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Interview with Bo Songnian June 25, 2008


Bo Songnian (Photo by Liu Bowen)


One of Bo Songnian's favorite historical sites in Beijing is the area around the Drum Tower, which is particularly well preserved. This view from the top of the tower shows the surrounding gray-roofed hutong neighborhoods with Beijing's modern cityscape in the distance. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)


A view of the Bell Tower from the top of the Drum Tower, which is a nearly identical structure. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

When you were a student in Beijing the 1950s, was it popular to study ancient art?

Yes. Art history has always been a popular subject in mainland China, especially after the 1950s when a lot of construction got underway. More things started to be unearthed. As a result, archaeology also became an important area of study. The new discoveries provided information that added to our understanding of art history.

What are some of the most important finds in and around Beijing since the 1950s?

In a suburb of Beijing, the earliest site of the old city was discovered, which can be traced back to A.D. 1046. At that time, there were two states in the area of Beijing, which were called the Ji State and the Yan State.

The old city of the Yan State was found near Liuli River about 30 miles southwest of Beijing. At that site, archaeologists unearthed the old city walls, palaces, and bronze artifacts. The Ji State was somewhere in today's Liulichang Street [near the center of modern Beijing]. Later when the Yan State conquered the Ji State, the city was then called Yanjing. That's why Beijing used to be called Yanjing.

During the Han Dynasty, although the capital was established in Chang An [today's Xi'an], the imperial families always sent their sons to spend time in the area of Beijing. The imperial tombs near Feng Tai, outside Beijing, were important finds. That site was discovered about 20 years ago and it's huge!


These statue replicas guard the entrance to the Drum Tower. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)


Drums inside the tower. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

Another important discovery was Yun Ju Shi, which was found in Fan Shan, outside of Beijing. Yun Ju Shi, a Buddhist temple built in the Sui Dynasty, has more than 10,000 pieces of stone tablets that were inscribed with Buddhist sutra. They were reburied after their discovery for preservation. But you can still see some of them in a basement in the temple and some over the mountains nearby....

By the time of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Beijing was further enlarged. There would be too many things to talk about, too many to count!

With all the new construction going on today, what happens when a new site is accidentally discovered?


Professor Bo highly recommends that visitors who want to get better acquainted with Beijing see the monumental Capital Museum, where art and artifacts from virtually every period of Chinese history are on display. (Photo by Liu Bowen)

There is a regulation in our country: when an artifact is found at a construction site, the construction must be halted immediately and can be resumed only after experts have examined the place.

Have you been called upon?

No, because that work would be done by an archaeological team.

What is your favorite historical site?

Other than the Forbidden City, I like the area starting from Gu Lou [the Drum Tower] to Shi Sha Hai [west of the Drum Tower] because this area is well preserved. It was the center of the city during the Yuan Dynasty. In the Ming Dynasty, the center of Beijing was the Jin Shan area [a small park across from the back gate of the Forbidden City]. It really shows the original flare of Old Beijing. The Drum Tower was built in the Ming Dynasty because it was the most prosperous area outside the palace and some streets west of the Drum Tower still carry the Old Beijing characteristics. There are many small hutongs [traditional-style neighborhoods made up of alleyways flanked by courtyard houses] around Shi Sha Hai that are also well preserved.

Since you have lived in Beijing for more than 50 years, what do you think of the overall changes in the city's landscape?

I think the contradictions between old and new exist in every country...but now people here have become aware of these things. They have begun to pay attention to preservation. But even if all the old walls and old gates were to be restored, it would never be the same.

Nearly 2,000 hutongs have been torn down since the mid-1990s to make way for high-rise apartment buildings. How do people feel about that?

[Beijingers] feel a great sorrow when they see an old site being destroyed. For old people, who used to live in a courtyard house where neighbors formed a close bond, they cannot get used to living in apartment buildings where neighbors don't even know each other. It's the opposite for young people.

How do young people feel?

Young people are more interested in things modern. They are not as attached to the past as we, the old people, are.

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The Capital Museum, Beijing (Photo by Liu Bowen) Visitors enjoy artifacts on display at the Capital Museum (Photo by Liu Bowen) One of the emperor's ornate robes, which is decorated with the five-clawed dragon--a symbol of Imperial China. (Photo by Liu Bowen)

Are there enough students who are interested in studying the past?

Oh, yes, yes. Some of them study really hard. What I said referred to a general sense, in that, young people look up to modern things. Within the school system, we make sure that the teaching of these subjects is no less than other subjects.

Do people in general have different attitudes toward more famous sites like the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven as opposed to places like hutongs?

In my view, the big sites as you mentioned are almost tourist sites. There, people only see the surface; merely a small handful of experts are studying the true value of these sites. The general public sees the grand size of the Forbidden City--that's all they see. They cannot see the real value and the depth.

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America