East Bank of the Hòu Hǎi

A short lakeside walk linking temples and museums
Part of A Better Guide to Běijīng’s coverage of North, Around the Back Lakes

Former Residence of Soong Ching-ling 宋庆龄故居

后海北沿46号

Soong Ching-ling (1893–1981) was the daughter of a wealthy Shanghainese who had converted to Methodism. Her elder sister married a rich banker, and her younger sister married Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader who succeeded Sun Yat-sen and ultimately lost control of the Chinese mainland to the communists. Her brother held various ministerial posts in the Chiang government and was at one time premier. She herself married Sun Yat-sen (孙中山, Sūn Zhōngshān), the supposed ‘Father of the Republic’ who wasn’t even in China when the revolution got going and was as surprised by it as anyone (the organisers claimed not to have heard much of him either). Sūn, who was 30 years her senior, predeceased her by 56 years, but she continued to play a role in the Nationalist Party (Guómíndǎng). More sympathetic to the left wing, she narrowly escaped death during a mass slaughter of communist sympathisers in 1927. After a period of living in Russia, where she converted to communism, she returned to hold largely nominal posts as a walking, talking propaganda victory for the Communist Party of China — someone who was from an oppressor class but now on the side of the people — although she was allowed to join the Party only on her deathbed.

Inside the house, Soong’s life has been airbrushed to perfection, and nothing is left to the imagination. There’s some interest in the style of the furnishings in rooms that have been kept as they were at the time of her death, and in period clothing, but just about everything she ever touched is deemed worthy of display, and there are long and rather tedious sequences of photographs of her meeting dignitaries of various kinds.

The house is 20th-century but stands in the extensive gardens of the recently restored Prince Chún’s Mansion (醇亲王府, Chún Qīn Wángfǔ), built here by a trusted adviser of the Kāngxī emperor and probably the first on the north shore of the Hòu Hǎi. It was seized by Héshēn (see Prince Gōng’s Mansion), and after his downfall it was handed by the Jiāqìng emperor to a younger brother, thus making it a princely mansion and requiring extensive reconstruction so that it met the regulations on how the residences of princes of top rank should appear. By 1888 the family rank had dropped generation by generation to the fourth level, and Cíxǐ seized the mansion from the minor prince of the day to give to her brother-in-law, Prince Chún, father of the Guāngxù emperor — under Qīng regulations he had had to abandon his own mansion where the emperor had grown up. He restored the existing buildings and gardens but died in 1891.

A younger son, half-brother of the emperor, became the second Prince Chún, and at only 18 was sent to Germany as part of the reparations following the Siege of the Legations to apologise to the Kaiser in person for the murder of Baron von Ketteler (see The Boxer Rebellion in A Brief History of Běijīng, and Zhōngshān Park). One of his sons was Pǔyí, chosen by Cíxǐ to succeed the deceased Guāngxù emperor on 14 November 1908, and who became the last emperor of the Great Qīng Empire. Cíxǐ herself died the following day, leaving the modernising but rather ineffectual Prince Chún as regent. After a tumultuous three years, and having survived several insurrections and one assassination attempt, Chún was elbowed aside aside by the Dowager Empress Lóngyù shortly before the abdication, and reportedly was glad to return home to a quiet life in the mansion, with more time for literature, his garden, and his other children. It was here that the last emperor was kept under house arrest when the forces of the warlord Féng Yùxiáng (冯玉祥) drove him out of the Forbidden City with one hour’s notice on 25 November 1924. A few weeks later he escaped and with the help of his former tutor, Reginald Johnston, fled for his life to the Legation Quarter.

Lack of funds later forced Prince Chún to sell the mansion to the government, but his disapproval of Pǔyí’s brief restoration and of the emperor’s later involvement with the Japanese won him the respect of both the Nationalists and the communists, and he survived the transition from one to the other, dying in 1951.

The pavilions and corridors of the garden have been renovated with a heavy hand, but there are geese on the ponds, and the grounds are pleasantly quiet. The mansion itself was reportedly briefly open following its refurbishment but is currently the National Religious Affairs Bureau, and sternly guarded.

Sòng Qìnglíng Gùjū, Hòu Hǎi Běi Yān 46, t 6404 4205, www.sql.org.cn, 9am–4pm, Nov–Apr; 5pm May–Oct. ¥20. m Jīshuǐ Tán (Line 2) exit B; Gǔlóu Dàjiē (Line 2); Shí Chà Hǎi (Line 8). b to 果子市: 5. The residence, in Hòu Hǎi Běi Yán on the northeast side of the Hòu Hǎi, can be reached on foot from Prince Gōng’s Mansion, the Drum Tower, or Déshèng Mén.

Guǎnghuà Sì 广化寺

芽儿胡同

Heading southeast along the lake shore from the Former Residence of Soong Ching-ling you pass first Prince Chún’s Mansion (see above), then the mansion stables, which are now a special school. A left turn into Gānlù Hútòng (甘露胡同) and right into Yár Hútòng (sometimes written Yá’er, 芽儿胡同) will bring you to the Yuán dynasty (1279–1368) Guǎnghuà Sì (广化寺), the only viewable monastery of those for which the Ten-Monastery Lakes (什刹海, Shíchà Hǎi) were named. This is the headquarters of the Buddhist Association and a fully active site, although usually only the nearmost hall, its large golden Maitreya surrounded by four impressive Heavenly Kings and an assortment of offerings, is open. On the 1st and 15th of the lunar month (see Guǎngjì Sì) you are allowed further inside, however, to what was also the final residence of China’s last eunuch, Sūn Yàotíng, who died in 1996 (see The Ends of the Eunuchs). If you have no access to a 农历 (nónglì, lunar calendar), call ahead.

t 6403 5302, daylight hours. Free.

From here return to Gānlù Hútòng and turn right (east), then right at the end to reach the Drum and Bell Towers. Or return to the lake shore and follow it south to the bridge, turn left, fork right into Yàndài Xiéjiē (烟袋斜街) to find assorted dubious shopping, bars, and restaurants, and on the north (left) side, the Guǎngfú Guān.

Guǎngfú Guān 广福观

烟袋斜街37号

This former daoist temple originally built in 1459 was possibly a princely mansion at the time of the Yōngzhèng emperor (r. 1722–1735). Its main hall made a brief re-entry into public life as an extremely well-hidden restaurant reached through a warren of tumbledown housing filling its courtyards, before all was completely cleared away in 2007 for a reconstruction. The halls now contain the Exhibition of History and Culture of Shíchà Hǎi (什刹海历史文化展览, Shíchà Hǎi Lìshǐ Wénhuà Zhǎnlǎn), with much on local history, famous residents, hútòng history, princely mansions, the gate design appropriate to different ranks, surviving temples, and traditional crafts, although English explanations quickly expire when things get technical.

Begin by turning to the left and then go clockwise. Some of the woodwork of the main hall has been left in its original state, and there are views through false ceilings to the original beams. It’s a peaceful escape from the bedlam of the street outside.

According to one display, the ideal courtyard house has sun, shade, a fat dog, a plump maiden, a fish bowl, a pomegranate tree, and an old man. The ugliest hútòng name is officially 八步口胡同 (Bā Bù Kǒu Hútòng), literally ‘Eight Steps Mouth Hútòng’, which still exists not far to the north, and whose name means it had a wide entrance.

t 8322 9842, 9am–11am & 2pm–4pm, Wed–Sun. Free. nb must show passport.

Turn left out of the temple and left at the main street, where there’s properly priced eating, to see the Drum and Bell Towers just to the north. Or return to the lakes, turn left (south) and follow the east bank of the Qián Hǎi to the Huǒ Dé Zhēn Jūn Miào.

Huǒ Dé Zhēn Jūn Miào 火德真君庙

地安门外大街77号

This daoist temple claims to have originated around 632CE in the Táng dynasty, although it’s been rebuilt many times up to 2002, when ¥30 million was spent on evicting its occupants and a complete renovation. Three courtyards remain.

The temple celebrates assorted colourful daoist deities, beginning with the Wáng Língguān (王灵官), a tutelary deity of Míng invention who often acts as a gatekeeper. Here he appears with a bright red face, three eyes, golden armour, and a steel whip in one hand, ready to exorcise evils in heaven and on earth. Traditionally the clothing on the statue is replaced every three months, and his birthday, here indicated as 24 June, is a time for serious celebrations.

Further in is the deity to whom the temple is dedicated, usually known as Huǒ Dé Xīng Jūn (火德星君), President of the Ministry of Fire, able to wield smoke and fire as weapons. Beyond him three deities promoting wealth and happiness, and at the rear the Xuántiān Emperor (玄天上帝, Xuántiān Shàngdì, God of the Northern Sky), who, it is claimed, ‘eliminates disasters for all living creatures’ but who has obviously been overwhelmed by the scale of the problems in China.

Daoist monks stroll around through drifting clouds of incense smoke and piped ěrhú music. Offerings of fruit at the gaudily caped deities’ feet, and kneelers in front of them also indicate that this is functioning temple. But there are some English explanations of daoism (see also Daoism) and the ¥10 entrance fee is worthwhile.

▶ 9am–4pm. ¥10.

Outside you may get your hair cut while sitting in the street for as little as ¥5, hire bicycles (at tourist rates) to cycle round the lake, and rent pedal boats as well as battery-powered boats of various sizes at a brand new little dock.

Immediately south of the temple, Dì’ān Mén Wài Dàjiē passes over the Wàn Níng Qiáo (万宁桥), whose ancient arch spans a Yuán-dynasty waterway once part of the Grand Canal that brought grain shipments to the capital. Just beneath it stone carvings of scaly dragons appear ready to slide off the embankment into the waters.

Guō Shǒujìng Memorial Hall 郭守敬纪念馆
德胜门西大街甲60号

If, alternatively, you continue northwest around the lake shore from the Former Residence of Soong Ching-ling across the street to the final lake, the Xī Hǎi, you’ll find the Guō Shǒujìng Jìniànguǎn at the north end. This is a memorial to a Yuán-dynasty astronomer and hydrologist responsible for much of the canal network that feeds Běijīng its water from the northwest. He’s given a typically hagiographic treatment in a small former temple atop an artificial rockery at the north end of the lake that gives modest views.

Out at the front, encircled by a walkway, is a statue of the heroic hydrologist with one hand raised as if doing a Canute with the waters. Lovers sit on the paths leading up to it, and an area of reeds at the base is full of loud frogs sounding like typewriters. The location is appropriate, as just west is m Jī Shuǐ Tán and across the Second Ring Road to the north was once the Jī Shuǐ Tán (pool) itself, connected to the moat running east–west along the outside of where the city wall would have been, and eventually connecting by a zig-zag route to the Grand Canal to the east. Capital Museum has a diorama of how the pool may have looked when it was a major terminus for freight.

Guō Shǒujìng Jìniànguǎn, t 6618 3083, 9am–4pm, Wed–Sun. Free.

m Gǔlóu Dàjiē is just behind the hill. But walk west along the Second Ring Road and turn left (south) down Xīn Jiē Kǒu Běi Dàjiē (新街口北大街) to see if the Xú Bēihóng Memorial Hall has reappeared in a new form and perhaps complete a circuit back to Prince Gōng’s Mansion via various sights (see In the Depths of Many Flowers). Or go south down the west side of the lakes following a promenade that mostly avoids cars. In 1860 envoys Parkes and Loch were imprisoned in a temple that’s now a waste processing facility, a public toilet, and a little shop at the junction with Shuǐ Chē Hútòng (水车胡同). Just before it a more promising looking temple-like edifice is nèibù 
(内部, a restricted area). There’s plenty of food and drink nearby, but for that consider returning east along the north side of the Xī Hǎi to Jiǔ Mén Xiǎo Chī.

Next in North, Around the Back Lakes: Drum and Bell Towers
Previously: Princely Privileges
Main Index of A Better Guide to Beijing.

For discussion of China travel, see The Oriental-List