwilling to leave their hometown due to homesickness. Memories of one's homeland are precious for the rest of one's life. Village exhibition halls help people preserve their memories about their hometowns and also serve as a platform to pass on customs and culture.
From 2013 onward, the Office of the Beijing Civic Enhancement Committee and other government agencies began to develop village exhibition halls. According to the requirements of a document released by the People's Government of Beijing Municipality, village exhibition halls should be developed in “National Civilised Villages and Towns,”“the Capital's Civilised Villages and Towns” and “Beijing's Most Beautiful Villages.” The selection of sites for exhibition halls should follow the principle of focusing on villages and towns with historical heritage resources, important historical events or celebrities; villages and towns with cultural resources, taking advantage of rural tourism and rapid changes due to urbanisation; and villages and towns with good revolutionary traditions and emerging role models. The village exhibition halls help locals remember the history of their hometowns by sorting out a variety of local historical resources.
According to The Beijing News, 290 village exhibition halls with a total area of more than 100,000 sq.m. have been developed on the basis of accumulated investment of 466 million yuan, including financial subsidies of 63.8 million yuan provided by the municipal government. During the next three years (2019–2021), the municipal government will invest 50.82 million yuan to support the further development of 231 village exhibition halls, supply 432 video screens for civic enhancement and examine the utilisation of completed exhibition halls and video screens for further upgrading.
Apart from the Zhangjiawan Museum, Tongzhou District has established village exhibition halls in Xiaxinpu Village and Qiuzhuang Village. Village exhibition halls with local characteristics have been established in other districts, including Dougezhuang Township and Nanmofang Township in Chaoyang District, Hebei Village and Shijiaying Village in Shunyi District, Heidouyu Village and Yuzishan Village in Pinggu District, Shatanggou Village and Penyao Village in Yanqing District, and Shengshuitou Village and Dalingcun Township in Miyun District.
As a platform for passing on traditional culture, village exhibition halls showcase local history and social changes. For example, the Zhangjiawan Museum combines the culture of the Grand Canal and redology; the Qiuzhuang Village Exhibition Hall features local filial piety culture; the Wenyuhe Custom Museum documents its social and economic changes by displaying black-and-white televisions, sewing machines, food coupons, candlesticks and other historical items; Penyao Village Exhibition Hall features exhibits about the creation of ceramics, which is some of its major local intangible cultural heritage.
Village exhibition halls play a major role in serving as educational centres in addition to promoting local culture. Many exhibition halls feature a variety of lectures that introduce and talk about the continuation of local village culture and cultural resources.
The replica of Tongyun Bridge at the Zhangjiawan Museum