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Xianyukou: Hopes and Fears

The Xianyukou area lies at the heart of what in the Qing Dynasty Westerners called the “Chinese City” and the Chinese called the “Outer City”, as opposed to the “Tartar City”, or “Inner City”, which lay to its north.. The “Inner City”, comprising the present-day Xi Cheng and Dong Cheng Districts, was largely reserved for habitation by Manchu, Mongols, Chinese bannermen, and government offices. The “Outer City”, where Xianyukou is situated, was added on to the old city of Beijing and enclosed by the extended city walls in the 1550’s under the Ming Dynasty. When the Manchu established the Qing Dynasty, they forced most Chinese residents of Beijing to relocate to the Outer City, which then became the commercial part of the Beijing, with shops, restaurants, places of entertainment, inns, provincial guild halls, etc. This gave a very different flavor to the two main parts of the city—the one more imperial, more official, and the other more bustling, more commercial.? Therein lies the charm and historical significance of Xianyukou and other parts of the “Outer City”.

xykThrough the Republican Era, the Japanese occupation, and the post-1949 years up until today, the Xianyukou District has maintained the basic residential layout and style it inherited from Qing Dynasty times. For this reason, when the Beijing Municipal Government approved the “Conservation Planning of 25 Historic Areas in Beijing Old City” in 2002, it designated the Xianyukou area as one of the historical conservation districts. The Beijing Municipal Government emphasized that this area must be protected to ensure the preservation of the characteristics and uniqueness of the historical cultural districts.? The plan identified Xianyukou as a repository of traditional business, commerce, trade guilds, and entertainment, all existing in the same space together with courtyard residences. Unfortunately, the living conditions of the area have deteriorated, but the essentials of its original historical appearance and design have remained unchanged over the decades. All that is required is tasteful and well-planned investment to bring it back to its former glory, providing modern amenities while respecting its historical authenticity.

Through the Internet (www.sohochina-ir.com/eng/ir/circulars/pro070921.pdf), and through a walking inspection of the neighborhood conducted by CHP Friends of Old Beijing volunteers recently, we have become aware that a large-scale real estate development project called “South of Tiananmen Square (Qianmen)” is being undertaken by SOHO China Ltd. in the western portion of Xianyukou, and that some major redevelopment project is in preparation for the eastern portion of Xianyukou. Most of the western portion has already been razed in preparation for rebuilding, and the several thousand households of the eastern portion have been requested to move out by 25 January 2008 to make way for the redevelopment.

Because the western and eastern areas of Xianyukou are located in the Xianyukou Conservation District and the “Conservation Planning of 25 Historic Areas in Beijing Old City” plan, we wish to remind all concerned with the SOHO project in the western portion of Xianyukou, and with the development of the eastern portion, of the official plans and regulations that apply and should be followed.

On October 16, 2002, the Beijing Municipal Government issued an implementation regulation, for the 2002 “Conservation Plan for the Historic City of Beijing”. On May 1, 2005, the Beijing Municipal People’s Congress initiated the “Statute for the Protection of the Historic City of Beijing.” This regulation states that after the conservation plan for the Historic City of Old Beijing is approved, it may not be altered. If it becomes necessary in the public interest to modify the plan, then public hearings and the opinions of experts are to be solicited, after which the revisions are to be submitted for consideration to the original approving authority. Up until today, “Conservation Planning of 25 Historic Areas in Beijing Old City” has not been revised; hence its original provisions still apply.

Website information on the SOHO project explains that the project is located on the west side of Xianyukou Conservation District.? According to the “Conservation Planning of 25 Historic Areas in Beijing Old City,” the main points of protection of this district are as follows:

  1. The protection principle: to protect the consistency of buildings, courtyards, hutongs, streets, sites and landscape as interconnected parts of an organic whole.
  2. The “small-scale transformation” principle: all re-development is to take the courtyard residence as the basic unit or plot, and to preserve small scale and organic change in renovation work.
  3. The area west of Changxiang Toutiao to Qianmen Dajie will be a protected area, where most of the business and tourism are, and the remainder to the east of Chiangxiang Toutiao is the building control area, where the residents reside.
  4. The protection, repairing, and redesign of the buildings in the protected district must comply with the conditions set forth in the Beijing Municipal Government’s 2003 regulation entitled “The Protection and Repair of the Buildings in the Preservation Districts in the Old City of Beijing.”?? For Class 1 and Class 2 buildings, strict guidelines on building preservation, improvement, renovation, and the reconstruction of streets are to be followed.? For other buildings, color must be harmonious and height restrictions adhered to.
  5. In planning for roads and hutongs, the cardinal principal will be to not impact the overall appearance of the neighborhood, and secondarily to consider ease of transport and access, and also adequacy of public facilities.

These points summarize what we consider to be the essential and relevant contents of “Conservation Planning of 25 Historic Areas in Beijing Old City” as applied to Xianyukou District. The specific protection plan for Xianyukou, as well as other legal documents mentioned, appear in various publications and are easily accessed by anyone.

If conservation and re-development work in Xianyukou is undertaken in strict accordance with the legal requirements of the conservation plan and other regulations of the Beijing government, Xianyukou may become one of the most valuable areas within the Old City of Beijing.? However, if the legal requirements of the conservation plan are disregarded and real-estate development within the protected area violates the “small-scale transformation” principle in favor of large-scale demolition and exploitation projects, the protected historical and cultural value of the area will disappear.? Historical and cultural protected areas should not be changed into fake imitations of antique style; historical and cultural preservation areas can only preserve authenticity if they are properly protected and retain the original sense of community developed over previous centuries.?

In fully respecting the cultural heritage value of the Xianyukou area, real estate companies can and should be able to make great contributions to conservation work.? We believe that for companies working on “South of Tiananmen Square (Qianmen)”, they must not only seek to obtain certain regulatory approvals, but should also have a sense of social responsibility and set high requirements.? We hope investors and architects for this project will exercise prudence and caution, and carefully study the relevant details of the conservation plan. Maintaining Xianyukou Conservation District’s historical and cultural authenticity and integrity is fundamental to the development, whereby the area’s historical, cultural, and economic value can all be manifested to their fullest extent.

Unfortunately, the reports of our volunteers on their findings in a recent inspection of Xianyukou give rise to apprehension that the principles of historical conservation set forth in the Beijing government’s regulations may be observed in the breach. We hope that our fears are groundless and that the redevelopment projects will be entirely in compliance with the provisions of the city’s excellent plans and laws.

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