The Goldfish Ponds of Old Beijing
An interview with Wang Zhidong by Wang Jian
Translated by Madeleine Ross and Fang Li
From 'My Home and Water: A People's Account', Probe International
Beijing, once famous for its sweet spring water and clear-flowing rivers is now infamous for its polluted canals and dried up riverbeds. 'My Home and Water: A People's Account', of which the oral history interviews in this section are a part, provides an uncensored glimpse of life and water in the ancient capital of Beijing and surrounding areas, as told by long-time residents of the city.
The translation, editing and online publication of this series by Dai Qing, the guest editor of this issue, and Probe International has been made possible by funding from the Open Society Institute. Minor stylistic changes have been made to these texts by the editor of China Heritage Quarterly.
Wang Zhidong is an 80-year-old physicist, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology and a standing committee member of the Chinese National Physics Association. As an academic and lifelong resident of Beijing, Wang has personally experienced all the changes in Beijing's water heritage.
Seventy years ago, when I was very young, we lived right near a place called Lucao Yuan or Reed-Grass Gardens in Chongwen Men District. You might ask why it was called Lucao Yuan. The reason is that in those days there was a large lake with a lot of reeds in that area. Xianyu Kou or Fresh Fish Junction was close to our home. Many of the old hutong (laneways) were arranged on an angle because they followed the direction of the old river, and all the houses had been built along its banks.
My mother often took me back to my grandfather's place. He lived on Xiaoshi Dajie (Small Market Avenue), in the Jingzhong Miao (Loyalty Temple) area, where there was a very well-known lake about half an acre in size. The manager had used earthen dykes to divide it up into smaller square-shaped ponds—the original Goldfish Ponds—where he raised all sorts of different kinds of goldfish. Willow trees lined the lake, and there was also a small grove of about forty of them in the southeast corner, some trees so large that a person couldn't put their arms right round them. Every summer the leaves would create a huge patch of shade on the ground beneath the trees where pedi-cab and handcart drivers often took a nap around midday. It was also a place where kids went to catch cicadas!
In earlier times, candidates for the civil service who came to Beijing to sit the exams all loved spending time themselves in that area. Right up until the 1950s, people were still coming into the laneways to sell goldfish in buckets attached to the ends of their carrying poles—it was one of famous sights of Old Beijing. The rare varieties of goldfish to be found in Beihai and Zhongshan parks had originally come from these goldfish ponds.
All the goldfish bowls you saw then were the shallow kind, but if you want to know how deep the goldfish ponds were, I'll tell you a story. After my wife and I got married we were really busy, so we sent our three- or four-year-old son to live at his grandparent's house near the goldfish ponds. What really worried my mother was the thought that her grandson would go over to the ponds by himself. One day, when he couldn't be found, the neighbours said he had probably gone over to the ponds. My mother ran over there after him as fast as she could, forgetting to take her walking stick, despite the fact that she had bound feet. She found him playing happily on one of the dykes, but she didn't dare call out to him for fear he'd get distracted and fall into the water, so the ponds must have been quite deep. I remember that they used hoses to change the water in the ponds and the hawkers who sold pet fish used siphons to draw water out of the ponds to fill their fishbowls. Water automatically seeped back in and filled the ponds because the water table was so high in those days.
Only the poor and destitute lived in the vicinity of the goldfish ponds: pedi-cab drivers, people who hawked their goods in their carrying pole baskets, people selling fish as pets and others like the rickshaw man Lucky Camel (Luotuo Xiangzi), in Lao She's novel. The most beautiful fish ponds as well as the smelliest drains were all in that area. Going southwest from the goldfish ponds, you'd get to Rushes Ditch—an area where a sewage drain in old Beijing ran alongside the old riverbed. As it was a fairly low-lying area with a few bodies of water, more and more fish breeders tended to flock there. It stunk to high heaven because of all the open drains and ditches full of rushes—it was the open sore of Beijing at the time. After the Communist Party came to power [in 1949], one of their first projects was to transform Rushes Ditch. The goldfish ponds were all filled in during the Cultural Revolution because the river had already dried up. Now it's totally covered by tall buildings.
In the 1940s, I was a student at Tsinghua University. The campus was surrounded by imperial residences and parks, like the Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanming Yuan) and the Summer Palace. How come so much beautiful scenery was all located in that one area? It was because there were springs everywhere. Just listen to the well-known names: Yuquan Shan (Jade Spring Hill), Wanquan He (Ten Thousand Springs River) and Daoxiang Yuan (Rice Fragrance Park). When I was a student, this whole western area of Beijing was water, including Xi Yuan and Ba Gou, and there were reed beds everywhere. If you walked in from Haidian South Road it was all just a crescent-shaped reed pond, with the reeds growing as tall as a man. Houses lined the long strips of road, just like ridges in fields.
The Beijing Institute of Industry was established in 1951. Having already graduated, I took up a teaching position there. That whole area, which also included the Capital Stadium and Beijing Zoo, was called Ba Gou. There was a huge pond outside the wall of the Stadium and Zoo, and the Gaoliang River flowed past the walls surrounding the Institute of Industry. The river is still there now, but it's so narrow that only a tiny strip of water is left—it's actually the place where Dowager Empress Cixi would get out of her sedan chair and onto a boat when she used to go from the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace. After getting into a boat she had to travel less than half a kilometre to get to Baishi Qiao (White Stone Bridge)—it's still called a bridge but there's not a drop of water to be seen under it any more.
Going further south, you'd come to Sanli He. Actually, there was another Sanli He (Three Li River) near Jingzhong Temple in Zhushi Kou south of Qianmen (Front Gate), reached by walking south from the city for three li, which is how it got its name. The area was dredged to create a channel for water from the moat to flow. Further on it was called Shui Daozi (Water Channel), a name it still retains, and in the past the whole are was a single tract of water. You know, when I was teaching at the university, there were streams crisscrossing the whole city—that's how plentiful water was in Beijing in those days.
You must have heard of Guo Shoujing. He was an eminent thirteenth-century scientist of the Yuan Dynasty who worked out how to calculate pi so it was possible to make accurate numerical calculations to a number of decimal places. Even before the Yuan capital had been established, he was able to foresee the difficulty they would have with transporting tribute grain north to the capital. He spent more than two years making a survey of the springs and river systems as well as taking exact measurements of the terrain in northwest Beijing. He discovered that water could be directed west from a very plentiful spring on the slightly elevated Phoenix Hill, around the foothills of the Western Hills and from there toward the southeast, collecting water along the entire route from all the little springs, then feeding into Wengshan Bo (now called Kunming Lake) and eventually following the Gaoliang River into a holding pond. This irrigation channel followed the rules of nature rather than obeying the dictates of man, and was the basis of the Yuan capital's settlement and expansion: a source of plentiful and clean water. It was not only transportation to the capital that benefitted from this water—it was also what the ordinary people of the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties lived on.
The water in Wengshan Bo was what the imperial family drank and it was also what was used to irrigate the paddy rice that they ate. On the other hand, the grain that the ordinary people ate was transported along the Grand Canal to Tongzhou and then directly into the water holding pond. The pond got its name at this time. You see, water from the Western Hills was being brought in and Zhongnan Hai, Beihai and Houhai were all linked, which was how the bodies of water in the inner city came into being. Hundreds of years ago there was more than enough water for the one or two million people to live in Beijing.
If you want to talk about whether Beijing has plenty of water or only a little, you have to take the population and the size of the city into account. Using the available water resources to meet the needs of fifteen million people or more will naturally be problematical. Now roads are being constructed, skyscrapers are being built and the population has increased seven or eight fold, but there is no water left, the stands of trees by the rivers' edges have gone, and Wanquan He (Ten Thousand Springs River) has become a drain. Many of the rivers around Beijing have dried up. The changes in the last sixty years have been more drastic than in the previous one thousand years.
Beijing's lack of water will have the direct effect of inhibiting Beijing's development. As early as the 1950s, the government was aware of the importance of the water supply but unfortunately the solution they decided upon was to build reservoirs. In 1954, Guanting Reservoir was built with the added benefit that it would assist with flood prevention (see 'Thirsty Dragon at the Olympics' in Features in this issue). In 1957, another location was hastily sought out, and the Shisan Ling (Ming Tombs) reservoir was built, but a few years later water was found to be seeping out of it. At the end of the 1950s, yet another reservoir was built, the Miyun, but still there wasn't enough water. In the 1960s they excavated the Yongding River diversion canal, later the Jingmi diversion canal was constructed, but the problem remained unsolved. In the 1970s, I heard that forty thousand wells were sunk in an effort to extract as much ground water as possible. In the 1980s, Beijing's population steadily increased. The city grew bigger and bigger and industry began expanding ever more quickly. To top it off, there was increased use of water upstream of the Guanting Reservoir, and a greater volume of effluent release. As a result, Beijing not only had to cope with a reduction in water supply but also with serious water pollution.
Beijing must readjust its industrial structure and take measures to save water through water consumption control schemes. Unfortunately, at the end of last century after a series of droughts and continual water scarcity, we were forced to use emergency water supplies as a source of water, and the decision was made to divert water from the south to the north. The Yangtze River has water now, but if there were no more water in the Yangtze, what would we do? We are heading for disaster if we deal with water problems by naively relying on reservoirs and engineering projects rather than controlling our population and seriously thinking about the entire situation.
Beijing needs an ever increasing amount of water. If rivers have none, groundwater is desperately extracted, causing a continuous fall in the level of the water table. Just think about it—without water, the soil's support system will be lost, so won't the ground just begin to subside? In the past the Xingtai and Tangshan earthquakes were both felt by people in Beijing. If the magnitude of those earthquakes had been greater, and the epicentres had been a little closer to Beijing, just think what would have happened! If so much water is taken out of the water table and so many skyscrapers are built, it would be strange if there were no collapses.
When Wan Li was the head of the People's Congress, he asked the Beijing city government a number of times how they would solve the water problem and how they would guarantee the supply of water. They didn't seem to have any sound policies. I heard that they were negotiating with Hebei Province in the hope that no more water would be removed from the upstream counties. I also heard they were going to spend a 100 million yuan to improve the water quality in the Guanting Reservoir. When I was young I never imagined that water supply would become an issue. Now I'm 80 years old and really worried for the next generation.
Beijing's population has increased so much that the situation is now nearly out of control, and if it continues like this, the mismatch between population growth and the water supply will become even more strained. I'm concerned that there will come a time in the future when the people living in Beijing will have to start leaving—why must we make the ordinary people go down such a tortuous path!
People in my generation have been through everything, the disasters of war, hunger and thirst, all kinds of political movement—we've seen it all. Can anyone deny that we are facing up to the water crisis? Planning and managing water usage will test the government's ability and sense of responsibility – and they'll be judged by whether or not they can deal with this challenge. The capital belongs to all Chinese people: we can't have favouritism. We can't say you can come here, but he or she can't. But how this problem will be resolved is the government's responsibility—an equitable solution must be found.
I hope we will have prosperity and stability with no big ups and downs. The country must develop, thrive and be strong and society must be stable—Beijing must not come to grief because of water!
 Lao She (1899-1966) was a novelist and playwright born and raised in Bejing. His original name was Shu Qingchun, and his courtesy name was She Yu. He is best known for his novel Camel Xiangzi or Rickshaw Boy and the play Teahouse.
 Grain that was for the exclusive use of the imperial clan.