Zhongshan Square: The Heart of Historic Shenyang
Zhongshan Square: The Heart of Historic Shenyang
Charles W. Gravelle
In the summer, Zhongshan Square is a hive of activity. Large groups of dancers move in sync to blasting Chinese folk music, children chase each other around the flowerbeds, elderly musicians play together, and couples stroll along in the warm air. Traffic ceaselessly revolves around the square: the chorus of taxi horns and wailing of ambulance sirens going to the nearby hospital add to the soundtrack of life in Shenyang.
Under the outstretched arm of Chairman Mao Zedong, it is hard to imagine that the entire square, and all the historic buildings encircling it, were built by the Japanese during their era of heavy economic investment and military occupation of Shenyang. Throughout this series, we'll explore how Zhongshan Square came to be, how it has changed throughout its century long history, and some of the small details hidden in the square's past that you won't find in your Lonely Planet guide.
Zhongshan Square's Birth- 1913
Zhongshan Square's history begins in the year 1913 when Shenyang was still known as "Mukden" or, locally, "Fengtian". Compared to the sprawling size of Shenyang today, Mukden was much smaller back then. Most of the city's density was centered around the Palace.
The city had already been under Japanese control for eight years following the devastating Russian defeat at the Battle of Mukden and the culmination of the Russo-Japanese War. After this battle, the Qing government sold, what is today known as Shenyang's Heping District, to the Japanaese as a concession.
When the square was first built, it was simply called Central Square (中央广场) and the nearby road was ZhaoDe Street (昭德大街). The square was designed to be the central point of business and services for the foreign district that built up around what is today known as Shenyang Station (沈阳站).
In that time, Shenyang had not yet expanded to fill the large shoes it occupies today. As you can see from the photo below, aside from the medical college (today known as The First Hospital of China Medical University), there was very little else built yet. When the Square was built, an obelisk was placed in the center with a large banner celebrating Japan's victory over the Russian forces. The banner read, "Meiji 37th Russo-Japanese Commemoration Monument" (明治三十七年日露战役纪念碑) in memory of the aforementioned Battle of Mukden. The battle took place in 1905 and was the largest modern battle to be fought in Asia before the Second World War. An in-depth history of this fascniating battle can be found here.
In 1919, Japanese authorities in Mukden renamed Central Square to Naniwa Square (浪速广场), a tribute to the historic name of the Japanese city Osaka. Understandably, locals saw this as blatant imperialism, though there was little recourse as the local Chinese authorities were working in conjunction with the Japanese.
From 1920 to 1930, the area around Naniwa Square saw a lot of heavy development as Japanese firms began opening large offices and banks in the area. With the exception of the Palace and various temples, virtually all of Shenyang's remaining historic buildings came from this time period.
Most of the original buildings around the square still exist today. Click any of the images below to enlarge.
Former Fengtian Police Headquarters (奉天警察署):
Former Mitsui & Co., Ltd (三井洋行大楼等建筑):
Former Bank of Korea Fengtian Branch (朝鲜银行奉天支店):
Fengtian Branch of the Japanese colonial Oriental Development Company (东洋拓殖株式会社奉天支店):
Former Yokohama Bank Fengtian Branch (横滨正金银行奉天支店):
Formerly the Yamato Hotel (奉天 大和旅馆 ):
This hotel is still in operation today. It is now the Liaoning Hotel. The owner is very interested in preserving the hotel's history and many sections of the hotel are kept as historically accurate as possible.
For locals, life in that time was one of opportunity or hardship depending on your allegiances. For Japanese settlers, great efforts were made to make everyday life as much like life back home as possible. Japanese styles of dress, festivals, and religious observations were all maintained.
Russian Occupation and Chinese Republican Government - 1945
On August 20th, 1945 Russian forces took Shenyang from the Japanese. Unfortunately for locals, the Russians brought just as much brutality and viciousness including widespread looting and rape.
One of the lasting reminders of the Russian period was a large monument with a prominent tank on top erected in 1945 outside of Shenyang Zhan station. It remained until the early 2000s when it was relocated to the war memorial in Huanggu.
It was not until American forces airlifted Chinese Guomindang troops into the area that some semblance of peace returned to the city.
The Guomindang kept Japan's original obelisk, but replaced the text with their own patriotic slogan: "Country First - Citizens First" (国家至上民族至上). Other signs of the Japanese occupation were also removed, such as street and place names. Naniwa Square was renamed to Zhongshan Square; the same name it holds today. This name honors the founder of the Republic of China, Sun Zhongshan, better known in the Western world as Sun Yat-sen.
Though the Chinese Republican forces treated the locals much better than the previous invaders had, the area was still caught up in the Chinese civil war as Communist forces tried to take the Northeast. During these years, few people went to Zhongshan Square; no festivals were held there anymore and it fell into a state of disrepair, though an extended tram line was built through the square.
Shenyang's Capture by Chinese Communist Forces - 1948
After the successful Liaoshen Campaign of 1948, Communist forces ousted the Guomindang and took Shenyang.
Normalization - 1949
After 65 long years, the original Japanese obelisk was torn down. On October 1st, 1949 Zhongshan Square held Shenyang's first celebration of China's National Day with over 500,000 people in attendance.
In 1951, Shenyang produced its first locally manufactured fleet of trolleybuses. By 1953, the original trolley line around around the squarewas replaced by the trolleybuses and a large flower bed was installed at the site of the original obelisk in celebration.
Lasting Icons of The Cultural Revolution - 1966
Zhongshan Square had only known true peace for just over a decade when the Cultural Revolution took off. Zhongshan Square became the more patriotic Red Flag Square and the ring road was also renamed Red Flag Road. The square was used as the focus point of many rallies and demonstrations.
Due to the squares significance, a large scale project to entirely redesign and improve upon the site was proposed in 1969. The plan would see a number of trees, lampposts, flowerbeds, and, most famously, a prominent statue of Chairman Mao Zedong added to the square. Chairman Mao's statue was to be a ten meter tall fiberglass figure, standing atop a base honoring various communist themes. It was to be the largest project of its kind in China and is still the only statue of its kind to this day.
The redevelopment plan took off at remarkable speed, with the first phase of the project already finished in time for the following national day, October 1st, 1970.
An article about Chairman Mao's statue and it's history is currently under development.
In 1976, the year of Chairman Mao's death, the Square became a hive of activity again as students and workers turned out in the thousands to pay him tribute.
Stability into the 90s
From that point on, life in Shenyang carried on as Mao's spirit watched Shenyang grow and evolve.
Facelift - 1996
1996 saw another facelift for the square. The Shenyang government designated the square a "Music Cultural Square" (音乐文化广场) and installed a number of large lights for better illumination (wouldn't want grannies dancing in the dark!), four sets of 4000 watt amplifies and 16 speakers, eight additional flowerbeds, and new red granite tiles to replace the old surface of the square.
Protected Historic Status - 2007
In 2007, the Shenyang City Government declared Zhongshan Square, and the surrounding buildings, to be provincial cultural relics. Stretching out in a 200m radius, the remaining buildings became part of a "Modern Architectural Museum Neighbourhood" (近代建筑博物馆街区).
This status gives the historic buildings around Zhongshan Square rare level of protection Shenyang has not given most other buildings from this era.
Today, Zhongshan Square is a popular attraction for locals and visitors alike. There are still important banking establishments around the Square, and many bars and restaurants with a foreign style have opened up along the side streets. For anyone interested in a glimpse of what Shenyang was like over a hundred years ago, this is still one of the best sites in the city to visit.