Just South of Tiananmen square is the historical entertainment district of Beijing ‘Dashilan’ located. Parts of it has been restored or actually completely rebuilt. This has capped the place with a somewhat plastic design that seems to only ‘attract’ the huge amount of tour groups that are literally dragged there. But if you leave the main roads there is still ample prove of the amazing past of this area to be found.
Dashilan has its origin from trade routes that were created when merchants travelled into the Mongolian capital of Dadu (name of Beijingduring Mongolian rule) some 800 years ago. Walking around the area it is immediately perceptible that many streets are not straight like most streets in old Beijing. This owes to the way settlements accumulated in this area along the trade routes just outside the city gates.
Later, during the Ming dynasty, Dashilan was incorporated into the city, when the Outer City Wall was built South of the original City Wall or Inner City as it is often called. When the Manchus took over the capital in 1644 and founded the Qing dynasty they decided to expel the original Han Chinese population from the Inner City to the Outer City.At the same time, entertainment establishments like brothels, teahouses, Beijing Opera theaters were, if not banned, then at least heavily restricted within the Inner City. This further added to the area just outside Qianmen Gate, becoming the most important commercial and entertainment center of town.
The name Dashilan means big fence and dates back to the Qing dynasty. It referred to the street gates of Beijing that was closed every night when a curfew was imposed. Visitors to the brothels and opium dens of Dashilan could literally get trapped away from home if they did not make it before the gates shot. Entering Dashilan from the Inner City was like entering another world. Many emperors found this entertainment paradise much more appealing than the strict ceremonial rules of the Imperial Palace, and there are many stories of the imperial escapades.
After the Second Opium War (1860), when the British and French won the right to settle in Beijing, the Dashilan area became heavily influenced by the new breed of foreign customers. Many shops targeted the westerners as their main customers with signs on the shop front in European languages. This affiliation to the foreigners prompted the so-called Boxers to actually burn down huge areas of Dashilan during the summer of 1900. The Boxers wished to rid China of the foreign devils and return to the old ways. But despite these efforts, the Boxers were not able to turn the tides of development.In fact foreign influence was just to become even more pronounced. After 1911 when the last emperor abdicated, the imperial building restrictions were lifted. This resulted in a thorough western style modernization of the area. Today it is still possible to find numerous ‘Art Deco’ facades in the area dating back to around the 1920s and 1930s.
After the Communist ‘Liberation’ of Beijing in 1949, the opium dens and the brothels were closed down gradually, but many shops dealing in silk, cloth shoes, knifes, medicine etc. were kept in the area. These old shops still exist today and they are not without a certain prevailing charm. Despite this it does not feels like the adventure really start till you venture in to the largely untouched hutongs around Dashilan Xijie. Here you can still find areas that have escaped the often well meant but largely destructive efforts of the present day developers.