Capital's Household Names

"Landscape: Celebrities' Former Residences and Anecdotes,'' written by Chen Guangzhong and published by the New World Press in Chinese, 34 yuan (US$4)

Former Residence of Lu Xun

At first glance, the secluded courtyard at 21 Xisantiao Hutong in Beijing is no different from other compounds in the capital.

Located outside Fucheng Gate near the Second Ring Road, the conspicuously enclosed courtyard is neglected by most passers-by.

Yet, if people slow their pace and step closer, they may discover a tablet hanging on the greyish wall that reads "Former Residence of Lu Xun (1881-1936)."

Between May 1924 and August 1926, this was the residence of modern China's best-known writer, whose original name was Zhou Shuren.

The compound has a gate in the Southeastern corner, just like any other siheyuan or traditional quadrangle whose distinctive style is unique to Beijing.

Entering the quiet courtyard, the first things that meet the eye are the clove and plum trees planted by the writer himself, which still bloom each spring.

The houses in the courtyard have been preserved in their original form. The east wing has been turned into a museum where some of the writer's belongings are stored and exhibited.

On the north side, there is a small room adjoining the main house like a tail. The writer jokingly called it "Tiger Tail."

It was in this room that Lu Xun wrote many of his famous works.

In his September 1924 essay "Autumn Night," Lu wrote: "Behind the wall of my backyard you can see two trees: One is a date tree, the other is also a date tree."

For those who like Chinese literature, visiting the compound may turn out to be an unexpected surprise.

It is just like when a Shakespeare lover comes across a former residence of the great British writer.

A touch of history in old houses

Travelers who walk the narrow lanes or hutong of Beijing may frequently encounter such surprises.

Grand imperial buildings such as Tian'anmen, the Palace Museum (Forbidden City) and the Temple of Heaven represent the past glory of Beijing as the capital of ancient China.

But they constitute only part of the mysterious city's diverse flavors. There is much more to be found in Beijing.

The city was one of the two most important cities in modern Chinese history, the other being Shanghai.

During the past two centuries, Beijing attracted a great many of people, who made China's modern history all the more colorful.

They came from across the country for various motives, worked and settled in Beijing and became part of its history.

The people passed away but many of their residences remain.

These old houses, submerged among the skyscrapers of the metropolis, maintain their old appearance. They remind people of a past era and provide travelers with more interesting stories about Beijing.

Chen's book: an artistic guide to historical residences

According to the local cultural-relics protection authority, the city boasts at least 100 former residences of "important celebrities" of modern China.

Most of them have been turned into museums and are open to the public.

However, they are scattered throughout the city so it is a big headache for travelers to find them on their own.

In January this year, the Beijing-based New World Press published a set of three books featuring the former residences of modern Chinese celebrities.

Entitled "Landscape: Celebrities' Former Residences and Anecdotes," the books offer detailed descriptions of 40 sites.

The books offer travelers a comprehensive guide to these old historical residences.

Unlike ordinary travel guides written in plain and boring language, the articles in the books are literary works worth reading several times.

Author Chen Guangzhong visited all the sites before he put pen to paper.

"Wandering through the hutong in Beijing on my old broken bicycle to look for the former residences of celebrities was my major pleasure over the past three years,” said Chen.

In the articles, he expounds his own feelings about the old residences.

Chen also dug deeper into the owners' past and uncovered stories about them that are fresh even to many locals.

For example, while writing about the former residence of Soong Ching Ling (1893-1981) at Houhai Beiyan in Xicheng District in northwest central Beijing, the author also describes how Soong came to Beijing three times before making up her mind to settle in the city.

The story of how Soong and Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) fought against Soong's parents and finally got married is also told.

As a competent amateur photographer, Chen took many pictures while visiting the old houses. He also drew many sketches.

Xiao Dongfa, a professor at Peking University, said: "The pictures and sketches, together with the essays, provide readers with an artistic treat."

(People's Daily March 19, 2002)

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