Rediscovering Beijing: Finding the Elephants

On using an 1897 guidebook to explore modern Beijing…

My adventures begin with the elephants.

A few hundred yards westward of (the Shun-chih-men) is the place for the Imperial elephants, the Hsün-hsiang-so, a large enclosure in which the elephants of the Court are kept… The intelligent animals are taught to salute the Emperor by kneeling down, and receive a kind of adoration.

A central-Beijing stable with kneeling elephants? How much cooler can you get?! I had to find this place.

But almost immediately I ran into problems. I was using an 1897 travel book and the street names have all changed. The author uses an archaic transliteration scheme for Chinese words. He writes Ssu where today one would write Si. His kao might be a gao or a kou or who knows what.

But using a 1930s map as a Rosetta Stone, I started to find clues. His Shun-chih-men is now Xuanwumen. The actual gate (men) is gone, but it’s been replaced with an identically-named subway station. At least this removed any need for a pony and Mexican dollars.

But walking out of the subway, I knew everything was wrong.

First of all, I should be walking alongside a city wall. This is how he described it:

a stone foundation and two brick walls filled with mud; those of the northern city are about 40 feet high: at the base about 50 feet thick, at the top about 36 feet, and defended by massive buttresses at intervals of 300 yards.

Instead, I’m walking beside an eight-lane thoroughfare. There’s no wall, but there is a WalMart. The gate has been replaced with a sinister China Supply and Marketing monolith.

The only trace of the wall sits in Xibianmen Park, a few blocks further. 115 years later, it doesn’t look old at all. The bricks are new, and it’s flanked by three highway on-ramps. In case of tragedy, large signs around it direct visitors to Emergency Makeshift Tents and Emergency Water Supply.

On top of the wall, a family played badminton while a granny kicked a feathered foosball. On a less-polluted day, you might have been able to see mountains in the distance, but today you couldn’t see far beyond the Soviet high-rise office buildings.

And, of course, there were no pachyderm.

“There are no elephants here,” said one passerby. I showed him my book, and he looked at me like a fool. “You need a newer book,” he said as he walked away.

The author only mentions this gate briefly.

Not far from the Hsi-pien-men, to the north, is the English Cemetery, a plain, neatly kept ground; a monument was here erected for the victims of the campaign of 1860.

The unnamed “campaign of 1860” — clearly so important at the time — has long been forgotten. During the Second Opium War, British diplomats came to Peking for negotiations. The Emperor imprisoned them, tortured them, and slaughtered twenty. The irate Brits retaliated by burning down the Summer Palace. Nice.

Today, neither the graveyard or the monument seem to remain. I spent an hour searching alleyways for it, but no-one knew of it.

It was probably torn down during the Boxer Rebellion, and then just paved over.

Paul French, author of the unmissably perfect true crime book Midnight in Peking, had recently sought another English graveyard. His was buried under the Second Ring Road, a road that wraps around Beijing and also covers this area. Probably the victims of 1860 are lying under this same road.

Back near Xuanwumen, though, my original quest started to come together. An old lady wearing a red granny police armband told me this street used to be called Xianglai Jie (象来街). That means “Elephant Come Street.” But she insisted it was just coincidence. And she followed it up with, “There are no elephants here.”

Of course, I knew there wouldn’t be any elephants here. Elephants don’t live past 80. From the book, it sounds like these didn’t even make it that long:

Of the elephants previously received only one was alive when the new (Siam) embassy in 1875 arrived with seven new ones.

But I was hoping there’d be a trace of them. A museum? A photo? But I couldn’t even find where I should be looking.

And then he appeared.

He was wrinkled, and bent over, and older than New China. He’d probably been alive during the Republic of China. He was resting on a low wall near the entrance to the Xinhua News office building. Drool hung from his mouth, and his mouth was empty of teeth.

He was old enough to remember.

“Are you a Beijinger,” I asked.

He nodded.

“When you were small,” I asked, “were there elephants here?”

He studied me, thinking and remembering, and then he smiled.

“Yes, but they’re not here anymore. In the past. They were…” He looked around, and pointed at Xinhua News. “They were there.”

I was ecstatic.

It was a large complex of buildings, blocked by a series of gates.

And the security guards wouldn’t let me in.

They insisted there wasn’t a museum, and there wasn’t a plaque, and they laughed to each other.

“There are no elephants here,” they said. Both of them.

How could there not be a trace? I’d read a Chinese article describing it as six rows of eight stables each, with six-foot thick brick walls. Each stable was 36 feet long, and 18 wide. They kept 22-foot-long blankets for cold nights. How could there be no trace of this awesomeness?

I reached out to Mikala, a friend who works part time at Xinhua. She also laughed at my suggestion, but promised to investigate at work.

Later, she got back in touch.

“Nobody believed me,” she wrote. “Then they all dug a little bit, asked around, Baidu’ed and couldn’t believe it was true.”

“Yes, the area where Xinhua is located was where the imperial elephants were once kept. In the 1890s one of these elephants got loose in Beijing and went wild.”

According to Aldrich’s The Search for a Vanishing Beijing, the elephant…

caused a tremendous panic throughout the southeast corner of the city, overturning vendor carts (and presumably vendors), breaking through wooden gates of courtyard homes and generally raising merry hell (pleasant to imagine). It all ended in tears when some Manchu hero tried to bring the elephant to heel but only succeeded in getting himself stomped on. After that event, the court banned the elephants from participating in the imperial ceremonies. Without being on the payroll of the Forbidden Court, the elephants were out of work and soon died of starvation a few years later.

By the time that Sun Yat-sen had founded the Republic of China in the early teens, the elephant stables had been razed, and turned into parliamentary offices.

According to Mikala, there are no traces of the elephant stables today.

“And, of course,” she said, “no elephants.”

Score so far: Elephantine fail.

So instead, here’s a picture of me on a 56-year-old elephant in Laos:

Introduction: Rediscovering Beijing with an 1897 Guide
Part One: Finding the Elephants
Part Two: The Ancient Observatory

Historical Wonders, Strange Tourism / ,

3 Responses to Rediscovering Beijing: Finding the Elephants

  1. Peter N-H says:

    The British and Indian dead of 1860 were initially buried in the Russian Cemetery, which is now Qingnian Hu Park outside the Anding Men. The British Cemetery was only opened in 1902, and the bodies transferred there. It is now Nan Lishi Lu Park, outside the Fuxing Men, not far from the site of the elephant stables, but nowhere near the former Legation Quarter. There are no remaining gravestones, markers, or memorial.

    The French dead of 1860, incidentally, were buried at the Jesuit Cemetery, now known as the Li Madou Mu (Li Madou was the Chinese name of Jesuit China pioneer, Matteo Ricci) inside the grounds of a school for Party carders on Chegong Zhuang Lu. The gravestones of notable Jesuits remain, although put in a cluster away from their former locations, but those of the 1860 dead have vanished.

  2. Jianing Xu says:

    According two aerial photo taken in 1945, the English Cemetery should be on the west and south corner of Fuxing Men, now is China National Radio.

  3. child_of_air says:

    Seriously dude, didn’t anyone ever tell you not to ride an imprisoned elephant? That guy has chains around his neck. What are you thinking?!

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