Exploring the Foreign Legation Area in Beijing, China

Foreign Legation Area Boundaries 2012 Beijing China

Foreign Legation Area Boundaries 2012 Beijing China

The Foreign Legation area was an odd little rectangle of Beijing that was set aside for the foreign embassies. Several foreign governments maintained embassies and commercial establishments in this area. Being a diplomatic quarter, there was lots of government intrigue.  It was certainly an odd mix of aspiring politicians, self-made men, social leeches, imperialists, and missionaries winning souls for Christ.

Where in Beijing Do You Find the Old Foreign Legations?

The old foreign legation area was formed in the area that straddled the Imperial Canal. It is about 1 mile east to west, and ½ mile north to south.  Today, that area is between the Qienmen Gate and Tiananmen square on the West side, and Chongwenmen Street and the Beijing Railway Station on the East side.  East Chang’an Street bounds the north side, and Qianmen Street is the southern edge.
View Foreign Legation Area Boundaries 2012 in a larger map

First Introduction to the Foreign Legations

Some of you may have seen the movie “55 days in Peking” starring Charlton Heston. This movie covers the events of the siege of the Foreign Legation Quarter during the Boxer Rebellion. While the movie itself had some “enhancements” to the storyline, it was basically accurate. I found the movie wonderful to watch, and was intrigued by such an exotic place.

My Second Introduction to the Foreign Legations

In college, I became good friends with a fellow whose father had been a Marine Embassy guard in the Foreign Legations area at the beginning of World War II. Having that personal connection to the US Embassy and US Marine Corps compounds within the Foreign Legations stirred up a desire to see it. When my friend’s dad, Chester Biggs, wrote his books on his wartime experiences and the history of Marines in North China, I told Chester that I really wanted to go see what remained. This website is born out of that first trip to see in person what still remained of the Foreign Legations.

A Brief History of the Foreign Legation Quarter in Peking (Beijing, China)

The rights for the countries to maintain embassies in Beijing were won as part of the treaties that were signed during Opium Wars between Great Britain and China.  These treaties also allowed for the expansion of the number of “Treaty Ports” where foreign countries could maintain trading and other businesses.

The Opium Wars occurred between Great Britain and China, and were based on the trade in, yes, opium.  These wars had much to do with the trade imbalance that Great Britain was attempting to correct by importing opium into China. The Chinese officials were none too happy with this arrangement, and dumped a very large shipment of opium into the water.  Americans tend to understand as we did something similar to the British at the Boston Tea Party, but for different reasons. Much as the British did with us, they took great offense at the Chinese action.  Britain declared war, and was able to win quite quickly.

After several governments had settled into this area, they existed peacefully for almost four decades. Then, in 1900, the Boxer Rebellion came like an avenging wind across China. The quick summary is that the boxers wanted to remove all foreign influence from China. Can you spell P-U-R-G-E? The Foreign Legation Quarter, as you might guess, was full of that hated foreign influence. The boxers, with tacit support from the Chinese Empress, laid siege to the quarter. Only by the rapid intervention of the militaries of seven nations in a joint strike force was the Foreign Legation Quarter saved.

After the conclusion of the Boxer Rebellion, China was forced to sign yet another treaty. This treaty granted additional rights to the foreign governments involved. This included the rights of the governments to maintain their own military forces within the quarter, to exclude all Chinese citizens from entering the quarter without permission, to add a wall around the entire legation area, and to expand the size of the Foreign Legation Quarter area to provide large open fields referred to as glacises.

With the rise of the Nationalist government and the establishment of its capital at Nanking, many of the official embassies were relocated there. The Foreign Legation Quarter, though, had a Life of its own and continued, maintaining counselor generals in Peking. The expansion of new buildings and commercial interests kept it lively. In many ways, it became the party zone for foreign nationals.

As World War II started, the personnel of governments opposing Japan were taken prisoner. On December 7th, 1941, Japan was already in control of the Beijing region, making it easy to cut off the quarter and demand surrender.  Those governments were never to return to the Foreign Legation Quarter. After the area came under the control of the new communist government of Mao, all diplomatic functions moved out of legation area to another part of Beijing. The heyday of the foreign zone had come to an end.

With the conclusion of its diplomatic function, the area was taken over by local city government needs. Much of the old Embassy and commercial structures have been re-purposed for government use. Sadly, large areas of the foreign legation have been leveled and replaced with large government buildings. Much, though, still remains to be discovered by the interested visitor.

In 2003 the Chinese government finally imposed a building restriction in the area. They came to realize the historical significance and the need to preserve what was still left. Today, many of the old embassies still exist. The architectural structures will intrigue you.

One word of caution.  Many of the locations of formal embassies are sensitive areas for the Chinese government, so always check if photography is ok.

Check Out My Other Posts on the Foreign Legation Area

Read the other information that I have in this blog about my discoveries within the Foreign Legation area of Beijing, China.  Also check out my reviews of hotels and restaurants that I have used.  I want you to have a great time while traveling in Beijing.

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2 thoughts on “Exploring the Foreign Legation Area in Beijing, China

  1. Send me your email address and I will send you my paper on which buildings still exist in the legation quarter from the boxer rebellion and later. Best wishes

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