Xuanwu District boasts distinctive cultural landscape that is typical of Southern Beijing and even the whole city. Highlights include the culture of commerce, chamber and opera. Dashilar, located in the northeast of the district, is the best representative of the diversified culture. People from different ethnic groups, religions, classes and regions converge here and live side by side. As time goes by, an artistic and cultural atmosphere that covers all aspects of life came into being.
n the early years of Ming Dynasty, commercialbuildings emerged outside Zhengyang Men (Gate), and business activities thusbegan to flourish. From Qing Dynasty, the commercial activities here becamequite distinctive and considerable in scale. Many century-old brands came intobeing at this time, such as Tong Ren Tang(a Traditional Chinese Medicine store),Ma Ju Yuan (a hat store), Rui Fu Xiang (a silk store), NeiLian Sheng(atraditional shoe store), Lao Feng Xiang (or Old Phoenix, a jewelry store), LiuBi Ju (a food store famous for pickles), Zhang Yi Yuan (a tea brand), etc. Overthe centuries, these old brands have all cultivated their own business culture.The local people used to consider it an honor to “put on the hat of Ma Ju Yuan,step into the shoes of NeiLian Sheng, and get dressed in Ba Da Xiang (Eightfamous silk brands with the character “Xiang” in their names)”. This sayingproperly testifies to the charm of these old brands.
The bustling Dashilar greatly boosted thecommerce of its neighboring areas where a lot of hotels and importantmarketsfor jewelryand jade later took shape.
According to the 1919 statistics, Dashilarwas home to 4,495 stores of 31 sectors. People used to think that “bestowedwith all the quintessence of the capital, Dashilar cannot be paralleled for itsprosperity and vitality”.
The commercial prosperity made Dashilar ahub of capital. In Qing Dynasty, Zhubaoshi Jie hosted 26 government ovens ofsliver ingots. All the silver collected from nationwide as taxes would bemelted and casted here before transferred to the Treasury. The street connectedto several financially significant hutongs. Qianshi Hutong used to be the moneyexchange center of the old capital. Every day, exchange rate all across Beijingwas determined by the rate here. Shijia Hutong, also called as “Banking Street”was home to more than a dozen of incorporated banks who provided financialsupport to nearby businesses.Afterthe War of Opium, foreign banks started to operate in China and expedited thebirth of China’s local banking industry. Modern banking entities such as YanyeBank, Bank of Communications, Zhongyuan Stock Exchanges gradually replaced thetraditional organizations such as money exchanges, banks, and deposit andloans. During the administration of Beiyang government, there were all-together337 financial organizations in the city, 142 (42%) among which were locatedaround Qiangmen and Dashilar. Dashilar thus established itself as thecommercial and financial center of Beijing.
Xianqing Ouji( meaning theenjoyment in leisure time), written by Li Yu in Qing Dynasty, is the first bookthat elaborates on Chinese opera. The book covers 8 different subjectsincludinglyrics, performing arts, makeup and costume, antiques, furnishing, food, plantation,and health preservation. Hu Shi, a scholar, historian and one of the leaders ofthe New Cultural Movement believes the book to be the richest and most detailedcultural record. Lin Yutang the literateur called it a guide of artisticChinese Lifestyle.
Like XianqingOuji, Dashilar also covers the 8 aspects of the Chinese art of living.
The Lyrics section is about the creation ofopera, including its structure, the beauty of language, rhyme, etc. The cultureof opera is also well reflected in Dashilar in varied forms such as the OperaMuseum and former residences of opera masters.
Dashilar also corresponds to the section onPerforming Arts with China’s record museum, music market and theater.
Echoing the section on Makeup and Costume, Dashilarhosts spas, beauty salons and clothes stores.
With regard to furnishing, hutongs inDashilar display the distinctive architectural characteristics of quadranglecourtyard.
The section on Antiques talks about theappreciation of furniture and decorative objects. In Dashilar, a variety ofantiques can be found in the stores on Liulichang Dongjie (East Street).
The section on Food is on the appreciationof the different ways of cooking. Here in Dashilar, visitors can enjoy thefamous Eight Chinese Cuisines or taste snacks in Menkuang Hutong.
As for Plantation, Dashilar has variedkinds of ornamental plants as important views in hutongs.Thesection of Health Preservation contains many useful methods. These principlesare still cherished in the health clubs in Dashilar.
Culture of Shixiang is best represented inWenhua Jie, Liulichang, in the west of Dashilar. In Qing Dynasty, thegovernment ordered that book stalls in and near the inner city should be movedto the open spaces in Liulichang to satisfy to demands of non-local candidatesof the imperial competitive exam as well as the needs to compile the Si Ku QuanShu (Complete Library in the Four Branches of Literature). Thisbroughtunprecedented prosperity to the industry of old and ancient books. Ever since,over one hundred stores of old books, stationery for Chinese calligraphy,copybooks, paintings and calligraphies and antiques had been set up and played aspecial role in carrying Chinese culture forward. A lot of them have beenpreserved until today.
Many opera theaters were located inDashilar. For over 200 years, famous actors, actress, musicians and scriptwriters kept emerging. Different kinds of operas gradually merged intoone—Peking Opera, later known as the “quintessence of Chinese culture”.Dashilar, as the origin of Peking Opera, witnessed the whole process from itsbirth to culmination.
In 1800, the emperor issued a ban on operatheaters in the inner city. As the theaters moved to the outer city,Dashilarbecame the choice of many of them because the place is the nearest tothe inner city. Since then, the most renown theatrical troupes had beenperforming in these famous theaters until the period of the Republic of China. Thenearby hutongs had also become home to the opera masters.Afterthe Peking Opera came into being, most of the opera masters and otherpractitioners of the opera industry had been living in the hutongs nearDashilar. Their old residences of the opera are well preserved and can be foundevery few steps.
After the signing of the 1901 treaty, somevisionary patriotic Chinese proposed various kinds of ideas to inspire thepeople. Among those, newspaper was the best way to broaden their horizon. Therehad been altogether over 40 newspaper offices operating around Dashilar. Theonly newspaper for women in Northern China—BeijingWomen was born in Yangrou Hutong, now known as Yaowu Hutong. Ding Baochenwas the first of the Hui ethnic group to run a newspaper in vernacular Chinese—Authentic Patriotism. The newspaper wasquite influential in Beijing, and because of his support for republicanism,Ding became the first victim in the newspaper industry to be killed by YuanShih-kai.YangmeizhuXiejie, due to its proximity to Liulichang, gained a heavy touch of traditionalculture. During the time of the Republic of China, hosting quite a lot famousbookstores, this street became the center of publishing industry. Many culturalcelebrities had close connections with the place.
Before the emancipation of Beijing, the 114streets around Dashilar hosted 103 clubs of different types. Some are forintellectuals; and some are for businessmen. These guilds promoted the commerceand culture of the capital, and became the symbols of the distinctive guildculture of Dashilar.
The origin of guild culture has a closerelationship with the imperial competitive exam system. Every three years,numerous candidates came to the capital for the exam from all over the country,and food and accommodation became a big problem for them. After the exam, manyfailed candidates would stay and study in Beijing to wait for the next chance.Candidates from poor family usually found the accommodation and food expensesto be a huge burden, so their townsmen that had successfully become governmentofficials voluntarily stand in to help. They called upon other officials,businessmen, and intellectuals from the same province to pool their money andbuy houses to accommodate these young candidates. Thus, clubs emerged. TheGuild of Guizhou on Yingtao Xiejie stands as a good example.
The guilds for businessmen were set up toguard the interests of businessmen and workers, prevent internal competition,and fight against exploitations. They can also be used for accommodation, storageand conferences. Yinhao Guild, constructed by bankers of Zhejiang, was one of them.
Dashilar is also famous for food. Accordingto the statistics of 1910, 15 famous restaurants were located in Meishi Jie.Some of them were even recorded in books.
Menkuang Hutong had a good reputation asthe street of snacks. Snack stalls stood one next to another, giving out amouthwatering smell. Many opera masters frequented these snack stalls afternight performances, and people from different classes all liked visiting herein hope to meet the masters in person.
Beijing had been the capital for sixdynasties under the ruling of different ethnic groups. The mingling amongethnic groups led to a diversity of religions. In Dashilar, Buddhism, Taoism,and Muslim all had a large number of followers. According to a research in1930, there were more than 60 temples preserved around Dashilar. Now, exceptfor a masjid that has maintained its original purpose, other temples haveeither fallen into disrepair or been converted into residences or offices.
Dashilar used to be the most prosperous andbustling district in Beijing, where people from all walks of life converged.This gave rise to the bordello industry. In 1900, the Eight-Nation Allianceinvaded Beijing, and the government had to pay a huge sum of reparations asresult. This was proved to be yet another heavy blow to the already shakygovernment. To make ends meet, the government imposed high taxes on all theindustries and even legalized the bordellos to increase revenue.
Running bordellos was a lucrative businessback then. By 1929, 296 bordellos were operating around Dashilar, marking quitea peculiar cultural phenomenon.
Mostof women in the business were tormented both physically and psychologically,but some managed to lead a legendary life out of despair, such as Xiao FengXian and Sai Jin Hua. They won people’s respect by their kindness andfaithfulness and thus went down in history.