In the 2015 documentary The Chinese Mayor, the mayor of Datong, Shanxi province, has a wild dream. He wants to rebuild the ancient city to attract tourists and boost the local economy. But in order to do that, he needs to relocate half a million people, bulldoze their houses and build the fake ancient city almost from scratch.
He proceeds to do it and spends billions of yuan until, years into his half-finished project, he is moved to administrate a different city.
The documentary is a rare insight into the cultural revitalization that has taken place across China in recent years. For foreigners, it can be hard to understand why city administrators would raze old neighborhoods to build new old-looking buildings.
Beijing’s Liulichang, Dashilan and Qianmen streets illustrate that philosophy in varying degrees. The streets, located in central Beijing, used to be cultural and commercial hubs hundreds of years ago. Liulichang was a gathering place for politicians, scholars and painters in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Dashilan and Qianmen were famous commercial arteries as far back as the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
They have all been renovated over the past few years, especially ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Some of the buildings are authentic, but more are new, ancient-looking constructions that line modern pedestrian streets in a mix that reflects the oddity of the times.
Liulichang Street was part of a small village during the Liao Period (907-1125). In the Yuan dynasty (1206-1368) the community ran a kiln for glazed tiles that gave the street its name.
During the Qing dynasty, Han officials, who lived separately from the ruling Manchus, started moving into the area. Candidates for the final imperial exam also stayed there when they came to Beijing. Their presence attracted bookstores and stationary shops, and later on scores of scholars, painters and calligraphers. By the 18th century, Liulichang had the largest book fair in Beijing. The area continued to develop as a cultural center, but was crushed during the Cultural Revolution.
The street reopened to the public in the mid-1980s, and large-scale renovations took place more recently.
Today, Liulichang is an often quiet street, lined with stores that sell traditional Chinese handicrafts and stationery including paintings, sculptures, tea kettles, brushes, scrolls, as well as books and antiques.
Each store has a story that is related to the artist or the family who owns the shop. Shopkeepers are talkative and unhurried, so it’s a good place to hear stories and practice your Mandarin. Some stores are quite large and offer a great variety of whatever they’re selling, be it paintings or sculptures. Antique prices vary from a few hundred yuan for small objects to several thousand yuan for Qing dynasty paintings. The shopkeepers say the most expensive objects come with government-issued certificates of authenticity.
Toward the eastern end of the street, you can find Sibaotang, a store selling sculptures made of jade and other semi-precious stones. The shop could easily be a museum, with some pieces standing 1 meter tall, with intricate designs and price tags of hundreds of thousands yuan.
Dashilan Street, located just a few streets east of Liulichang Street, is an ancient commercial lane. The street was built in the Ming dynasty and expanded to include more prominent businesses during the Qing dynasty.
Versions of the old stores are open today, interspersed with modern restaurants and shops. Visitors can shop for shoes, clothes, hats, Old Beijing snacks and art. The buildings’ architectural style resembles that of the Qing dynasty.
One of the most advertised shops is Majuyuan, which more than a century ago used to make hats for government officials. Similarly, Neiliansheng made shoes for members of the imperial court. Other time-honored stores are Ruifuxiang, which sells silk, and Luibiju, which sells pickles.
On a street that blends old and new influences, the old-style stores that sell food win in authenticity over those that sell clothes.
The street that underwent the most changes is Qianmen Street. Known as Zhengyangmen Street during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the commercial street was basically rebuilt ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
Today, it is lined with Western brand stores such as Zara, New Balance, H&M and KFC, which are interspersed with Chinese clothing and art stores and restaurants. Most of the buildings have Qing-era designs.
The wide pedestrian street could easily be mistaken with shopping alleys in major European cities if it weren’t for the buildings’ Chinese architecture and the massive Zhengyangmen gate at its north end. There are even bronze-colored statues by the street lamps, similar to those on European streets – but Qianmen’s depict ancient Chinese characters. The fourth Madame Tussauds Museum in the world, located on Qianmen Street, adds to the street’s European feel.
China is famously a place of contrasts and sometimes conflicting influences. Being able to illustrate some of those divergences is enough reason to pay Beijing’s old commercial streets a visit.