"Over this river there is a very fine stone bridge, so fine indeed, that it has very few equals in the world."
– Marco Polo
Beijing's Lugou Bridge – aka Marco Polo Bridge, since the bridge figured prominently in the travel journals of the 13th century Italian explorer Marco Polo – spans the Youngding River about 15 kilometers southwest of Tiananmen Square. It is the oldest existing multi-arched stone bridge in the Beijing area, and, of course, in its time, it was a much more spectacular achievement. Construction of the original bridge on this site commenced in 1189 and ended in 1192. It was later reconstructed in 1698 under the reign (CE 1661-1722) of Emperor Kangxi of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, as one of the bridge's two famous stelae records. The other stele bears a calligraphic inscription by the grandson of Emperor Kangxi, Emperor Qiangolong – also of the Qing Dynasty – that reads as follows: "Morning moon over Lugou".
The Lugou Bridge is roughly 265 meters in length and 9 meters in width, with 11 supporting arches standing on 10 legs, or piers, each attached to a pedestal, plus the two shore abutments (X number of arches requires X+1 "legs"). The bridge is low and squat, and with its many stone arches ending in massive legs, it brings to mind a squat version of the typical Roman aqueduct. Each side-wall atop the bridge is a balustrade consisting of 125 short balusters that protrude slightly above the wall's height, with a stone lion, in quintessentially Chinese style, mounted atop each baluster.
In fact, the lion is the theme animal of this bridge, there being such a large number of lions, when all the baby lions are counted, including those clutching their mothers' backs and bellies, or etched onto the head or a paw (the artists seem to have amused themselves with these lions-within-lions decorations), that for years no one had any clear idea of just how many there were. According to the official records (the lion adornments stretched over several centuries), there were originally 627 lions, though only some 500 have been accounted for. The posture of the lions varies, as do their stages of maturity – and indeed, as do their ages as works of art; most date from the Ming (CE 1368-1644) and Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasties, though some are from the Yuan (CE 1271-1368) Dynasty, and a few date from as far back as the Jin (CE 1115-1234) Dynasty, making them rare treasures in and of themselves.
A baldaquin-like throne, minus a canopy, but consisting of four 4-meter-high columns on a meter-high base, is situated at each end of the bridge. Each of these thrones houses a marble stele – the two aforementioned Qing Dynasty stelae by Emperor Kangxi and his grandson, Emperor Qianlong.
The Marco Polo Bridge had a central if short-lived role in China's involvement in WWII; China's entry into World War II began with shots on the Marco Polo Bridge on July 7, 1937, when Japanese forces overwhelmed Chinese troops, and Beijing fell to the invading forces, which thereafter occupied Beijing until Japan's defeat in WWII in 1945. Beijing was thereafter under the rule of Chinese Nationalist Army Forces until it was "liberated" by Chinese Communist forces in 1949.* The outbreak of hostilities between Japan and China on July 7, 1937 is known as the "Marco Polo Bridge Incident".
To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the "Marco Polo Bridge Incident", a War Museum dedicated to the memory of the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army against the Chinese people was built in 1987 beside the Marco Polo Bridge. The museum is as much – if not more – a reminder to the rest of the world of China's painful sacrifices during WWII. The museum exhibits artifacts which stem from what China considers the beginning of WWII – and perhaps justifiably so – when China was invaded by Japan in 1937, beginning with the "Marco Polo Bridge Incident".** A special 4-meter-high stone lion, known as "The Awakened Lion", stands on Luguo Bridge where the first shots were fired. Its purpose is to remind the Chinese people that such a humiliation must never again befall the country.
* Technically this is not correct, for the conflict between China and Japan from 1937 to 1941 remained part of the Second Sino-Japanese War. When the U.S., having seen its Pacific Fleet smashed by the Japanese in the infamous December 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, thereafter entered World War II on the side of the Allies, China also joined the Allied effort, declaring war on the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan, and the Second Sino-Japanese War thereafter morphed into the Pacific theatre of World War II.
** By comparison, Germany "absorbed" Austria first in 1938, and in the same year, the shameful Munich Pact between France and Great Britain on the one side, and Gemany on the other, permitted Germany to take over certain areas of Chechoslovakia (the so-called Sudetenland takeover, which was part of what came to be termed "appeasement" towards Hitler). It was first on September 1, 1939, that Hitler, having been given a finger, as it were, decided to take the whole hand, and invaded Poland. Only then did Great Britain and France declare war on Germany, and only then did World War II officially commence. But there is good reason to see the "Marco Polo Bridge Incident" as the beginning of WWII, at least in the Pacific theatre...
When Japan invaded China in 1937, it respected the foreign territorial concessions that the Americans and British held in China, at least for a time. However, already in the summer of 1939, a minor Anglo-Japanese incident occurred in China that quickly developed into a major diplomatic row, the so-called Tientsin Incident. Six members of the Chinese resistence in Tianjin, who were being pursued by the Japanese on suspicion of having assassinated a certain local collaborator of Japanese origin, took refuge inside the British Quarter of Tianjin, and the British authorities refused to deliver them up to their pursuers. The British were already riled at the Japanese for the latter's harrassment of British citizens wishing to move freely between the various "Quarters" of Tianjin. This sparked a row that threatened to escalate into open war, as Japanese forces surrounded the British compound, in effect, imposing a blockade.
The British, who had their problems with Hitler's expansionary ambitions in Europe, were faced with two unpalatable options: give up the six men to their certain deaths at the hands of the Japanese, or send a large enough naval fleet to the waters off China/ Japan that could convince the Japanese of the futility of maintaining the blockade in Tianjin. Given the likelihood of imminent war with Germany, British authorities delivered up the six members of the Chinese resistence movement, who were summarily executed by the Japanese.
But the matter did not end there, for the Japanese decided to no longer respect the British and American concessions in China, which they wanted for themselves. In August of 1940, the British were given their marching orders by the Japanese, and they complied. A year later, in November of 1941, the Americans were also given their marching orders. It was a unit of the U.S. Marine Corps that guarded the American compound in Tianjin. Before they could leave, however, and before the deadline for leaving had expired, the Japanese attacked the U.S. Marine Corps unit anyway, inflicting enough damage to cause the unit to surrender. What had forced the hand of the Japanese in Tianjin was of course the Pearl Harbor attack the day before. The U.S. Marine Corps unit was attacked and defeated on December 8, 1941, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack.
After WWII, Tianjin became an American military base, but tensions between the U.S. Military and the local populace came to a head in December of 1946 over a series of rapes. This led to massive student protests which culminated in the pull-out of the Americans from Tianjin in June of 1947. Tianjin was liberated by Communist forces two years later, in 1949.