Capital gatekeeper

Updated: 2014-11-21 12:28

By Deng Zhangyu(China Daily Europe)

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An advocate of culture works to bring back Beijing's ancient landmarks

The walls and gates encircling Beijing were mostly demolished in the 1960s, closing a door on an important part of the imperial city's history. Beijing had nine inner city gates and seven outer city gates. Today, only two of the original inner city gates, Zhengyangmen and Deshengmen, remain. Yongdingmen was the only outer gate that was rebuilt in 2004.

However, a current project to recreate the walls and gates is restoring those ancient memories brick by brick, using precious red sandalwood and ebony.

The reconstruction project, initiated by Chan Laiwa, a self-made billionaire in Beijing, and her Red Sandalwood Museum of China, is half-finished with nine gates completed. The massive project, which started 10 years ago, is expected to be completed in the next two years with 16 gates recreated.

On display at the MGM Art Space, Macao, through March 22, the Red Sandalwood Art Exhibition of Old Beijing City Gates features sandalwood miniatures of Yongdingmen, which translates as the Gate of Eternal Stability, and the Temple of Heaven.

"I have a dream to restore old Beijing's memory. The miniature city gates and walls are a cultural legacy for future generations," says Chan, who is also an active cultural advocate.

Chan, 73, set up the first private red sandalwood museum in China in 1999. Since then she has devoted herself to the project of replicating the lost city walls and gates. Growing up in Beijing and having seen the city walls and gates in her childhood, Chan says she has a special connection with the project.

All the gates and walls are being built one-tenth the size of the original structures. Andingmen, one of nine gates in ancient Beijing's inner city, is about 3.5 meters tall and weighs about 6.5 metric tons. The gate tower and watchtower are made of sandalwood while the city walls are being built from ebony, the color of which is similar to the bricks of the old walls.

Chan has a factory in a Beijing suburb, equipped with a team of more than 200 red sandalwood sculptors and experts. She says she'd love to spend all her time and money on her dream of restoring Beijing's imperial landmarks.

All the models are structured using mortise-and-tenon joints, without a single nail, in what was an essential technique for traditional Chinese buildings. It's also a simple but strong method to join pieces of wood.

"It's a combination of history, architecture, art and culture into a great project," says Shan Jixiang, director of the Palace Museum.

Shan says Chan's red sandalwood museum has a large collection of the precious wood and employs craftspeople skilled at sculpting wood. The Palace Museum cooperates with Chan in repairing ancient furniture made from precious wood.

Shan says China is one of the first countries to recognize the value of red sandalwood, which has been grown for several hundred years in India. It was popular with royal families since the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

"Chan combines the skill of red sandalwood sculpting with traditional Chinese architecture. It offers us a new way to experience old Beijng's culture," adds Shan.

Since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), China's emperors continued building the colossal fortification system for the capital. A single gate and the attached walls took about 200,000 men up to four years to build. Ancient Beijing had 16 such gates in its inner and outer city areas.

Li Jianping, chairman of the Beijing History Association, says the Forbidden City is Beijing's gold and red crown while the grey gates and walls were the "city's skirt". The city's cultural symbol was halved with the demolition of its gates and walls in the 1960s, he says.

"Beijng's gates and walls were more than a protection system. They stood for the hierarchy of the emperors and the country they ruled," Li says.

As the capital, Beijing's gates and walls were bigger than those in other cities such as Pingyao, Shanxi province, and Nanjing, Jiangsu province. The gates of the inner city where the emperors resided were also higher than those in the outer city. Each gate had a clear function. For instance, at the Zhengyangmen gate, people gathered to pay their taxes. Andingmen was where troops would return after winning wars and Chaoyangmen was the gate through which grain was transported.

"The gate names remain as street names. I'm sure most young people are familiar with the street names but not many of them know the history behind them as they haven't had a chance to see the gates," says Li.

That is why Chan is passionate about rebuilding the gates. She says she wants to offer a chance to future generations to learn the history and culture of Beijing in a visual and concrete manner.

Chan retains her habit of going to her factory almost every day, and is supported by her family both emotionally and financially.

Asked about her future plans, Chan says she plans to replicate the Old Summer Palace, memorial archways and courtyards after her gates and walls project is completed. She also wants to build a park with all her reproductions of old Beijing architecture open to the public.

"The Chinese dream is popular. My Chinese dream is to restore old Beijing's culture. I'm still in my dream and waiting for the time I wake up," Chan says, with a laugh.

 Capital gatekeeper

Craftspeople in the process of making the red sandalwood model of Beijing's old gates. The reconstruction project, initiated by Chan Laiwa, a self-made billionaire in Beijing, and her Red Sandalwood Museum of China, has thus far completed nine of the 16 gates.

Capital gatekeeper

Capital gatekeeper

Capital gatekeeper

Capital gatekeeper

 Capital gatekeeper

Chen Yunlin (left), former president of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits; Chan Laiwa (center), founder of the Red Sandalwood Museum of China in Beijing; and Zheng Xinmiao (right), former director of the Palace Museum, look at a model of Yongdingmen Gate made of sandalwood at the National Museum of China in October 2013. Photos Provided to China Daily

(China Daily European Weekly 11/21/2014 page16)