Behind the Concrete is a monthly snippet where we introduce a piece of architecture that has a unique design and/or interesting story.
Nestled in the peaceful, leafy gardens on the western edge of Martyrs’ Park, the historic edifice housing Guangdong’s Revolutionary History Museum, ringed by archways and colonnades and framed by swaying palms, looks more like a forgotten colonial mansion from some distant Caribbean island than a Qing Dynasty relic that’s borne witness to some of the highest crescendos of China’s tumultuous 20th century.
Indeed, the site, which now serves as a ‘patriotism education base’ (free entry, of course), was from its earliest days destined to serve as a backdrop to hot points of history. Originally constructed as an important administrative building in the latter days of the Qing Dynasty, the building was a focal point for popular dissent in the wake of the 1911 Xinhai Rebellion. Here, in the old halls of imperial power, the masses of Guangzhou staged a people’s assembly denouncing the Manchu regime. Later, in 1921, the site saw Sun Yat-sen take his oath of office as Extraordinary President of his newly declared military government, setting in motion the campaign that would topple Yuan Shikai and the northern warlords.
Rosie Levine, a researcher specializing in architecture at Peking University, reveals that the building’s Western-style facade is not as unusual as one might think: “With increased foreign influence in the late Qing and Republican eras, Chinese landmark architecture began to absorb distinctly European characteristics like neoclassical columns and covered colonnades, especially in port cities like Guangzhou”.
The building, with its dramatic domed meeting hall at its center, still festooned with Republican-era flags, also became an important headquarters for the early KMT government. Communist leaders too left their mark: Mao Zedong himself conducted affairs in the building while working as chief editor of Politics Weekly.
Today, the museum stands as a testament to the revolutionary history of the region, documenting the struggles of Cantonese people to resist imperialist aggression and reform their society, from the Opium Wars to the founding of the PRC. Exhibits on the second floor form the Guangzhou Museum of Modern History, cataloging the city’s rise from an early manufacturing center to an important trading port to the modern megalopolis we know and love.
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