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The Lost Elephants

Did you know Beijing has a troop of elephants, trained to kneel and bow as officials walk by?


Did you know Beijing has a troop of elephants, trained to kneel and bow as officials walk by? I’m lost in southwest Beijing looking for the animals. They live somewhere around here. Or so this guidebook claims.

This is the same guidebook that puts the city’s population at half a million, including the suburbs. There is no way that is right. The book also assures me that there should be a 40-foot-high city wall here, but I only see a four-lane highway. Claiming that the Forbidden City really is forbidden to foreigners, the book recommends a few high bridges from where you can peek into the palace. I swear I just bought a ticket and walked in the last time I went.

Maybe I need a newer guide book. This one is, after all, 110 years old.

“Guide for Tourists to Peking and its Environs,” author unknown, came out in 1897. I first visited Beijing on the centenary of its release, and used a Lonely Planet to visit many of the hotspots the older guide also covered: the Great Lama Temple, the Bell and Drum Towers, the Temple of Heaven.

When I moved here in 2009, I felt like I’d seen it all, and became a lazy expat for a year. Then a friend emailed me a PDF copy of the 1897 guide as a joke and I couldn’t resist. I set out to rediscover Beijing.

The first thing in the book that intrigued me was the royal pachyderm. “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.”

Where is Shun-chih-men? The map that came with the book was long gone, and the pre-Pinyin Romanization was strange to me. (The author calls temples “Ssu” rather than “Si,” and his north is “Pei” instead of “Bei.”) The city walls that he uses to guide the reader are now long gone, and so many roads have been renamed. Even with a 1912 map that I found on Google, this was not going to be easy.

I set off. Rather than hiring a pony with Mexican dollars, which he suggests as the best mode of urban transport, I opted for the subway instead.

The Shun-chih-men neighborhood, now called Xuanwumen, had obviously changed. The gargantuan city gate, maybe ten stories tall, had been replaced by a gargantuan office building. There’s no wall, but there is a Walmart.

“Hello,” I asked an old lady as traffic whizzed by furiously, “are there any elephants near here?” She looked at me strangely, confused, sure that I didn’t know what I was saying. I flailed my arm to mime a trunk emerging from my nose.

“No, of course there are no elephants here.”

“What about before, in Puyi’s time?” Puyi was the last emperor of China, and the only recent one whose name I actually know.

“You must mean that road over there. It used to be called Xianglai Jie,” she laughed. Xianglai Jie… that could mean “Elephant Come Street.” If so, I was on the right track. But I got the same answer from every person I asked: “Of course there are no elephants, here.” Almost invariably, it was followed by a piece of advice. “You should go to the zoo.”

The neighborhood around Xuanwumen—filled with high rises and broad avenues now—was an 1897 sightseeing goldmine.

I quickly found Nan-tang, “the oldest settlement of the Romish Mission at Peking… well worth visiting for its architecture.” It’s now hidden by a bus station and a row of outdoor toilets, but it’s still there, peeking out from the surrounding trees. It’s also, surprisingly, still very much in use. Four years after the book came out, the church had been burned down by rebellious Boxers, who’d set out to destroy foreigners in a mad religious uprising. They’d surrounded the building, chanting “Sha! Sha!” (“Kill! Kill!”) before slaughtering the Christians hiding inside. The pre-presidential Herbert Hoover (who’d used the same guidebook I was following), had actually been trapped in Tianjin during the uprising. Both Hoover and the church had somehow survived, and while the latter had been rebuilt in the years since, it remains quite gorgeous.


Nearby, the author of the book said, was his favorite mosque. It was built in 996 and in ROADabsolute ruins by 1897. An old lady assured me it was still there today, but she thought using a hundred-year-old travel guide (旅行指南, lǚxíng zhǐnán) was a foolish idea.

“Of course Beijing is not the same,” she laughed before pointing me in the right direction. “You should go see Baoguo Temple instead. It’s very beautiful.” Baoguo Temple was beautiful, but so was the Muslim temple, which, like Nan-tang, had been completely rebuilt. It was now named Niujie Mosque, for the street it’s on, and inside are a series of small worship rooms laid out in siheyuan courtyards

Finding these places was tricky, and involved quizzing local retirees. I was taken from my expat comfort zone. The author of the 1897 guidebook also liked to escape his comfort zone.

He mentions that if a foreigner wasn’t allowed into a building, he’d bribe his way in. If that didn’t work, he’d find gaps in a fence, and share their locations.

To get into the “strongly guarded” Imperial Hunting Grounds, he obnoxiously suggests, “on horse-back one may enter one of its nine gates… the gate keepers—except those on the northern side—being easily surprised.” Those hunting grounds are open to the public now, so there’s no need to rush the gate anymore. The famous tail-deer, “which is known nowhere in the world except in this park,” disappeared from China three years after the book came out. Perhaps one of the readers, maybe even Hoover himself, rushed the gate and bagged the last one? We’ll never know, but an English collector fortunately kept some overseas, and returned them to China in 1985.

As for the elephants, though, I can only assume they also all died. The author writes that “the new [Siam] embassy in 1875 arrived with seven new ones.” Surely those would be gone by now.

It was an old man, toothless and wrinkled and sitting by himself on the roadside, who finally led me to the elephant enclosure.

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

He studied me and then laughed.

“Yes, but they’re not here anymore.”

“Where were they? Do you remember?”

“Just over there.”

He waved towards a tall modern building, the Xinhua News headquarters. I was astounded. I’d struck gold! But the security guards told me there were no elephants.

“But is there a museum? Or anything remaining?”

They insisted there wasn’t, and laughed to each other.

“If you’re looking for elephants, why don’t you just go to the zoo?”

I thanked them, and moved out of the way.

lost-elephants-2The Astronomical Observatory, meanwhile, does still exist, and is actually open to the public again. A clumsy foreigner had recently—recently, in 1897—knocked over some ancient instruments, so it had been closed off to all foreigners. But in the century since, they’d reopened, and now charge a small fee to see a handful of antique gazing tools. Most are crowded together up on the roof, locked behind a gate. I couldn’t imagine them being much use anymore—in the thick pollution, I couldn’t see too much further than the Second Ring Road. I definitely wouldn’t see any stars that night.

Noticing how empty the observatory was, I asked, “Am I the only one today?”

“There might be more later,” the manager sighed.

The building was surrounded by freeways and high rise buildings and—hovering right above it—yellow construction cranes. I wondered how long this unvisited destination would last. Already they’d rented half the ancient rooms to a relocation service for foreigners, to use as offices

Perhaps the observatory would go the way of the great Examination Hall across the street. Actually, it’s no longer there. Candidates for exams used to “live and prepare their essays during fourteen days” there, but now it’s the new Academy of Social Sciences. So I explored some wonderful hutongs that remained in the area, and the sprawling yet deserted stamp museum.

Jingshan Park, meanwhile, was booming. Surrounding the old hill, old Beijingers sang and danced and followed tour guides to see the tree from which Emperor Chongzhen, the last of the Ming rulers, hung himself. Every guidebook mentions this tree, but this book explained that the hill was manmade, something I’d never heard before. It’s supposedly filled with coal, which “in case of a siege, might serve the city as fuel.” I tried digging, but found only dirt. So I asked a local bingtang hulu vendor instead. “Yes, of course it’s true,” he said. “In the past, this used to be called Coal Mountain!”

The guide also led me to the Confucian Temple on Guozijian Street, which I’d been promising to see for years. The author describes it as full of grand stones with writings carved into them, which are still there. The book neglects to mention the dancing girls who perform several times a day, or the wonderful Café Confucius down the street. I bought a latte, and admired the café’s tributes to the great thinker. They included a small statue of that other master of the ages, E.T.

But E.T.’s strange wrinkled skin reminded me of those elephants. Was there nothing left? Searching online, I discovered that there was still a hutong where the elephant keepers had lived and kept hay—109 to 111 Xuanwumen—and while there surely wouldn’t be any elephants, one of the current residents does keep two pet pigs.

When I arrived, though, the houses in the hutong had been reduced to rubble. The gate with the address printed on it was still standing, but behind were just bricks and tiles and trash. It was heartbreaking. “Torn down,” said a neighbor, tersely. “Chai le.” Some ancient walls remained, and so did a tree with a plaque that simply read “Old Tree,” but all the ancient elephant caretakers’ houses were gone.

I asked after the woman with the pigs. “She’s moved,” said another neighbor. “That was her house.” A single wall still stood, with a calendar pinned to it. It was open to the previous month.

“If you’re looking for elephants,” an old man chipped in, “just go to the zoo.”

So, I did.

I have to admit, I went to the zoo expecting a great ending. There’d be eight proud Thai elephants, decked out in Imperial splendor. Maybe, just maybe, they’d bow down and kneel. It would be a remarkable ending to this tale.

That didn’t happen. The zoo—built nine years after the book was published—was a sad place. The elephants live in tight concrete boxes. They didn’t bow, for they were too busy pacing, as if in prison. I left the zoo, very depressed.

There’s always been historical loss. There are always wars, and earthquakes and domestic upheavals. I was sad to lose the elephant keepers’ houses. Then again, aren’t tourists always complaining about how great everything used to be?


The 1897 author spends a page waxing poetically about the “rich collection of birds” and “number of interesting novelties” in the gorgeous Beitang cathedral, before revealing that it had been torn down by Cixi the Dowager Empress, decades earlier. “The preliesh [sic] sights of Peking are lost for the public,” he whines, and dismisses the new church in a single sentence.

A hundred years later, though, this new church is now old. It’s surrounded by stone lions, and there’s an incredible Virgin Mary built into a traditional rock sculpture. Standing in the church’s massive shadow, I was awed. Sure, the bird museum is gone (as two old ladies inside assured me), but a pigeon coop is now attached to the church…the spirit at least remains.

Another church I’d struggled to find was a Chinese temple, called the Kao-miao. Two English soldiers were held there during the second Opium War, in 1860. In 1897, you could still see their names and the dates of their incarceration carved into the walls. I scoured the hutongs, asking locals, but no one knew where the temple was.

Back in 1921, an expat named Juliet Bredon had gone on the same quest, while writing her own guide to the city. She couldn’t track down the Kao-miao, either. She finally found a Jishuitan temple where an aging monk remembered two English prisoners, but by this time their names and the dates had long been removed. Standing outside the temple, she mourns the missing names, and also the state of the water before her. “Now a shallow pond,” she writes, longingly, “but once a fine lake crowded with barges bringing country produce to the capital.” Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

Every city changes, and loses something. As I traveled through Beijing, I saw hutongs being torn down everywhere. This pained me, but… the funny thing is… the 1897 guide book never actually mentions hutongs.

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