Beijing there’s maybe proud of their history, but with all the changes in the city over the last few years it’s hard to imagine historical Beijing. Even at night, in the middle of the city’s hutong the creep of modernity, in the form of vintage boutiques, jazz bars, and cafés offering ill-defined menus of western food and coffee, pushes back of the edges of our imagination of what it might have been like to stand in the same spot 130 years ago.
One outfit in Beijing is trying to change this. Beijing Postcards is a local company founded by two historians from Denmark, who collect visual interpretations of China including old photographs, prints, maps, and, yes postcards, to try and re-create the Beijing of yesterday.
Picture the scene…
The sun is setting over the dusty hutongs surrounding the Drum and Bell Towers. The families that live there are settling in for the evening. Merchants from outside the Imperial City hurry to pack up their wares and ready their carts…
Suddenly a thunderous sound fills the evening air. The bang, bang, bang of an enormous drum reverberates across the city 108 times. Then silence.
Every night the same thing. A reminder – for those who needed it – that gates across Beijing were being heaved shut and that its residents should return to their own neighbourhoods. And if they didn’t? They would fall foul of the Banner Watchmen – a band of Manchu soldiers who would patrol the hutongs with disciplined regularity – whip in hand – to ensure that the curfew was observed.
Little did they know that outside of the walls the world was changing.
China was changing.
This is the story of what happened next.
The historian Susan Naquin once described imperial Beijing as “walls within walls without.” It was a city that favored “security over convenience.”
And where there were no walls, there were gates.
These gates would be opened and closed according to the sound of the capital’s heartbeat: the great drums which boom forth from the Drum Tower. The drums kept the time and marked the watch. According to their sound, the local gendarmerie would open and close the passages, allowing people to travel into and throughout the capital.
During the Qing Dynasty, the gendarmerie consisted of over 33,000 men, about two-thirds of whom came from the Eight Banners and about one-third were from the green standard army consisted mostly of Han Chinese soldiers. The commander of the gendarmerie was always a Manchu or a Mongol military official. From their headquarters at Mao’er Hutong (near Nanluoguxiang), this early public security force mediated disputes, kept watch over the city’s gates and walls, and acted as principal agents of order in the capital.
Some of their duties would not seem out of place in modern Beijing including enforcing residency permits, keeping the streets clear of beggars and an authorized vendors, and making sure that restaurants and stores did not have tables or displays which spilled too far out into the street.
But their responsibilities were often more expensive than those of the modern police force which in the early 20th-century replaced them. Members of the gendarmerie also served as guards for palace processions, acted as health inspectors, coordinated fire brigades, and even operated soup kitchens.
They could be corrupt, that was for sure. They were often brutal and callous in carrying out their duties. But they were certainly a presence. At the ends of every street and hutong, behind every gate, there was somebody who stood, at least in theory, between residents of that neighborhood and whatever terrors the night may have held. They walked their beats, carrying a large rattle crew sound echoed through the walls of the homes along the way. The rattling both a warning to trespassers and in some ways a comforting counterpoint to the bass notes of the drum blooming further away in the center of the city.
It was a city very different from that of today and kudos to Lars and the rest of the team at Beijing Postcards for making it comes to life.
I am told that it is a limited-edition walk which means you should definitely try and catch it while you can. The cost is 300 RMB including the walk, a pre-walk drink, and a very special post-tour visit to Beijing Postcard’s hidden hutong gallery.
Tickets are still available for tonight’s (Sunday’s) walk and for walks on Thursday, May 1 and Sunday, May 11. For more information on the walk and to purchase tickets click here.
DRAY-NOVEY, ALISON J. (2007) The Twilight of the Beijing Gendarmerie, 1900-1924 Modern China 33: 349
NAQUIN, SUSAN (2000) Peking: Temples and City Life, 1400–1900. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.