CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 14, June 2008


Zhu Qiqian's Silver Shovel | China Heritage Quarterly

Zhu Qiqian's Silver Shovel

Geremie R. Barmé

The disappearance of Old Peking—now itself something of a mythic creation evoked in everything from academic treatises to tourist guides—has been a long and piecemeal progress, one that is despite the destructive vigour of recent years still far from over. It is common to attribute the mass destruction to the fervour of Maoist-era city planners (after all, during the 1950s-60s the remaining city walls were demolished), or the political and commercial calculations of those in charge of creating 'a new Beijing for the new Olympics' (xin Beijing, xin Aoyun).

The evolution of Beijing into the city of today, one in which the despoliation or substantial alteration of heritage sites, the selection and prettification of places deemed representative of certain moments in Beijing's long history and the commercial redevelopment of swathes of the traditional city has been one in which demolition and rebuilding have been a feature since perhaps the invasion of the imperial capital by the infamous Anglo-French Expeditionary Force in 1860 (for details, see China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 8, December 2006).

It is readily assumed that extreme revolutionary ideology was a mark only of the high-Maoist years of the 1960s and 70s. Historians and thinkers more familiar with China's twentieth-century history, however, are aware of how many elements of Maoist-era ideology and zealotry were a continuation, a summation, or a logical extension of the revolutionary impetus that had been building in China at least from the time of the failed 1898 Hundred Days Reform (others may well argue for a far earlier provenance of the desire for radical reconstruction). While revolution, the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, saw the abdication of the last dynasty, the revolutionary impulse would play out in the physical legacies of late-dynastic China throughout the twentieth century.

The reorientation and remaking of Beijing from the 1910s was a particularly egregious example of this kind of revolutionary change.

Zhu Qiqian (1872-1964) [Fig.1] is now celebrated for his role in championing traditional Chinese architecture, but he is also well known by scholars of the early Republican era for his close involvement with the military leader cum president and near emperor Yuan Shikai. As Chief Director of the Department of Internal Affairs under Yuan, who ruled from Beijing in the early post-dynastic years of the Republic of China, Zhu was also made the head of the Municipal Council established in 1914. With control of the capital's public works, he had a profound impact on the creation of new and modern public parks and roadways in the former imperial city. He also had oversight over the former imperial temples on either side of the Forbidden City and the area around Tiananmen Gate. He was one of the first civic leaders to help make Beijing visible as a modern (or aspiring-to-be modern) city. It was a visibility that also contribute to what would become the gradual and eventual wholesale disappearance of the old city.

Fig. 1 Zhu Qiqian.

Zhu was above all a man with a practical vision, and experience. Intimately familiar with the old city, he had a hand in key transportation issues during the early years of the new government and he was keenly aware of the needs of a city that, following the abdication of the Qing rulers, was experiencing dramatic change both in terms of its local governance and in its national role. In 1914, Zhu suggested to Yuan Shikai that it was necessary to remodel the Three Front Gates (Qian San Men) of the Inner City of Beijing and, with the president's support, he began work on 16 June 1915.[Fig.2] Famously braving a rainy day he used a silver shovel especially forged for him on the order of Yuan Shikai to break the first brick of the old city wall. The aim of the reconstruction was to demolish the enceinte (wengcheng), or the curved protective walls, joining the outer gate or Arrow Tower, known popularly as Qian Men Gate, to the Inner City gate or Zhengyang Men ('facing sun gate', the main gate in the wall of the Inner City, or Nei Cheng) immediately to its north.[Fig.3] A broad new thoroughfare was built through the breach that was created along with pedestrian walkways into the city proper.[Fig.4] Western architectural features were added to Qian Men Gate by the Curt Rothkegel company (known also for its work in building the major museum repository in the Forbidden City, and its design for the Imperial Consultative Assembly, see 'A Beijing that Isn't (Part 1)' in the Features section of this issue). While some changes to walls in the imperial city had been made before the end of the Qing dynasty, Zhu's demolition work at Qian Men marked the beginning of the city's transformation for the sake of modern transportation, and the remodeling or demolition of the city walls, a process that continued up until the late 1960s. As the historian of Republican-era Beijing Madeleine Yue Dong puts it:

The city's physical layout, which had once served the imperial state so well, was now unable to satisfy the needs of commercial and industrial development that then new Republican state envisioned; it had to be replaced by a new, more open spatial order conducive to increased mobility of people and goods.[1]

Fig. 2 Zhu Qiqian and the official party on 16 June 1915, the day that Zhu's silver shovel inaugurated the reconfiguration of Qian Men.

A railroad circling the city walls was built in 1915 and it went into operation in early 1916. During its construction the protecting walls around many of the gates of the Inner City were also demolished. Eventually, this city circle railroad would be replaced by a multi-laned highway where the wall stood and the railroad itself would be submerged to create a subway (see 'Beijing Underground' in Features in this issue). It was around the time of the construction of the original railway that the wall around the Imperial City (Huang Cheng) itself, one that separated the Inner City from the Forbidden City, was pierced by a number of new gates to facilitate the flow of traffic. The Imperial City walls would be dismantled over many years. Their 'footprint' would become what is now the little-known First Ring Road of Beijing. Today, only a few yards of what is claimed to be part of the original wall are preserved at the northern end of the Imperial City Wall Park (Huang Cheng Yizhi Gongyuan) abutting Heping Avenue.

Fig. 3 Qian Men, the connecting enceinte or wengcheng and Zhengyang Men, the entrance to the Inner City of Beijing before the 1915 demolition.

Zhu Qiqian also oversaw the creation of the thoroughfares of Nanchang-Beichang Jie along the west flank of the Forbidden City, as well as of Nanchizi-Beichizi along the eastern flank. With the creation of the east-west boulevard that would become the celebrated Chang'an Jie, or Avenue of Eternal Peace, he also had large moon-gate entrances to Nanchang Jie and Nanchizi constructed that led into the new axial road in front of Tiananmen Gate which had become a throughway in 1914.

Fig. 4 Qian Men and the new thoroughfare.

It was also under Zhu Qiqian that the old Pavilion of the Delight in the Moon (Baoyue Lou) at the Lake Palaces was dismantled and a new southern entrance to the former imperial garden palace was built. It was named New China Gate (Xinhua Men). New China Gate (built as the entrance to what Yuan Shikai hoped would be the Palace of New China, or Xinhua Gong, the heart of a modern Empire of China under his rule) has a reviewing stand for martial parades and, although this is not used, the gate remains the formal entrance to the Lake Palaces home to both the Party and governmental administration of China's People's Republic.[2]

The silver shovel remained in Zhu's possession for the rest of his life. His son, Zhu Haibei, donated it to the Architecture College of Tsing-hua University, where it remains today.

For an earlier mention of Zhu Qiqian in this journal, see 'The Transition from Palace to Museum: The Palace Museum's Prehistory and Republican Years', China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 4 (December 2005).


1. Madeleine Yue Dong, Republican Beijing, The City and Its Histories, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, p.22. See also Mingzheng Shi, 'From Imperial Gardens to Public Parks: The Transformation of Urban Space in Early Twentieth-Century Beijing', Modern China, vol.24, no.3 (1993), pp.219-254.

2. For more details, see chapters six and seven in Geremie R. Barmé, The Forbidden City, London: Profile Books/Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2008.


Cui Yong, Zhongguo Yingzao Xueshe yanjiu, Nanjing: Dongnan Daxue Chubanshe, 2004.

Lin Zhu, Zhongguo Yingzao Xueshe shilüe, Tianjin: Baihua Wenyi Chubanshe, 2008.