By He Dazhang
Soong Ching Ling (SCL), wife and comrade-in-arms of the great revolutionary forerunner Dr. Sun Yat-sen, was recognized as one of the 'greatest women of the 20th century'. She loved her Motherland and had a strong affection for her hometown—Shanghai. Therefore she loved to stay in Shanghai whenever time permitted.
SCL came to Beijing (then called Beiping) twice before the year of 1949. The first time was from December 31, 1924 to April 10, 1925 and the second time was from May 18, to May 26, 1929. However these two stays in Beijing were relatively short, yet they left her unforgettable memory in her life.
Despite the dangerous situation, she came with Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 1924 for the first time. They stayed in Beijing Hotel at the beginning and when Dr. Sun Yat-sen had a relapse of his liver disease, she moved to the Peking Union Medical College Hospital with Dr. Sun Yat-wen. After the surgical operation, Dr. Sun Yat-sen left the hospital and they lived at former residence of GU Weijun in Tieshizi Hutong and take it as a temporary Field Headquarters. Despite hardships and difficulties, SCL accompanied her beloved husband for his last days.
In 1929, she came to Beijing for the second time. And this time she came to attend the State Coffin Burial Service of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. She had a chance to pay her tribute again to Dr. Sun Yat-sen and escorted the coffin to Nanjing and attended the coffin burial service in the Mausoleum. She never came to Beijing since then as she once told Liao Mengxing: 'Beiping (Beijing) is a place full of my sad memories. I am scared to go there again.'
In 1949, on the eve of the founding of New China, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai sent Deng Yingchao on a special trip to Shanghai with their handwritten letters, to invite her to Beijing to discuss on State affairs. Attaching top priority to the State affairs, she accepted the invitation and agreed to come to Beijing.
She arrived in Beijing in the afternoon of August 28 and she was invited to participate in the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on September 21. At the Conference, she was elected vice chairperson of the Central People's Government of the People's Republic of China. From then on, she had a lot of State affairs to attend to; therefore she had to set up home in Beijing.
Her first residence in Beijing was an exquisite two-storey house at No. 44 Fangjin Xiang near Jianguomen, which used to be the residence of a Japanese merchant. SCL lived on upstairs while the living room and the dining room were on the first floor. She lived there for 10 years, meeting with many international friends and State leaders.
In 1959, in order to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the founding of New China, ten major buildings were to be constructed in Beijing. The Beijing new railway station was one of the ten constructions and to be built near Jianguomen, very close to Fangjin Xiang. Therefore, SCL moved to her second residence in Beijing.
Her second residence was located at No.18 Qianhai Xiyan. It was a typical Chinese ancient house with a large red-painted gate. It used to be a subsidiary of Prince Gong's Mansion in the Qing Dynasty. Later it became the Mongolian Embassy to China. The embassy moved to the embassy area in the eastern part of Beijing. Then a part of house was renovated for SCL as her residence. SCL moved in on the National Day in 1959. Since the renovation was not completely finished as she moved in, she celebrated the National Day with her staff in the hall of the new house.
The house was very moist and humid as the renovation was completed. Of course it was not good for her severe rheumatoid arthritis. Furthermore, not far from the house, there was a skating rink on Shishahai in winter and the loud music for skating played long hours every day that disturbed her appropriate rest. Premier Zhou accidentally discovered the problem and then he suggested the central government to look for another location to build a house for her.
In early 1961, the CPC Central Committee entrusted Liu Shaoqi and Wang Guangmei to ask SCL for her opinion. She immediately wrote back to Wang, saying, 'Our country is now in a massive construction and it needs a great deal of money. It is really unnecessary to another house for me since I have already had one. Otherwise I will feel very much uneasy if the State spends money to build me a new house at this time. In fact, I don't want to move either.' Later, the Central Committee didn't adopt her opinion as her health was concerned. Premier Zhou personally found a house for her in Houhai Beiyan. This house used to be the garden of Zaifeng, the Prince Chun who was the biological father of the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Under Premier Zhou's concerns and his personal supervision, the renovation to the house began right after the decision being made.
In April 1963, SCL moved into her new home at No. 46, Houhai Beiyan (now the Former Residence of SCL). It was a tranquil and elegant garden with views of hills and water. The two-storey newly constructed building was in perfect harmony with other houses in the garden. Her bedroom and study were on the second floor and the sitting room and dining room were on the first floor. In front of the building, it was a beautiful lawn. And the yard was laid out with old pines, cypresses and blooming flowers and dotted by pavilions and winding corridors. For sentiment, she transplanted the dragon-eye grapevines in the main entrance of the eastern gate and the group of pigeons usually played with her on the lawn had followed her from her first home in Fangjin Xiang to the second one at No.18 Qianhai Xiyan and finally to the third home at No.46 Houhai Beiyan.
In 1966, Grace, an American friend of SCL, asked her in a letter to make sure whether it was true or not that she lived in a palace? In response, SCL said 'Yes'. The people's government had the prince's mansion renovated for her as her residence because she was the vice president of the country. (It was actually just the garden part of the prince's mansion--author). 'I live in the mansion of the Prince Chun (the second) of the Qing Dynasty and Pu Yi (the last emperor) was born here. The garden is elegantly laid out with streams and beautiful trees… And the lawn is green almost throughout the year. There is also a two-storey building in the garden. In the past, imperial families used to come here to listen to birds' singing… I am indeed privileged as if I were the imperial family member. However, I don't take pleasure in it because many people in China who deserve this more than me are still living in shabby house,' said SCL in her letter. In fact, people understand that this kind of arrangement was rather an affirmation and recognition of her contributions to the country than for her 'enjoyment'.
She repeatedly expressed her uneasiness about the arrangement of her residence. As a matter of fact, she lived a very simple life in this beautiful house. She used a lot of old and worn-out pieces of furniture in her bedroom, which was also served as her office in her late years. The cover of the chair behind her desk was worn out in many places and the lampshade beside the desk was made of worn-out curtains by her staff. Although the two leather rocking chairs brought from Shanghai had been used more than 30 years in Beijing alone, yet she didn't agree to change as she thought that they could still be used. At later years, the leather became cracked and broken, her staff once suggested to have them mended, but she flatly refused as she wanted to save any penny for the country. Another example, the mirror mercury on both sides of her dressing table began to fall off and her staff repeatedly advised her to repair them or change it for a new one. Then she pointed at in the middle of the mirror, smiled and said, 'Look, it still works!' And then she used it until the last minute of her life.
SCL has always cared for and respected her staff. Once she took a walk in the garden and saw her staff working on roses. She loved roses and asked her staff, 'Can I pick up one of the roses?' Her staff replied firmly, 'Of course! All the flowers are yours.' She said, 'No, not at all. This is the result of your work. I must get your permit.'
SCL lived at No. 46 Houhai Beiyan for 18 years until her death on May 29, 1981. The residence has witnessed her happy laughter and cheerful voices when she met with friends from/at home and abroad, the lamp's light through all nights when she worked for her people, the sorrow and worry in the 'Cultural Revolution', and also her joy and hope of the socialist construction of new China.