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Saturday, April 12, 2003 - 09:00

Outing: The Old Legation Quarter

Immediately south of Dongchang’an Jie lies a rectangle of streets and buildings known to foreigners as the old legation quarter. Two roads, Taijichang and Zhengyi, cut through it from north to south, while from east to west it is traversed by Dongjiaomin Xiang.

The legation quarter has in a sense done a disappearing trick. Demolition and new construction have obliterated some of the former compounds and buildings. The very name “legation quarter” has for years been unacceptable to Chinese officialdom. The memory of past weakness, which in 1860 forced the Chinese to capitulate to Western demands for permanent diplomatic missions within the city walls, has been slow to fade. Nonetheless the authorities have acknowledged the special associations of the area by installing several of their international organisations there. The first foreign states to install permanent representatives in the Chinese capital were Britain and France. The number of legations within the quarter grew to thirteen, including the Netherlands. Foreign banks, trading houses, shops and hotels were also established. The quarter enjoyed extraterritorial status, it lay outside Chinese jurisdiction, it had its own administration, post office, police, churches, hospitals, and was garrisoned by some 1000 soldiers. The Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) ended the foreign power's extraterritorial status in China and with it the vitality of the quarter. Many diplomatic missions abandoned Beijing in 1937 and left their compounds in the hand of the caretakers. The new communist regime of 1949 made clear its wish to see the legation quarter emptied of foreign missions and organisations and from the late 50s eased remaining residents out into new compounds situated outside the former city walls.

Former Dutch ambassador Roland van den Berg, a Sinologist, started his diplomatic career in the legation quarter in 1962 and left Beijing after 4 years. In 1986 he returned to Beijing as an Ambassador and had 4 more years to explore the city. He will take us on a 2.5-hour walk in the area and tell us about the life in former times.