Introduction to South of Qián Mén

The Old Chinese City
Part of A Better Guide to Beijing’s coverage of South of Qián Mén

Upon establishing their control over Běijīng in 1644 the new Manchu rulers took the main northern part of the city for themselves and their garrison, relegating non-military Chinese mostly to the part south of the Zhèngyáng Mén or Qián Mén, which came to be known (to foreigners at least) as the Chinese City — the Chinese Quarter of Běijīng.

The Chinese took with them the city’s liveliest shopping, its various places of entertainment, and the guildhalls for officials and examination candidates visiting from the provinces. But the south also held the largest and most magnificent of the sacrificial altars and their ceremonial halls in vast parks, and, even up to the late 1940s, large areas of open space and some agriculture. Much of this has now been filled up with hideous modern buildings, but several islands of green space still remain.

The area’s second-rate status continued until modern times, and for a while left it relatively unscathed by redevelopment, but now a grid of broad new roads has been smashed through ancient housing, including an east–west highway to match the north’s Píng’ān Dà Dào. Most recently the ancient shopping street of Qián Mén Dàjiē has been broadened and pedestrianised, with traffic now flowing along a horseshoe of new roads to provide access southwards. The result is a kind of cultural theme park, celebrating Běijīng’s traditions by smashing them down and replacing them with a deplorable larger-then-life replica-cum-shopping opportunity, filled with such traditional Chinese outlets as Starbucks and KFC and lined with cutesy street lamps in the shapes of dragons and bird cages. It’s nevertheless one of the most popular destinations for Chinese tourists, although Běijīngers rarely go there.

Several old and colourful markets have been driven out to beyond the Third Ring Road, but some warrens of atmospheric claustrophobia remain for those who want to capture the flavour of times past. Some of the city’s better budget accommodation can be found here too, among the former lanes of ‘flowers and willows’ for which the Qián Mén district was once famous (see ‘Taking Pleasure from the Weather’, below).

The city’s principal daoist temple and its main mosque are here, together with a small Muslim quarter, as well as what is viewed by many as the greatest glory of Míng architecture, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at the Temple of Heaven, where the emperors came to make sacrifices and pray for abundant crops.

Dàzhàlán Jiē (Dà Shílànr in local dialect), which runs west from Qián Mén Dàjiē not far south of the Qián Mén, retains some of the original flavour of the commercial activity for which the quarter was once famous. It is still thronged with those looking for bargains in cheap clothes and accessories, as well as tea, silk, and traditional medicine. Several of the shops with late Qīng-era fronts claim long histories.

Tourist-trap souvenir shopping abounds at several markets, but some such as Bàoguó Sì and Pān Jiā Yuán still have something to offer the cautious and very selective shopper. More interestingly, others still service the revival in Běijīng’s traditional pastimes, rarely seeing a foreign face, particularly the Shí Lǐ Hé, possibly the most fascinating of all with its birds, fish, flowers, and insects. Knots of retired men flying traditional kites can be found on bridges over the Second Ring Road, such as the Guǎngqú Mén Qiáo (广渠门桥).

The walls around this southern section of Běijīng were both later and lower than those around the north, and they were pulled down in the late 1950s to build a ring road for a city that then had very few cars indeed. The city gates now exist only as the names of junctions on the Second Ring Road, except for the twin towers of the Zhèngyáng Mén and the bizarre new reconstruction of one tower of the Yǒngdìng Mén directly south, whose original stood at the centre of the southernmost city wall.

Just outside this gate stood the original Běijīng Station, where a small party of foreign troops arrived from Tiānjīn just before the Siege of the Legations began in 1900. Here now stands the brand new Běijīng South Station, terminus of what is one of the world’s fastest conventional public train services, reaching Běijīng from Tiānjīn in just 45 minutes and from Shànghǎi in just under five hours.

This area also recently became notorious for containing a village for petitioners from all over China seeking redress for the corruption of and oppression by local officials, and for illegal ‘black’ jails where such petitioners are imprisoned before being escorted back by police from their home towns.

In 2007 the petitioners made the mistake of collecting thousands of signatures on a petition against corruption intended for distribution at that year’s 17th Party congress. As the religious cult Fǎlún Gōng (法轮功) has learned, anything that smacks of a mass movement invites maximum repression. The village was pulled down and there was a violent mass deportation of petitioners, who were only asking for their rights under Chinese law and the country’s constitution, whose terms are routinely ignored by the same authorities that drew it up. It isn’t meant to apply to them, apparently.

Several clusters of sights in this southern part of the city make a day spent on foot productive, especially since time between them can often be spent in hútòng. There are various routes across from Dàzhàlán Jiē to the tourist-as-victim territory of the Liúli Chǎng shopping street and connecting Bàoguó Si, Cháng Chūn Sì, the Ox Street Mosque, and the Fǎ Yuán Sì, as well as round the remnants of various guildhalls (see Joining the Club).

The walk east from just south of m Hépíng Mén (Line 2) along Qián Mén Xī Hé Yán Jiē is a perfect demonstration of Běijīng’s movie-set quality: running parallel to and merely 100m from one of the city’s biggest showpiece multi-lane boulevards is a narrow, largely unlit street of tiny restaurants, pocket-sized shops, roadside mahjong games, and neighbourly chat; a place of bicycles and tricycles as well as the Míng dynasty Zhèngyǐcí theatre (证乙祠), the most beautiful in Běijīng.

SOUTH OF QIÁN MÉN

Taking Pleasure from the Weather
Máo’s Maze
Temple of Heaven Park 天坛公园
Altars for all Seasons
Altar of Agriculture 先农坛
Běijīng Natural History Museum 自然博物馆
Táorán Tíng Park 陶然亭公园
An Early Bar Street
Húguǎng Guildhall 湖管会馆
Joining the Club
Out Clubbing (Walk)
Former Residence of Jì Xiǎolán 纪晓岚故居
Cháng Chūn Sì 长春寺
Bàoguó Sì 报国寺
Ox Street Mosque 牛街清真寺
Islam in China
Fǎyuán Sì 法源寺
Grand View Garden 大观园
Museum of Ancient Pottery Civilisation 古陶文明博物馆
Yuán Chónghuàn Ancestral Temple and Tomb 袁崇焕祠和墓
Today Art Museum 今日博物馆

Next in South of Qián Mén:Taking Pleasure from the Weather (story)
Previously, in The Imperial City: Peking University Red Building
Main Index of A Better Guide to Beijing.

For discussion of China travel, see The Oriental-List.