Beijing’s Former Legation Quarter – Recovering the Heart of Foreign Peking by Paul French

The Old Road Names of the Legation Quarter

Then                                                           Now

British Road                                               Zhengyi Road (West side)

Gaselee Street                                          formerly Bingbu Street

Rue Hart                                                    Taijichang Dajie

Hatamen Street                                          Chongwenmen Street

Ketteler Strasse                                         Chongwenmen Street

Legation Street                                          Dong Jiangmi Xiang

Rue Marco Polo                                         Taijichang Street

Rue Meiji                                                    Zhengyi Road (northern East side)

Rue Meu                                                     Zhengyi Road (East side)

Morrison Street                                           Wangfujing

Stuart Road                                                 Chang’an Avenue East

USSR Embassy Compound Lane                formerly Russian Legation Lane

The Legation Quarter of Peking

The Quarter Comes Into Existence (1861-1899)

The area known as Peking’s Legation Quarter (东交民巷) existed between 1861 and 1959 – just shy of a century. The Chinese now refer to the area as dong jiaomin xiang; foreigners, and tour guides, still invariably refer to it as the “former Legation Quarter”. The Chinese name actually refers to the main street that bisects the former Quarter from east to west – in essence from Tiananmen Square to the west across to the new Beijing Railway Station in the east (the old railway station being to the west of the Quarter at Qianmen).

Dong Jiangmi Xiang, or “East River Rice Lane” dates back to the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), before the arrival of the barbarian embassies and missions that became the legations, though the area had long been a centre for bureaucracy and bureaucratic dealings. Tax and customs officials clustered close to the Grand Canal (the closest thing landlocked Peking had to a ‘port’). During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the area became a centre of diplomacy with the arrival of the offices of the Ministry of Rites, which had charge of China’s diplomatic matters, and so located itself close by China’s then major trading partners – Vietnam, Mongolia, Korea and Burma – all established nascent embassies called ‘Tributary Missions’.

The Arrow War, now better known as the Second Opium War (1856-60), changed everything around East River Rice Lane – with the ailing Qing Dynasty’s defeat the new proto-foreign ministry, the Yongli Yamen, was forced to accept permanent missions by a whole host of foreign, mostly European nations, as well as the Japanese and Americans. Those nations insisted on being in close proximity to the Qing’s centres of imperial power – within the older inner city, east of what is now Tiananmen Square, north of Qianmen and Chongwenmen.  The first phase of the Peking Legation Quarter appeared.

The Boxers, the Siege and the Aftermath (1900)

The Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the weakness of the Qing’s instruments of power and control and the foreign Great Powers reaction to the Siege of the Legations both raised international awareness of the Legation Quarter (the Siege was an eagerly followed news story pretty much globally) and changed it forever – in to, at least in large parts still architecturally, what we recognize as the former Quarter today. The Boxers, the 55 day siege, the relief of that siege by the Eight Powers Allied Army and their subsequent looting of Peking were the great convulsive acts of 1900 that fundamentally changed the Legation Quarter.

Perhaps if the foreigners hadn’t been quite so closeted in the walled Legation Quarter, they would have been more aware of the fury building up outside their privileged little world. The Boxers (officially “The Society of Harmonious Fists” )rallied across the country stoking anti-foreign and anti-Christian sentiment and opposing technological advances such as railways and the telegraph — both foreign intrusions that offended the gods and caused crop failures, droughts and floods as punishments from on high. It was also largely true that the foreign press corps missed the rise of the Boxers, cloistered as they also were in the Legation Quarter, well away from the vicious reprisals starting to take place against the inland missionaries, Chinese Christians and Qing officials considered to be too friendly to foreigners. Heads rolled, European as well as Chinese, but this rarely appeared in the papers. After rampaging across northern China, the Boxers rounded on Beijing. A nervous and indecisive Qing court threw in its lot with them and an attack on the legations became inevitable. The middle and southern provinces of China were largely appalled by the action of the court and suppressed their own nascent Boxer movements, realising that eventually foreign reprisals would humiliate the government. By the middle of June 1900 the legations were under siege and the city’s foreigners trapped in the British Legation.

In August, a multinational rescue force, including 20,000 British, French, American, Russian and Japanese troops, forced the Boxers onto the retreat, relieved the besieged legations and found 70 of the several hundred trapped foreigners dead, but most alive. The foreign troops then went on a rampage and looting spree through the imperial city and their governments demanded massive indemnity payments from the Qing.

The Quarter’s Heyday  (1901-1922)

It was after the Boxers and the Siege that the Quarter became formally encircled by a wall and all Chinese residents in the area were ordered to move out. Sealed off from its immediate environment, the Quarter became a walled city; a city within a city exclusively for foreigners. However, it was certainly never formally a colony such as Hong Kong or Singapore, nor a treaty port such as Shanghai or Tientsin.

The so-called “Boxer Protocol” was signed by Germany, Austro-Hungary, Belgium, Spain, the United States of America, France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Holland and Russia. On the Chinese side it was signed by His Highness I-Kuang, Prince of the First Rank Ching, President of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and His Excellency Li Hung-chang, Earl of the First Rank Su-i, Tutor of the Heir Apparent, Grand Secretary of the Wen Hua Tien, Minister of Commerce, Superintendent of the Northern Ports, and Governor General of the province of Chihli.

 “Article VII. – The Chinese Government has agreed that the quarter occupied by the Legations shall be considered as a quarter specially reserved to their usage and placed under their exclusive police, where Chinese shall not have the right to reside, and which may be put into a state of defence. By the protocol attached to the letter of 16th January, 1901, China has recognised that each Power has the right to retain a permanent guard in the said quarter for the defence of its Legation.”

A minor part of the Boxer Protocols was the right of the foreigners to rename the roads of the Legation Quarter – first of all the major thoroughfare of East River Rice Lane officially became Legation Street.

The layout of the Legation Quarter as it can now be seen dates from the post-Boxers rebuilding. The European style boulevards, the impressive bank buildings and the grand old hotels of the Quarter all date from this time as well as the creation of the Glacis, that area of no-mans land to the east of the Quarter that was just wide enough that anyone attacking the Quarter would have to move into open ground where they could be gunned down.

The new, rebuilt and better protected Legation Quarter became even more of a goldfish bowl and a buffer from Chinese Peking for the foreigners who lived inside it.

A Legation Quarter…But Not a Capital City (1922-1937)

Even after the Kuomintang’s nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek moved the capital of China to Nanking in 1922, most of the Legations remained operational in Peking (now technically named Peiping – “southern peace”). Officially they were downgraded to Consulates and ambassadors were invariably stationed either in Nanking (Nanjing) or during times of disruption and chaos often in Shanghai or somewhere else. Consul Generals became the leading diplomats in Peking.

Subsequently the city became somewhat of a backwater politically – the republican government moved to Nanking, the former royal family evicted from the Forbidden City and scattered, the Last Emperor Pu Yi to become a tool of the Japanese moved between Tientsin (Tianjin), Mukden (Shenyang) and other locations as it suited Tokyo’s purposes. However the legations remained staffed and functional with diplomats and guards to protect them. The Quarter’s authorities remained active with administration, patrolling and policing duties to continue. Improvements happened – electric streetlights for instance – whatever way the political winds blew. At this time the Glacis fell into disuse and was built over with shacks and cheap buildings becoming the notorious strip of brothels and bars known as the Badlands

The Rickshaw Men of the Legation Quarter

In his classic novel 1937 novel Rickshaw Boy, one of China’s greatest modern writers Lao She describes the highly specialist elite rickshaw pullers who worked the streets of the Legation Quarter:

‘…who take passengers from the diplomatic sector all the way to the Jade Fountain, the Summer Palace, and the Western Hills. Stamina is only one reason why most pullers will not compete for this business, for this group of men deal with their foreign passengers in their own languages: when a British or French soldier says he wants to go to the Summer Palace or the Yonghe Monastery or the Eight Alleys red-light district, they understand. And they will not pass this skill on to their rivals. Their style of running is also unique: at a pace that is neither particularly fast nor too slow, they run with their heads down, not deigning to look left or right as they keep to the sides of the roads, aloof and self-assured. Since they serve foreigners, they do not wear the numbered jackets required of other rickshaw men. Instead they dress in long-sleeved white shirts, black or white loose fitting trousers tied at the ankles with thin bands, and black cloth-soled “double-faced” shoes – clean, neat, smart-looking. One sight of this attire keeps other pullers from competing for fares or trying to race them. They might as well be engaged in a trade all their own.’

A Quarter in a City Under Occupation (1937-1945)

And so we reach the Legation Quarter at the time of Pamela Werner’s murder – an exclusive, somewhat isolated enclave. No longer the political centre of China, no longer the home of the imperial family, no longer the major trading centre of the region but a backwater, past its prime, a faded glory surrounded by Japanese troops and run by a weak and ineffectual cabal of former warlords, potential collaborators and corrupt politicians.

In July 1937 Japanese troops, after provoking a confrontation at the Marco Polo Bridge (Luguoqiao) barely ten miles from the Quarter, occupied all of Peking. China found itself in all out war with Japan – in August Shanghai was bombed and in September marauding Japanese troops began the six week Rape of Nanking as they advanced up the Yangtze forcing Generalissimo Chiang to relocate his capital to Wuhan and then finally to the head of the Yangtze at Chungking (Chongqing).

Peking was occupied by the Japanese until 1945.

The Demise of the Quarter – 1945-1959

Though massively denuded from its heyday in the first half of the twentieth century some legations and scaled back diplomatic presences did remain in the Quarter until 1949. At that point, and with the creation of People’s Republic of China (PRC), all the embassies and foreign missions were moved out of the former Legation Quarter area. The old Tartar Wall that formed the northern border of the Quarter was demolished.

Most of the buildings of the former Legation Quarter remained in place but were put to other uses by the new government. The former residence of the legendary customs official Sir Robert Hart was destroyed in a fire and then later rebuilt as the Beijing City Communist Party Committee; The former Japanese Legation was occupied by the new Communist-controlled Beijing Municipal Government; the National City Bank of New York with its distinctive tall, thick, decorative columns become the Beijing Fire Control Bureau; the old Russian legation is now the site of the Supreme People’s Court; the former Italian legation is now home to the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries while the former International Post Office adjacent to the French Legation is a rather shabby Sichuan restaurant. The former apartment buildings of the Quarter are now hidden behind walls and manned gates, the old churches closed.

Some of the great landmarks of the old Quarter are now gone – perhaps most notably the former Peking offices of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC), which were bulldozed as part of a road-widening project. A similar fate befell the buildings formerly occupied by the British trading firm of Jardine Matheson and the old Russia Hall while the former building of the Deutsch-Asiatische Bank was bulldozed in 1992. At the same time a number of high-rise buildings, mostly for government offices or hotels, have been erected in non-traditional architectural styles and using non-traditional materials rather eroding the visual unity of the Quarter.

Sources, Bibliography and Further Reading on the Old Legation Quarter

The Celluloid Legation Quarter

Compared to Shanghai and its concessions celluloid images of Peking and its Legation Quarter are far less common and many not worth noting as they are so awful. Though there are some existing silent films of the Quarter that provide fascinating viewing such as the short Funeral of Chinese Viceroy, Chung Fing Dang, Marching Through the European Quarter at Peking from the fateful year of 1900 and produced by the Philadelphia-based Lubin Manufacturing Company, an American motion picture production company that produced silent films from the turn of the century to 1916.

Still, a few movies have featured the Legation Quarter or its environs and inhabitants. At the start of Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) we see the cast of disparate Chinese coasting characters including Captain Harvey (Clive Brook), Henry Chang (Warner Oland), Miss Hui Fei (Anna-May Wong) and, of course, the indomitable Shanghai Lily  (Marlene Dietrich) boarding the Shanghai Express train in Peking. The train pulls out of the Chienmen Station and then proceeds to edge its way through what appears to be a shantytown of Chinese shacks up tight against the tracks as mothers rush to pick their babies up of the rails. In reality, while there was a Shanghai Express train, the journey out of Chienmen Station was a lot less clamorous.

“A handful of men and women held out against the frenzied hordes of bloodthirsty fanatics!”

However, 55 Days at Peking (1963) is of course the classic film of the Boxer Rebellion, the Siege and the Legation Quarter with director Nicholas Ray marshalling David Niven as the much-moustachioed British Ambassador Sir Claude MacDonald (named Sir Arthur Robertson in the film) and, yet more imponderably, Dame Flora Robson as the Dowager (Dragon) Empress Xi Ci. And, to add some Hollywood glamour Charlton Heston as a maverick American Marine Major Matt Lewis falling for the enigmatic Baroness Natalie Ivanoff (Ava Gardner).

In reality of course everything was initially filmed on London’s Shepperton Studios and, listen closely, the marauding and murderous Boxers shout in Cantonese! The filming of 55 Days at Peking became famous in London for emptying Chinatown of waiters who all flocked to Shepperton to make some extra cash as extras. Still grander sets were needed for the fight scenes and Maoist China was not about to let the cast and crew into film so a full-scale 60-acre replica of the Legation Quarter in 1900, including the sewers (which of course the relief forces used to get into the city) was built in the plains outside Madrid, and Chinese extras flown in from all over Europe to provide murderous Boxers.

Incidentally, while Flora Robson was very far from being Chinese, several of her costumes, and those for Robert Helpmann playing Prince Tuan, were authentic and from Xu Ci’s original collection. They were lent by a Florentine family who had managed to rescue them from the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

Contemporary Accounts of the Legation Quarter

Arlington, Lewis C & Lewisohn, William (1935). In Search of Old Peking, Peking: Henri Vetch. Though written in the mid-1930s this is a lament for a bygone era. L.C. Arlington was an American who had served in the China Customs and Postal Administrations since 1879, and William Lewisohn, a British Army officer turned journalist. Both were fascinated and captivated by Peking though believed it to be in decline and wished to chronicle the old city – its buildings, monuments, gardens, gates and public spaces through descriptions, maps, pictures and anecdote.

Blofeld, John (1989). City of Lingering Splendour: A Frank Account of Old Peking’s Exotic Pleasures, Boston: Boston and Shaftesbury. Blofeld got under the skin of old Peking more than many others and enjoyed the city’s bathhouses, opera and Chinese pleasures.

Coates, Tim (2000). The Siege of the Peking Embassy, 1900: Sir Claude MacDonald’s Report on the Boxer Rebellion, London: National Stationery Office Uncovered Editions. This book pulls together the cables and letters of Sir Claude MacDonald, the British Ambassador to Peking during the 1900 Siege.

Coltman, Robert (1901). Beleaguered in Peking, Philadelphia: FA Davis & Co. (there is a modern reprint from Earnshaw Books of Hong Kong & Shanghai). Coltman was an American doctor trapped in the Legations during the Siege. Unlike the famous film 55 Days at Peking and most accounts of the Siege, Coltman accuses the British and, in particular, the Ambassador Claude MacDonald of ineptitude.

Kates, George N (1952). The Years That Were Fat: The Last of Old China, MIT Press. Having made a decent sum of money in Hollywood, George Kates went to live in China in 1933, during the last years before the Japanese invasion. He lived in Peking, in a grand old hutong courtyard, for seven years with sufficient funds to be a perpetual student, learning the spoken and written languages, taking up the study of Chinese literature and wandering around Peking and the surrounding countryside.

Maugham, William Somerset, (1922). On a Chinese Screen, London: Heinemann.

– (1922) East of Suez: A Play in Seven Scenes, London: Heinemann.

On A Chinese Screen contains several of Maugham’s rather cutting but deftly penned portraits of Legation Quarter characters. Maugham’s rather forgotten play East of Suez was first performed in 1922 at His Majesty’s Theatre in London and ran for 209 performances. Meggie Albanese and Basil Rathbone took the lead rolls. The plot involves a convoluted love triangle in foreign Peking and the woman involved, Daisy, is, daringly, a Eurasian while the men involved are, grippingly, a British-American Tobacco executive and a minor British civil servant! It transpires that Daisy has already been ‘purchased’ by a wealthy Chinese while stilted plotlines of mistaken identity, bungled assassinations and some pretty racist invective against the notion of mixed race marriages ensues. Far from Maugham’s best work though apparently the London production of the play was elaborate featuring numerous extras and a replica Mongolian camel caravan on stage.

Morrison, Hedda (1986) Travels of a Photographer in China – 1933-1946, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

– (1987) A Photographer in Old Peking, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hedda Morrison (nee Hammer) left Nazi Germany in 1933 to manage a photographic studio in Peking, where she remained until 1946. After leaving, she and her husband lived for almost twenty years in Sarawak, Borneo.

Putnam Weale, Bertram Lenox, (1907). Indiscreet Letters from Peking; Being the Notes of an Eye-Witness, Which Set Forth in Some Detail, From Day to Day, the Real Story of the Siege and Sack of a Distressed Capital in 1900 – the Year of the Great Tribulation, New York: Dodd, Mead & Co.

Putnam Weale was a pseudonym for Ningbo-born Bertram Lenox Simpson and his Indiscreet Letters was marketed at the time as “Being the notes of an eyewitness, set forth in day to day detail the real story of the Siege and sack of a distressed capital in 1900 — ‘the year of great tribulation’”. One reviewer described the book as a “rather odious work”.A former employee of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, Putnam Weale wrote ten books as well as numerous articles for a variety of publications before getting himself caught up in Chinese politics. He could never resist an intrigue and involved himself in the dark machinations of warlord politics, eventually getting himself brutally butchered on a Tianjin street in the 1920s, probably in revenge for some prior indiscretions. His killer was never identified or caught.

Sitwell, Osbert, (1940). Escape with Me! An Oriental Sketchbook, New York: Harrison-Hilton Books.

Fully Sir Francis Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell, 5th Baronet, (1892–1969) of the famous “Sitwells” took up literature while serving in the trenches of World War One. He later turned his hand to poetry and championing modern artists such as Matisse, Utrillo, Picasso and Modigliani in London. Escape with Me! Is somewhat rambling but describes China and Peking shortly before World War Two in 1939.


There are a number of contemporary novels that are either wholly or partially located in the Legation Quarter or feature characters rooted firmly in the environs of the Quarter.

Acton, Harold (1941). Ponies and Peonies, London: Chatto & Windus.

Bridge, Anne (1932). Peking Picnic, London: Penguin.

– (1934). The Ginger Griffin, Boston: Little, Brown & Co.

Ann Bridge, the wife of a British diplomat in Peking, wrote several novels of life in the Legation Quarter in the 1930s featuring the heady whirl of cocktail parties, long dinners, trips to the Western Hills for picnics etc etc. For their time the books were spicy and lifted the lid on the affairs and scandals of foreign Peking and its White Mischief.

De Martel, D. & L. De Hoyer (1916). Silhouettes Of Peking, Peking: (republished by Earnshaw Books of Hong Kong & Shanghai). A novelette, originally written in French around 1916 by two grandee European expatriates with strong links to the Quarter’s diplomatic crowd, was first published in English in 1926. The original featured sketches by the White Russian cartoonist Sapajou. The novel focuses on the ephemeral vacuity, gossiping and affairs of the Legation Quarter’s small expat group in the early days of the Chinese Republic.

Starrett, Vincent (1946). Murder In Peking, Lantern Press. Murder strikes an elegant foreign dinner party in Peking and during the course of the investigation the enquiries move in and out of the Quarter. Starrett visited China many times and knew Peking well.

Vare, Daniele (1935). The Maker of Heavenly Trousers, London: Methuen.

– (1937). The Gate of Happy Sparrows, London: Methuen.

– (1939). The Temple of Costly Experience, London: Methuen

Varè (1880-1956) was an urbane and debonair Italian diplomat who wrote a series of books detailing the quaint goings on of old Peking largely before the 1911 revolution.

Suggested Further Reading on Old Peking

The following selection is intended for the interested general reader rather than the ardent scholar of Peking’s history. The books selected hopefully give something of a feel of the old Peking that foreigners living in the city would recognise rather than simply dry analysis.

Aldrich, Michael (2008). The Search for a Vanishing Beijing: A Guide to China’s Capital Through the Ages, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Becker, Jasper (2008). City of Heavenly Tranquillity: Beijing in the History of China, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bickers, Robert (1999). Britain in China: Community, Culture and Colonialism, 1900-49, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

– (2007). The Boxers, China and the World, London: Rowman & Littlefield

Fleming, Peter (1959). The Siege at Peking, London: Rupert Hart Davis

Kidd, David, Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China, New York: New York Review of Books Classics.

Li, Lillian; Dray-Novey, Alison, and Kong, Haili (2008). Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Meyer, Michael (2008). The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed, New York: Walker & Company.

Moser, Michael J., and Yeone Wei-chih Moser (1993). Foreigners within the Gates: The Legations at Peking, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Preston, Diana (2002). A Brief History of the Boxer Rebellion: China’s War on Foreigners, 1900, London: Robinson.

Sandhouse, Derek (2008). Tales of Old Peking, Hong Kong: Earnshaw Books.

Trevor-Roper, Hugh (1977) Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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