Beijing This Month (07/2002)

Italian China expert Adriano Màdaro will this month fulfill his lifelong dream - to exhibit his unique collection of photographs of Old Beijing in the Chinese capital. Opening to the public at the four halls in Beihai Park's Huafangzhai Yard on July 16 the exhibition, Peking at the Beginnning of the 20th Century, will run until August 16. About 200 pictures of various parts of the city and residents, most never before seen, will be on view. Màdaro, author of many books about China - the latest of which is The Boxer Rebellion - first visited China in 1976 as a journalist, and since then has paid 160 visits to what he describes as "this charming, fantastic country". Over the years he has collected more than 7,000 photographs of Beijing and taken some 20,000 others that record the changes in the country overall. "My life is dedicated to China," he told Beijing This Month. Enter Chinese photographer Fu Yamin - in the 90s chief fashion cameraman and Beijing representative of ELLE magazine - who says that when going to work at his studio in Beihai Park every day, he always had the fantasy to one day stage major exhibitions at Huafangzhai. Fu later founded his own advertising company and organized cultural events from a beautiful old imperial building in the park. He regarded himself as the "luckiest boss" in Beijing to have such a base, especially in enjoying gardens that only emperors of long ago could use. Recently, he says, he could not believe his ears when told that Huafangzhai had been renovated in readiness for reopening, so he quickly reached an agreement with Beihai authorities to run the delightful courtyard. Huafangzhai: Emperor's Playground "Hua" means painting, "fang" boat, and "zhai" room. The courtyard was built in the mid-18th century by Emperor Qianlong as a meeting place for himself and painters, and where he could stay temporarily while he inspected archery activities in Beihai Park. Many of his calligrahpic works were created here, as were the creations of famous painters of the time. Architecturally, Huafangzhai rates as one of the most beautiful buildings in the 900-year-old park, Beijing's only surviving downtown imperial garden. Huafangzhai's four halls are connected by lavishly decorated corridors which surround a lotus pond. Its romantic environment provides a perfect spot for meditation and the creation of artworks. The rear door of one building gives access to a further corridor linked to a backyard offering three smaller rooms and a private garden. A tree here, planted in the Tang Dynasty (618-960) is reputed to be 1,100 years old. Beihai Park was opened to the public after the downfall of the Qing court in 1911, and Huafangzhai became an art gallery in 1925. Its role as a top venue in the genre continued after liberation, mainly hosting exhibitions for established modern painters. Renovations began last year as part of the government's pledge to restore historical sites, including the imperial city. It was decided that Huafangzhai should be maintained for its original function as a meeting point for painters. Adriano Màdaro: Historian Extrordinaire At an early age Màdaro, destined to become a lifelong lover of China, dreamed of becoming like fellow countryman Marco Polo, whose epic Marco Polo Travelogue made him very familiar to the world, Chinese people in particular. Màdaro is an avid collector of historic materials relating to Beijing, and possesses numerous old maps and artifacts as well as photographs of the city and its people. A dedicated researcher that has made him a virtual human encyclopedia on Chinese history, he graduated with a thesis called Political Doctrines of the Chinese Revolution. On leaving university he entered journalism and publishing, later editing various newspapers and magazines. A member of the executive council of CEVESCO (Veneto Centre of Studies on Oriental Civilizations) at the University of Venice, he has for the past 10 years been the only non-Chinese member of the permanent executive council of the Chinese Academy of International Culture - a rare honor indeed for a foreigner, but a reflection of the esteem in which he is held in China. Màdaro is a prolific writer/journalist on China. His books include Mao on the Front Page (1977); China 700 Years After Marco Polo (1980); Grand Cathay (1983); Journey in China (1988); Welcome China (1988); In the Great Unknown Country Beyond the Wall (1989); Paper Flowers - Poems from China (1990); and The Days of Tian'anmen (1990). His The Boxer Rebellion contains exclusive photographs and other materials left by the Italian Ambassador to China at the start of the 20th century. The Exhibition Peking at the Beginning of the 20th Century marks the first public viewing of Madaro's photographic collection - pictures that embrace Chinese people's lives, old tourist sites and aspects of foreigners' lives in Beijing a century ago. As Màdaro puts it: "You can think of Beijing at that time as a hurt, moaning dragon covered with cuts and bruises; a declining imperial capital in the hands of foreign invaders and militant sects scrambling for power; poor living conditions for obedient Chinese struggling for a living, and who did not know what to do or where to go."