The information on this page is the work of Fred Greguras, Marine, collector and historian. As a 2nd LT, Greguras served in Vietnam as a rifle platoon commander with Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment. Since the war Fred has made repeated visits to China to identify locations associated with the China Marines. This section deals with his visits to Peking. Fred continues to return to China and will periodically submit updates as he revises his work. We are fortunate to have the results of his efforts on this web site.
A VISIT TO THE 55 DAYS AT PEKING
The siege of the foreign legation quarter in Peking (Beijing) in 1900 was the culmination of the 1898-1900 Boxer anti-foreigner movement in China. The “Fists of Righteous Harmony” or Boxers were a secret society whose members were primarily poor Chinese who blamed foreigners for their misfortune. China had been partitioned into areas of foreign influence by the end of the 19th century. The Austrians, British, French, Germans, Italians, Japanese, Russian and the U.S. maintained a diplomatic presence in Peking. The primary targets of the Boxers were foreign diplomats, missionaries and merchants, as well as Chinese Christians.
In June, 1900, the Boxers occupied Peking and for eight weeks besieged the legation quarter and the Roman Catholic Mission compound at the Peitang Cathedral. Imperial troops also intervened on the side of the Boxers. The legations were the formal diplomatic presence of the foreigners in Peking, the country’s capital, and the center of foreign influence on China. The legation quarter (the “Quarter”) was the most symbolic and concentrated target available to the Boxers. The flagstaffs and flags of the British, U.S. and other countries were a frequent target of artillery batteries during the siege. The international relief force reached the Quarter on August 14, 1900 after fighting its way north from the city of Tientsen (now named Tianjin). Fighting continued after the relief force reached the Quarter and the siege of the Peitang Cathedral was not relieved until two days later.
The use of “55 Days at Peking” in the title is from the name of the 1963 movie about the siege (the “Movie”). The Movie was filmed in Spain and some of the sets actually look like siege period photos as noted below.
I first visited the site of the siege during a business trip in January, 2006. It was a cold day in Beijing, about 32°F, in contrast to the 90-100°F temperatures during the siege. I also visited the site in July, 2007 and experienced the heat of a Beijing summer. My short sleeved shirt and tee shirt were wringing wet after walking the length of Legation Street.
Having served in the U.S. Marines, I particularly wanted to determine what buildings and other landmarks remained of the Marines’ role during the fighting in 1900, and also of later times in their role as guards for the U.S. legation in Peking. I wanted to sense the look and feel of the Quarter to try to visualize what it was like during the Marines service as legation guards.
The post-1900 configuration of the Quarter is in the shape of a rectangle about one mile east-west and a half mile north-south. The Quarter was smaller during the siege period. The Quarter is bordered by Chang An Avenue on the north, East Qianmen Avenue on the south, Tiananmen Square (the “Square”) on the west and Changwenmennei Street on the east. In 1900 and now, Legation Street (East Jiaomin Lane) which runs east and west was the principal street in the Quarter. The west end of Legation Street presently dead ends into the Square and can be reached from the Square by walking up a set of steps to the street. The Quarter was increased to about 200 acres in the reconstruction after the 1900 siege, about a 10X increase over its prior size. The Quarter is relatively flat without any high ground.
In 1900, the Quarter was bordered on the south by the Tartar Wall (the “Wall”). Within the Wall was the Imperial City and within the Imperial City was the Forbidden City, which in 1900 contained the residence of Tzu Hsi, the dowager empress. The Wall was approximately sixty feet wide at the bottom, forty to fifty feet wide at the top and about forty to sixty feet high based on various descriptions. A stone road ran down the middle of the Wall.
The Marines were primarily responsible for the defense of part of the Wall during the 1900 siege. The Wall was the high ground and dominated the south side of the Quarter. Control of the Wall was critical to the defense of the Quarter because of its height and position in relation to the Quarter. The Marines built and defended barricades to reduce Boxer access to the Wall overlooking the Quarter.
The Wall is completely gone along the south border of the Quarter except for the Chienmen Gate (also called Qianmen) or front gate at the south entrance to the Square. Today, the site of the south Wall is a frontage road on the north side of East Qianmen Avenue. One can get a feeling for the immense size of the Wall by standing next to the surviving Chienmen Gate. The scenes in the Movie also show the size and dominance of the Wall. The Wall was demolished beginning in 1966 as the city was modernized.
The Marines also cleared the Chienmen Gate of barricades and defenders in the advance on the Forbidden City on August 15, 1900. Thirty-four Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest decoration for bravery, during the 1900 relief expedition and siege.
An article in The Nation describes the Quarter exactly two years after the Boxer’s siege was lifted:
“On one side it is bounded by the Tartar wall between two of the Great Gates, the Qianmen and the Hata Men, a stretch of some half a mile under the control of the Americans and Germans. . . . The importance of holding this piece is obvious, as it looks down upon and commands the ground below; if during the siege our soldiers, who clung to it with such obstinate bravery, had lost it, the American Legation would have become untenable immediately. . . . On the other three sides, the Legation quarter is marked off by a broad boulevard so that no enemy may find near cover for an attack. . . .
Inside the quarter the great lines of division are made by the broad “Legation Street,” running parallel to the Tartar Wall, and by the canal at right angles to it. Of all the nations, the English have the most land, as they have added to their former and already spacious grounds until they now hold over thirty acres. In Peking, foreign governments have to provide not only for the offices of their ministers, but also for their homes, as well as those of the secretaries and interpreters, for the barracks of the guards, stables, etc. Thus, for perhaps the first time, an American representative abroad will live in a building belonging to the United States. Unfortunately, as yet, our new Legation is not even begun; and before it can be finished, our representatives are threatened with eviction at the hands of Korea, which has bought our present quarters. Our new barracks, on the other hand, look very satisfactory; indeed, we have land enough, if only it were not broken up into fragments by the intervening possessions of Korea, Holland, and the Russo-Chinese Bank. . . . ”
The Marines served as legation guards from 1905 until the beginning of World War II. An article titled “The Sino-Japanese Hostilities as seen by the Legation Guard” in the 1933 American Legation Guard Annual reflects the Japanese invasion of China that year, and of the ominous times to come. Forty-one years after the siege, on December 8, 1941, the Peking legation guard of 140 Marines and a Navy medical detachment awakened to find itself surrounded by Japanese troops. The Japanese had mounted mortars and machine guns on the Wall overlooking the Marines’ barracks. The Marines were kept in their Peking compound until January 10, 1942, when they were sent to Tientsen (now named Tianjin).
III. Site Visit
Armed with numerous maps of the Quarter of the siege period, a very detailed 1912 map of the legation quarter and Google Earth color aerial photos of the area I set out from the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Chang An Avenue (the north side of the Quarter) on a cold morning in January 2006 to explore the site of the 1900 Boxer siege and to look for later buildings of the legation era. The 1912 map was particularly helpful as it shows the exact location and shape of buildings which could easily be compared to the current Google Earth color aerial photos of the area.
There were three gates through the Wall on the south side of the Quarter in 1900; the previously mentioned Chienmen Gate, the water gate where the Imperial Canal ran south through the Wall and the Hatamen Gate. The Chienmen Gate is at the west end of the Quarter and the Hatamen Gate at the east end. The Water Gate was approximately in the middle. The top part of the Chienmen Gate was badly damaged in the 1900 fighting but was rebuilt.
The expansion and reconstruction of the Quarter after the siege was designed with security as a primary objective. Walls were built on the north, east and west sides of the Quarter, each legation compound had walls within the outer walls, Chinese residents and merchants were removed from the area, and “glacis” were created. Gates into the Quarter were added to limit access. During the 1900 siege there were Chinese residences and other buildings both within and close to the Quarter which hindered its defense, particularly near the British Legation. When the Quarter was rebuilt, “glacis” or buffer zones of cleared ground were created on the east, west and north sides to deny cover to attackers and to provide a better means of protection for the Quarter. The glacis were also used as drill fields and athletic fields. A landscaped portion of the “glacis” still exists as a park and basketball courts on the east side of the Quarter. The location of the glacis around the Quarter can usually be identified by where the compound walls end.
Many of the Quarter buildings were badly damaged or destroyed in the 1900 siege. The Boxers had artillery batteries, some of which came from the Imperial troops. Photos of the period showing the damage inflicted on buildings in the Quarter illustrate the fire power faced by the Quarter. The photos show that the Chienmen Gate was seriously damaged. In the aftermath, some of the legations were rebuilt in different locations within the Quarter. There are still many high walls in the area, some around old buildings and others surrounding newer buildings. Some of these walls may date back to the post-1900 era. One of these old walls was being destroyed in a construction project on east Legation Street in the vicinity of the site of the Italian legation of the Boxer Rebellion period.
The Water Gate
The water gate through the Wall was where the relief force entered the Quarter on August 14, 1900. The site of the gate is now a broad intersection where Canal Street (now Zhengyi Road), intersects with Qianmen Avenue. In 1900, this was a gate only for the water of the Imperial Canal (the “Canal”) to flow south through the Wall rather than a pedestrian or wagon entrance. After the siege, this gate was enlarged and made into an entrance into the Quarter. There is no marker or other indication that the Wall or water gate was ever there.
This gate through the Wall was at the east end of the Quarter at the intersection of Changwenmennei Street and Qienmen Avenue. There is no marker or other indication of the Wall or gate here either.
The 1900 era U.S. legation was just west of Canal Street and south of Legation Street. I did not find any remains of this legation. The Hua Feng Hotel sits just to the east of the site of the legation. One source indicates the legation was completely destroyed by the Boxers, but photographs show the main building as damaged but still standing after the siege.
The post-1900 United States legation was west of and occupied a much larger area than the 1900 U.S. legation. The new legation was on the south side of and at the west end of Legation Street near the Square. The post-1900 building complex included, from west to east, a drill and athletic field (glacis), a barracks area for the Marine guards and the legation buildings. The barracks compound was at the west of the legation and was built by 1902. The remainder of the legation complex was built by 1905. Photos show that the backstop of the Marines baseball field was at the southwest corner of the glacis right at the northeast corner of the Chienmen Gate. This area was also used as a parade ground and is now part of the Square. The glacis to the west of the U.S. compound and the west part of the legation that contained the Marine compound has been destroyed, partially as a result of the expansion of the Square. I have walked on all sides of this area, viewed it from the legation compound, studied aerial photos and, unfortunately, can’t find any remains of the Marine barracks compound.
The post-1900 legation compound has survived and is being converted into a number of restaurants which will be known as the “Legation Quarter”. The cornerstone at the southwest corner of the main legation building states “Erected by the United States Government 1903 Sid H. Nealy Architect”. The Legation Street gate into the legation at the west end of the compound is being reconstructed as part of the project. There are a number of postcards of this gate showing Marine guards.
The 1900 main gate into the former British legation still stands on the west side of Canal Street north of Legation Street. This gate appears in many photographs of the siege period. In the opening scenes of the Movie, the images of this gate and the adjacent canal look very much like photos of the siege period. The wall of the former British legation north of the gate also appears to be from the 1900 era. Newer buildings occupy the area of the former British legation immediately south of the gate.
The British legation was one of the most important sites of the siege. It was a key defensive position for the Quarter. The west side of the Legation bordered the Mongol Market and the Imperial Carriage Park and was the scene of intense fighting. The legation was also regularly under fire from the Palace of Prince Su (the Su Wang Fu) (called “The Fu”) on the east side of the Canal. Legation civilians were assembled at the British legation for protection. I have attempted to enter the compound to see what buildings survived but guards stopped me. I couldn’t see the Bell Tower through the gate or on the aerial photos. The Bell Tower was the center of the legation community during the siege. It was also where official orders to the community were posted. The British legation was expanded from about 12 to 36 acres in the post-1900 period and was used as a legation until 1959. Much of the expansion was in the area immediately west of the original legation.
The site of the Canal to the east of the former British legation is filled in and is a park like area with north-south streets on either side. Today, one can walk north up the middle of the Canal site. The Canal was apparently filled-in in the mid-1920s and became a public garden. Other than the Canal being filled in, the area occupied by the roads and the park appears to be the same size and layout as in 1900. In 1900, the north-side roads on each side of the Canal were known as Canal Street. In the post-1900 period, the road on the west side of the former canal was named British Road and the road on the east side was named Meiji Road. Zhengyi Road is the current name for the north-south roads that border the site of the Canal.
The gate into the former post-1900 Japanese legation is almost directly east across Canal Street. The site of The Fu is occupied by the former Japanese legation. The former Japanese legation is currently used for Beijing city offices.
There was construction ongoing north of the former British legation along Chang An Avenue, but it does not appear to threaten the legation site. The newer buildings along Chang An Avenue appear to have been built on the north glacis.
As indicated, the south side of the Post-1900 British Legation is gone. However, based on the structures that can be seen from outside the compound and aerial photos, there appears to be many early buildings that have survived on the north side, some of which may be of the Boxer Rebellion period.
French Legation Area
My walk east down the former Rue Hart was rewarding. I found the remaining post-1900 Rue Hart street sign at the northeast corner of Wangfujing Avenue and the first narrow street just south of Chang An Avenue. The entrance into the former Austrian legation is on Rue Hart to the east of the sign.
Other Structures in the Quarter
Some of the other buildings and landmarks of the Marines time as legation guards in Peking include:
· Post-1900 French legation gate on the north side of Legation Street, west of Canal Street, which is guarded by armed guards and crouching lions, a symbol of protection;
· 1910 French post office on the north side of Legation Street west of the French legation gate;
· Gate to the former Austrian legation on Rue Hart (the post-1900 legation building is still standing but there is a major construction project immediately to the east of this building);
· 1902 St. Michael French Catholic Church at the northeast corner of Legation and Wangfujing Streets;
· Post-1900 former Yokohama Specie Bank building at the northeast corner of Legation and Canal Streets;
· Post-1900 Peking Club at the southeast corner of Wangfujing Avenue and Rue Hart;
· Bricked-in gate to the former post-1900 Dutch legation on the south side of Legation Street just east of the U.S. legation;
· Other post-1900 former bank buildings (First National City Bank, Banque de l’Indochine) on the south side of and at the west end of Legation Street;
· The post-1900 entrance into the former Japan legation on the east side of Canal Street, north of Legation Street (almost directly east of the British legation gate);
· The post-1900 Belgian legation is being used as a guest house across from the St. Michael Church at the southeast corner of Canal and Legation Streets;
· Side entrance to post-1900 German legation on the south side of Legation Street; and
· The former east Chienmen railroad station (“Peking-Mukden Railroad Station”) building on the south side of East Qianmen Avenue at the southeast corner of the Square. The railroad tracks are gone but the station remains.
The Wagon Lits Hotel which was located at the southeast corner of Canal and Legation Streets has not survived. It was damaged in a fire and demolished in 1992-1993.
The Peitang Cathedral and the mission compound around it are just west of the Forbidden City. Chinese Christians sought protection at the church during the 1900 siege. The church was severely damaged and has been rebuilt.
I was pleasantly surprised by the buildings and other landmarks that remain of the Marines’ service in Peking. While the fighting in 1900, the Cultural Revolution and the ravages of time have taken their toll on the buildings of the Quarter, the main gate into the former British legation and the wall north of the British gate still stand as landmarks of the 1900 siege. The imposing Chienmen Gate provides a means of understanding the importance of the Marines bravery on the Wall to the defense of the Quarter. It also marks the southwest corner of the Marines’ parade and athletic grounds in the post-1900 period. These structures, along with the Peitang Cathedral, are major landmarks of the 1900 Boxer siege. The remaining post-1900 legation buildings of the Quarter provide a glimpse of what the area was like during the Marines’ later service as legation guards in Peking.
· Chester M. Biggs, Jr.; The United States Marines in North China, 1894-1942; McFarland & Co., Inc., 2003.
· Biggs, Surrender at Peiping, Leatherneck Magazine, December 1991, at 8.
· The Siege of the Peking Embassy: Sir Claude MacDonald’s Report on the Boxer Rebellion; The Stationery Office, 2000.
· Michael J. Moser and Yeone Wei-Chih Moser; Foreigners within the Gates: The Legations at Peking; Oxford University Press, 1993; updated and reprinted, 2006 by Serindia Publications.
· Peter Harrington; Peking 1900, The Boxer Rebellion; Osprey Publishing, 2001.
· Correspondence and conversations with W. Johnson Thomas, January-February, 2007.