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Consigned to history

Updated: 2011-08-18 08:14

By Chitralekha Basu (China Daily)

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 Consigned to history

A spiritual instructor leads a prayer at Niujie Mosque, Beijing's oldest, during the holy month of Ramadan. Photos by Feng Yongbin / China Daily

Xuanwu district of Beijing has been absorbed into Xicheng, but there is still plenty to explore in what used to be the oldest part of the plebeian section of the capital. Chitralekha Basu reports.

Not too long ago there used to be a Xuanwu district in Beijing. To the south west of the city wall demarcating the imperial boundary, just outside the periphery of today's Second Ring Road, this was the area where the plebeians lived for over 3,000 years.

This, historians say, was the genesis of Beijing - the cradle of Peking Opera, nursery of the city's scholars, the silk trade hub and also the ex-tended kitchen that churned out some of Beijing's generic street snacks.

Since July 2010 Xuanwu has been absorbed into Xicheng district and officially consigned to the pages of history. But the area still remains a convergence point for five distinct elements that continue to underscore certain characteristics of modern Beijing and inform its history - a Buddhist monastery, an Islamic mosque, a repository of popular culture and commercial activity, and the remains of guild halls where scholars and civil service aspirants from different provinces in China would come to stay.

In addition there are restaurants and kiosks dishing out a quaint and scrumptious range of Xuanwu's street eats, like mian cha, which, incidentally, is a thick porridge made from sorghum and millet flour with a dash of sesame on top and has nothing to do with tea, as its name might suggest.

A good place to start is Changchun Si about 600 meters south of Changchun Jie subway station. Built at the behest of Ming Emperor Wanli's mother in 1592, the Buddhist temple subsequently served as a storage space for coffins and a residential complex after the founding of New China in 1949.

It was turned into a posh museum in 2005, to showcase the evolving life around Xuannan (southern Xuanwu).

This is where the evolution of Xuannan's performing arts, cuisine styles, commercial enterprises (Ruifuxiang Silk and Cloth Shop is one of Beijing's oldest brands) and the lives of its famous residents - artistes, scholars and revolutionaries - all come under the spotlight.

The courtyard is now a sculpture park. In one of the tableaux, life-size bronze statues of the crusaders against the import of opium, are seen deliberating on the crisis at hand. The figures include a contemplative Lin Zexu, who effectively coerced the British traders to turn in 20,000 chests of the drug for burning, leading to the First Opium War in 1839. The tough imperial commissioner was also a poetry aficionado who helped found the Xuannan Poetry Club in the 1820s.

The museum gives a detailed overview of Xuannan's scholarly traditions. It introduces a range of editors, writers and ideologues who lived and worked in the area - from Ji Xiaolan (1724-1805) who edited the Complete Collection of the Four Treasures (a mammoth compilation of over 10,000 state-approved manuscripts from the Qing archives, completed in 1782) to the multi-faceted reformist and scholar Liang Qichao (1873-1929) who exposed a generation of intellectuals and writers to Western thought.

Talking of scholarship, it's a thrilling adventure to go looking for the huiguan (guild halls), named after the provinces from which scholars and civil service aspirants arrived in Beijing, although they are fast disappearing or being built anew because of the frenetic pace of development.

I spent hours trying to locate Shao-xing Huiguan, where the writer Lu Xun (1881-1936) wrote some of his most memorable stories, but came upon Hunan Huiguan instead, which is being renovated and turned into a museum.

The area to the east of Caishikou Street appears to be one of the least-restored hutong of Beijing. I located the residence of scholar, calligrapher and ideologue Kang Youwei (1858-1927), whose arguments in favor of initiating constitutional monarchy in China earned the ire of Empress Dowager Cixi. This was where Kang lived and published his newspaper, advocating the end of property and family (marriage was to be replaced by an annual contract between individuals).

The house, subsiding into the ground, half-obstructed by quilts, vests and floral pajamas hanging from clotheslines, seems like a bizarre caricature of the radical thoughts that played through the mind of its once-famous inhabitant.

The eastern sidewalk along Caishikou Street is a complete contrast from the rubble and stench on its west. Posh residential complexes and office blocks (including the tall chrome-and-glass China Unicom building) make way for neat alleys, winding in between courtyard houses. People sit out in the sultry afternoons, huddled in little clusters, as if time has come to a standstill.

If you're headed south toward Nanheng West Street, whichever hutong you take, you are likely to come to an extensive grassy patch leading to Fayuan temple.

One of Beijing's oldest Buddhist shrines (built in AD 645), Fayuan is also one of its least touristy, visited, it seems, only by the devout sort who light incense sticks, burn candles and kowtow on padded seats in front of the giant images of the Buddha in three incarnations - Vairochana, Manjushri and Samantabadra.

For connoisseurs, the temple houses samples of calligraphy by famous people, including Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) artist Su Lingzhi. It's also one of the greenest courtyard houses in Beijing. Apart from the pines, cypresses and the famed gingko tree that supposedly dates back to Tang times, the profusion of lotus, water lily and giant roses add generous splashes of color to this otherwise somber landscape.

The Niujie Mosque area is one of the quietest, most inconspicuous, Islamic neighborhoods I have seen at this time of the year.

In the holy month of Ramadan, when practicing Muslims fast through the day and abstain from worldly pleasures, Beijing's oldest (built in AD 996) and largest mosque, catering to the 10,000-odd Muslims living in the area, is a picture of tranquil calm.

The silence - even as the men and boys, dressed in knitted skullcaps and loose, long white shirts, quietly file in to the ablution room to wash their hands and feet, and then proceed to take their seats on prayer mats in the main worship hall - is almost total, except for the sonorous reading from the Quran by the lead reciter.

The layout of Niujie Mosque is on the lines of a typical Chinese royal palace, complete with stele pavilions, pagoda-roofed structures and covered passageways, beams painted in aquamarine blue and gold connecting them.

The Islamic element is evident in the scalloped archways inside the prayer hall and the Arabic calligraphy on the ceiling and beams.

The most distinctive feature of this mosque, I would say, lies in its unobtrusiveness, in the way it welcomes curious onlookers of other faiths on a Friday afternoon, at prayer time. Followers kneel, join their palms and chant softly, oblivious to the flow of shutterbugs, merrily clicking away.

 Consigned to history

From top: A devotee plants incense sticks at Fayuan Buddhist temple.

Mian cha (millet tea) is one of the most sought-after local delicacies in Niujie Halal Supermarket.

The entrance to Kang Youwei's residence in an unrestored hutong east of Caishikou Street.


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