Hidden History

Skeletons in the Golf Course6 min read

Jeremiah Jenne unearths the history lying beneath a Beijing park


Editor’s note: We’re delighted to introduce a new monthly feature at the Channel, ‘Hidden Histories’ by Beijing-based rogue historian Jeremiah Jenne. Every month, Jenne will bring us a story, character or site from Chinese history that is too little known. For this first offering, his research took him golfing …


Qingnianhu is a typical Beijing park. Older women dance in ragged unison. The husbands chase after their grandchildren. A few folks are playing chess or cards. An artificial lake – covered in white fuzz every spring, the detritus of the city’s annual explosion of poplar and willow spores – is surrounded by a fitness path. A water park, complete with slides and wading pools, awaits warmer summer months.

“A bucket of balls is 150,” intones the bored looking teenager at the front desk of the Qingnianhu Park Golf and Fitness Club. I scan the payment QR code on my phone and trudge out to the driving range, which is enmeshed by steel pylons holding up a net. Somewhere out there, buried under golf balls and landfill, are bodies.

Qingnianhu Park – the name literally means “youth lake” – was built in the late 1950s by members of the Communist Youth League, just north of the recently demolished city wall of Beijing. But underneath the park and play areas is a former gravesite, that includes among many others the bodies of Romanov family members – the family that ruled Russia as its last Tsars – who were killed a century ago this year.

The cemetery belonged to the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission. Its oldest foreign graves are of the Albazinians, descendants of Russian Cossacks captured by Qing forces in the 17th century who then resettled as part of the Yellow Banner Manchus in northern Beijing. They worshipped at the Church of St. Nikolas, built in 1685 just inside the northeastern corner of the old city wall – today the site of the Russian Embassy – and when they died they were buried in these plots, outside nearby Andingmen Gate.

Thomas William Bowlby (Wikipedia Commons)

In 1860, the cemetery was also used as the final resting place for some of the most famous casualties of the Anglo-French Expedition, the destructive denouement to the Second Opium War (1856-60). Thomas William Bowlby, special correspondent for The Times, and French attaché William de Normann were members of a party led by two British envoys, Harry Parkes and Henry Loch, which had been attempting to negotiate a truce with their Qing counterparts when the entire group was arrested and imprisoned. For over a week, their captors tortured the men before they were released. Bowlby and de Normann, along with ten Sikh guards and three other British soldiers, died of their injuries.

Count Nikolay Pavlovich Ignatyev, commanding the small Russian detachment which took part in the occupation of Beijing that followed, granted British commander Lord Elgin the use of the Russian cemetery – which happened to be close to a temple that British and French officers were using as their headquarters – for burying their dead. At the funeral, Ignatyev said, “Today we look on this cemetery not as Russian or Greek, but Christian.” The killing of Bowlby, de Normann and the others became part of the rationale for the looting and destruction of the Imperial Gardens at what is now the Old Summer Palace of Yuanmingyuan, later that year.

A few years later, the Russian cemetery became the last resting place of another Englishman, the missionary William Charles Milne, who died of a stroke in Beijing in 1863. Milne was buried in an unconsecrated section of the Russian burial ground.

A sketch of St. Seraphim church at the cemetery, from orthodox.cn

In 1903, the Russian Orthodox Mission built a chapel on a raised parcel of land adjacent to the old cemetery. Dedicated in 1906, the Church of St. Seraphim of Saroy was built using funds allocated from the Russian share of the Boxer Indemnity, one of the punitive terms imposed on China after foreign troops invaded North China in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion, when local Chinese rose up against foreign missionaries.

It was on the grounds of the St. Serafim church the the “Martyrs of Alapayevsk” were interred, nearly a century ago. On July 18, 1918, a day after the shooting of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in Yekaterinburg, Bolshevik revolutionaries executed six other members of the Romanov family, including Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, an Orthodox nun, and the Grand Duke’s private secretary, who were being held near the city of Alapayevsk, 2000km west of St Petersburg in central Russia. The captives were forced to walk a plank into a deep well. When the Russian White Army recaptured Alapayevsk later that same year, the bodies were recovered and placed in a city crypt. But as the war turned, the remains were threatened by the advancing Red Army. The bodies were smuggled by rail out of the country and into China.

The Romanov bodies reached Beijing in April 1920, where they were prepared for burial at the Holy Martyrs Church – which had replaced the demolished Church of St. Nikolas following the Boxer Rebellion – inside Beijing’s city walls. Unfortunately, city ordinances at the time forbade the bringing of corpses into the city, and so the eight coffins were shifted north and placed in the underground crypt at the St. Seraphim chapel.

A map of the Russian and cemetery, from orthodox.cn

Eventually, two of the coffins, including the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna and the Orthodox nun, were sent onwards to Jerusalem for reburial. Then in 1937, the Russian mission took advantage of the Japanese occupation to secure permission to transfer the six remaining coffins out of the St. Seraphim crypt and inside the city walls to the Holy Martyrs Church. The bodies were moved in 1938, only to be sent back outside the walls to the St. Seraphim crypt again, a decade later, when in 1947 Soviet authorities reportedly ordered them removed from the grounds of what had become the Soviet Embassy.

In 1962, St. Seraphim chapel was converted into a warehouse, and during the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards severely vandalized the church and graveyard, although there is no evidence they managed to break into the crypt holding the Romanov bodies. The remaining church structures were demolished in 1986 as construction workers moved earth and stone to fill out the park landscape.

Today, what was once a graveyard has become a golf course. Somewhere beyond the 100m post on the driving range – under the stray golf balls left there by the drives, slices, putts and chips of weekend duffers – are the remains of Russian royalty, the victims of torture, Christian missionaries and the graves of hundreds more whose stories we may never know.

I asked two caddies working at the golf center if they knew what lay beneath the range. One shook his head. The other said, “Russians. But then the park was built,” he continued, “and that was that. Would you like another 100 golf balls? Your swing could use work.” ∎


Header image: Qingnianhu golf park, photo by the author.