Zhu Qiqian and Urban Construction of Beijing

2022-05-23 14:01
source:  Beijing Institute for Culture and History
author: Liu Zonghan

When Mr. Zhu Qiqian took over the municipal administration of Beijing in 1913, the city was facing the transformation of urban functions. Being the political and cultural center of the country in the Qing Dynasty, Beijing was anything but an economic center despite a few businesses in the city. Whether it was called Jingshi or Jingdu, Beijing was a city designed for the emperor and various officials. It was purely a political center in the Qing Dynasty, serving the needs of imperial reign only. That is to say, it served officials who went to the court and worked at yamen (government offices in feudal China). Besides, it could meet people’s daily needs.

Beijing had been endowed with such functions ever since the Ming Dynasty, which generally met the social needs then until the end of the Qing Dynasty.

The Revolution of 1911 resulted in the establishment of the Republic of China, which also changed the urban functions of Beijing. Firstly, the city saw an economic boom in the late Qing Dynasty. Beijing consisted of an outer town and an inner town then. The outer town was built after the inner town and was mainly for defensive purposes. There were three gates – Zhengyangmen, Chongwenmen and Xuanwumen – serving as part of the boundary of the two cities. The neighborhoods outside the three gates were called guanxiang. In the late Qing Dynasty, guanxiang, especially that outside Zhengyangmen, was bustling with major entertainment industries as a result of social development. Dashilan, the most prosperous district at that time, located just outside Zhengyangmen, which is generally known as Qianmen. Many jewelry shops and gold shops exclusive to dignitaries were concentrated near the Langfang Toutiao Alley which was also outside the gate. Besides, as a result of the brisk trade and business outside the gate, dignitaries and most of the rich people, though living in the inner city, went outside the city for shopping and other recreational activities. In Beijing during old times there were three small business centers and other relatively busy places in the Dongsi area, Xidan area and in front of the Drum Tower, all in the inner city. True as it was, well-known brands in the entertainment and catering industries clustered outside the city. Commercial areas in the inner city could not meet people’s diversified and ever-increasing consumption demands. Therefore, during the reign of Emperor Tongzhi and Emperor Guangxu and until the end of the Qing Dynasty, the area outside Zhengyangmen gradually developed into a consumption hub and an entertainment center second to none in Beijing, bringing changes to the functions of the city which used to serve the imperial reign only.

Secondly, the area outside Qianmen became a junction of three railway lines due to the construction of rails, which changed the urban functions of Beijing. The First Opium War turned China into a semi-feudal, semi-colonial society, and foreign technologies for building railways were introduced to the country afterwards. Being the capital of China, Beijing naturally became a railway hub. The line coming from the east was called the Beijing-Fengtian Railway; the one heading for the south was called the Beijing-Hankou Railway; and that leading to the northwest was called the Beijing-Zhangjiakou Railway, all three arrived in Beijing. It was strange though that the three lines didn’t join to each other. The station of the Beijing-Zhangjiakou Railway was located near Xizhimen, while that of the Beijing-Fengtian Railway was near Qianmen and that of the Beijing-Hankou Railway, near Guang’anmen. To transport goods from southern China to the northeast with Beijing being a transfer station, people had to unload the goods from a train at Guang’anmen, have them carried to Qianmen by men, vehicles or animals and then have the goods loaded onto another train bounding for the northeast. Beijing had already been a railway hub, but various lines were not inter-connected, which led to congestion in the city, especially in the area outside Zhengyangmen. Urban functions of old Beijing could no longer meet the needs of the busy traffic. Qianmen in particular, separated the inner and outer cities, making the enceinte (wengcheng) outside the gate the crux of the problem.

Qianmen Railway Station | Photo courtesy of Li Chunmei

Moreover, ideas of democracy began to emerge in China. Chinese people used to believe that “all the world’s land belongs to the emperor and all people are the emperor’s subjects”. There was no such thing as democracy because the whole nation subjected to the emperor. The Revolution of 1911 and then the establishment of the Republic of China suddenly heightened public awareness of democracy. In the past, the emperor was regarded as the son of heaven who was granted the power to rule by the god, while the general public had no rights at all. However, the president was now elected and his rights were given by the citizens, which was a dramatic change. The change asked for public opinions to be taken into account before any administrative measures were conducted, which meant officials must solve problems of public concern. Mr. Zhu was confronted with such a situation when he took over the municipal administration of Beijing as a supervisor.

When he was in charge of the municipal administration of Beijing, Mr. Zhu believed that the top priority was to modernize the old-fashioned urban functions of the city. In his Proposals for Remodeling the Three Gates of Jingshi submitted to Yuan Shikai, he said it was necessary to remodel the enceinte outside Qianmen, “otherwise it would cause traffic jams”. The old city could no longer adapt to the new conditions if remaining unchanged. Take the railways for example. No matter how the three railways were connected outside the inner city, passengers and goods entering the inner city had to go through the three gates. The station of the Beijing-Fengtian Railway, for instance, was just located outside Qianmen. Train riders and goods had no choice but to go into the inner city through the gate. If the enceinte were not demolished, streets would be clogged with traffic. To solve the problem, Mr. Zhu took three important measures: first, offering access to public facilities to meet the needs of the general public; second, demolishing part of the three gates as well as city walls to cut traffic congestion and facilitate traffic flow; and three, open up new urban area while preserving the old one.