The Former Residence of Ji Xiaolan
At the bustling West Main Street at Zhushikou in Beijing stands the former residence of Ji Xiaolan (1724–1805, a scholar), a historic blue-bricked, grey-tiled building.
At the bustling West Main Street at Zhushikou in Beijing, the occasional historic blue-bricked, grey-tiled buildings strike the eyes. The former residence of Ji Xiaolan (1724–1805, a scholar) is one of those arresting sights. While at a glance it is hardly distinct from the other ancient buildings here, but its redlacquered arched gate greets the eye with large Chinese characters reading Ji Xiaolan guju (“The Former Residence of Ji Xiaolan”).
Home of Verdant Majesty
First built during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng ( reign: 1723– 1736) of the Qing Dynasty ( 1644– 1911) as the residence of a key official, this courtyard house later became Ji Xiaolan’s home in Beijing. The wisteria in the front yard of this south- facing residence has become a pretty sight on the street ever since the compound’s outer wall was removed. Standing under the wisteria grips the imagination, as it’s said the old wisteria was planted by Ji himself more than 200 years ago. In his book Yuewei caotang biji ( Notes of the Thatched Abode of Close Observations), he writes: “Its shade covers the whole yard, and its vines have spread to other places. When it blooms, flowers hang down to the ground like purple clouds, overwhelming with their fragrance.”
The principle building in the front yard is a bright and spacious hall. On either side of the yard behind the hall, there was a Chinese cherry-apple tree, although now only the one on the east side survives, still luxuriant with brilliant blossoms each spring. According to the inscription on the stone tablet under the tree, when Ji was a teenager, he fell in love with Wen Luan, a clever, beautiful servant girl in the family of his uncle. Temperamentally compatible, both were fond of cherry-apple blossoms. Later on, however, the love between them was shattered, and Wen Luan fell ill of grief and died. In the yard of Yuewei Cottage (named by Ji himself), he planted two cherry-apple trees to commemorate his lost love.
Nowadays the southern building in this courtyard is the “Ji Xiaolan Memorial Hall,” in which such objects as the writing brush, ink stick, ink slab, paper and pipe bowl that Ji Xiaolan used centuries ago are on display. Yet it’s the two images of Ji that truly catch the eye. The first a plaster bust, the other a full-sized portrait showing Ji with his thin face and wide eyes on soft Xuan paper. To the north is the well-known “Yuewei Cottage.” The four red-lacquered pillars standing at the gates of the two houses were inscribed with the verses: “The gentle wind and bright sun are pleasures from Heaven; the green bamboo and fresh orchid live in perfect harmony” and “Yearly stretches the charming scenery; brilliantly rolls around the spring.” The cursive, elegant calligraphy of these verses are said to be copied from Ji’s own writing.
Editor for the Imperial Family
Ji Xiaolan was born into a scholarofficial family during the Qing Dynasty in Xian County, at the time part of Hejian Prefecture, Zhili Province. Ji lived during the heyday of the Qing Dynasty. As a successful candidate in the highest imperial examination held in 1755,
Ji’s career was set. In 1768, Emperor Qianlong (reign: 1736–1795) promoted Ji Xiaolan to be by his side as the imperial academy’s scholar, rather than have him sent out as a remote provincial official where his abilities would languish. Later, Ji became a Minister of Rites and an Instructor of Princes.
During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, a colossal culture project, the compilations of the Siku quanshu
( Complete Library in Four Sections) and Siku quanshu zongmu ( Catalogue of the Complete Library in Four Sections), directly pushed Ji’s personal value and academic development to its highest peak.
Siku Quanshu, the largest collection of books in Chinese history, contains nearly all of the ancient Chinese classics prior to the reign of Emperor Qianlong. To compile such a voluminous work was extremely demanding. Financial resources had to be pooled to collect books nationwide, a special institution founded to secure the cooperation of scholars, and many competent, erudite scholars invited to command the progress of such a massive undertaking. In 1773, the compilation of Siku quanshu, presided over by Emperor Qianlong himself, officially began. On the firm recommendation of Liu Tongxun (1698–1773), then Secretary of the Grand Council and Minister of National Defence, Ji Xiaolan was appointed chief editor, to compile the entire work together with Lu Xixiong (1734–1792) and Sun Shiyi (1720–1792).
As they worked in the editorial office on Siku quanshu, Ji Xiaolan and his colleagues sifted through collected books according to comments made by collators, deciding which to adopt of the volumes upon volumes of work. After submitting the catalogue for Emperor Qianlong’s consent, the books to be block-printed would be sent to the relevant department of Hall of Martial Valour for printing, while those to be copied would be sent to the department for rare books at the Hall of Martial Valour for copying.
Then they would carefully scrutinise the bibliographic notices made by collators—to wit these notices were modified by way of expanding, deleting, separating or combining them as regards the dynasty, birthplace and life of the author, as well as the theme, edition and the origin of each book. They would even polish these notices by weighing every word to improve the style.
In the end, in reference to the four divisions of Jing (“Classics”),
Shi (“Histories”), Zi (“Masters”) and
Ji (“Collections”) from traditional bibliography, the editors carefully classified the books, compiling them into the 200 volumes of Siku quanshu zongmu.
As Sun Shiyi occupied the post for only a short time, most of the work on the compilation as well as the final polish was undertaken by Ji Xiaolan and Lu Xixiong. Of the two, Ji Xiaolan made the greater contribution to the work, praised by the people as the most gifted of all eminent scholars and the man who played the most critical role in accomplishing the monumental work.
As soon as he finished compiling Siku quanshu, Ji immersed himself in writing the novel Yuewei caotang biji. In this book, Ji Xiaolan expressed his views through fantastic tales. His terse, splendid prose forms a striking contrast with that of Pu Songling (1640–1715). The appearance of Notes of the Thatched Abode swayed the general populace to expand their horizons beyond such classical novels like Liaozhai zhiyi ( Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio). Its impact was profound and classical Chinese novels would fall between Strange Tales and Thatched Abode for generations.
In 1805, Ji Xiaolan died of disease in his Yuewei Cottage. From then on, his residence was been transferred from one owner to another, bearing witness to the activities of many celebrities, scholars and patriots.
In 1931, Mei Lanfang (1894–1961), famous Beijing Opera artist, bought the residence, and together with Yu Shuyan (1890–1943) and Qi Rushan (1875– 1962) established the National Opera Association and the Training Institute of National Opera here. He even set up a stage in the yard to teach disciples Peking Opera. Within four years he trained many Peking Opera artists. In 1935, after Mei Lanfang left for south and Yu Shuyan was ill in bed, the National Opera Association was dissolved. At the gate of the southfacing house is erected a white marble stone tablet, its inscription reading “The Former Site of Liu’s Residence, Secret Contact Point of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Underground Organisation.”
Around the same period, patriot Liu Shaobai lived at the residence, taking advantage of his social relations to protect and help many CPC members. In turn, he made this residence a secret contact point between the CPC Hebei Provincial Committee and the CPC Central Committee. After the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the residence was established as the site of China National Democratic Construction Association.
Walking out of this courtyard house, with a turn of the head one is greeted with a green Chinese scholar tree, towering high, the incarnation of Ji Xiaolan’s spirit.