CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 12, December 2007


No. 12, December 2007

Wangfu, the Princely Mansions of Beijing

This issue of China Heritage Quarterly takes as its focus the Princely Mansions of Beijing.

In 2003, the Ministry of Culture announced that the mansion of Prince Gong near Qianhai and Houhai (also known as Shichahai) in Beijing, the garden of which was already a popular tourist destination, would be renovated and reopened on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics as the Prince Gong Mansion Museum (Gong Wangfu Bowuguan, also to be known as the Princely Mansion Musuem), an institution that will reflect the history and cultural impact of the numerous princely mansions in the former capital of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

On the eve of the 2008 Olympic year, we are featuring articles on Prince Gong's mansion and its attached garden, as well as discussing the fate of Prince Chun's mansion nearby. We also conisder the history and heritage of another one of the city's fallen princely residences, that of Dorgon, Prince Rui. We will return to the theme of Princely Mansions in Issue 14 (June 2008), the focus of which will be 'Beijing, the Invisible City'.

In the Articles section of this issue Bruce Doar writes about the former residence of the writer and official Ji Xiaolan, and Kelly Layton who is working on a cultural history of dust in Beijing discusses the transformation of Qianmen. In this same section we also reproduce a 1961 lecture by the noted translator David Hawkes on Chinese Studies, one that relates to our own work in promoting 'New Sinology'.

In New Scholarship we introduce the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, an active and enterprising NGO based in Beijing that is undertaking work to preserve oral histories of old Beijing and its transformations. We also have a report on a November 2007 conference on the noted guohua artist Li Keran by Claire Roberts and a review of a book on reading Chinese fiction by John Minford that underscores a new dimension of our work, that related to the heritage of China's written culture. In conclusion, we introduce a new book by Geremie R. Barmé on the Forbidden City produced under the aegis of the China Heritage Project.

The next issue of China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 13 (March 2008), will be guest edited by John Minford and Claire Roberts. It will take as its focus the zhai (齋), or the scholar's studio.

Princely Mansions

Fig.1 Distribution of princely mansions in the Inner City of Beijing at the height of the Qing dynasty. From Hou Renzhi, ed., The historical geography of Beijing (Beijing chengshi lishidili), Beijing: Yanshan Chubanshe, 2000, p.162.

Princely mansions (wangfu 王府) dotted the Inner City (Nei Cheng, also known in English as the 'Tartar City') of the Qing-dynasty capital of Beijing. These residences, consisting of interconnected courtyards, large ceremonial halls, intimate apartments and often spacious gardens, were the focus of the nobility of China's last great dynasty, as well as being a focal point for the support and evolution of many aspects of late-traditional culture that has nurtured elements of the twentieth-century Beijing temper.(Fig.1)

Although dozens of these princely mansions survived into the revolutionary era (1948-), albeit in various states of repair, today one can only visit the Garden of Prince Gong's Mansion (Gong wangfu huayuan) on Liuyin Street near Qianhai, and the Residence of Song Qingling at Jishui Tan, once part of Prince Chun's Mansion (Chun wangfu), popularly called the 'northern mansion' (beifu, see 'Prince Gong's Folly' and 'The Vicissitudes of Prince Chun's Mansion' respectively in the Features section of this issue).(Fig.2)

In November 2007, Prince Gong's Mansion was formally dedicated by the Ministry of Culture as the Princely Mansion Museum (Wangfu Bowuguan, although it is still also known as the Prince Gong Mansion Museum). Undergoing extensive restoration since 2006 and with its old occupants forced to vacate, the extensive muiltiple-courtyard complex is scheduled to open to the public in June 2008, shortly before the Beijing Olympics. The Ministry of Culture declared the restored mansion and new museum to be part of a general strategy to 'forge a princely mansion culture' (dazao 'wangfu' wenhua) that recognizes the place of the material heritage of the princely mansions of the former Manchu-Qing capital and the role of the nobility of Qing China in the creation of late-traditional Chinese culture.

Fig.2 The entrance to Prince Chun's Mansion, now the Religious Affairs Bureau. [Photo: GRB]

Fig.3 Sun Xuguang, deputy director of the Prince Gong Mansion Museum (also known as the Princely Mansion Museum), with a plan of the mansion in November 2007. [Photo: GRB]

In the process, the residence of Prince Gong would become something of a 'model mansion', featuring not only the heavily restored buildings of the courtyards that comprised one of the more extensive dwellings of a late-Qing prince regent, but also hinting at the considerable network and broader significance of the princely residences of the Manchu ruling elite that were a central feature of Beijing life from the 1640s up until the 1910s. Like the idealized heritage courtyard dwellings (sihe yuan) that have been preserved from among the numerous houses of old Beijing, the Princely Mansion Museum will give visitors some idea of the structure of such residences, the lives of their occupants and the history of their rise and fall during and after the Qing.(Fig.3)

Since the SARS epidemic of 2003, the once quiet area where Prince Gong's Mansion is located has become famous as the Houhai bar district.(Fig.4) The quiet laneways of the area are increasingly occupied by those who have benefited from the economic reforms and canny business people. However, the increasingly exclusive neighbourhood is bedeviled not only by the noisy nighttime bar trade, but also by the hutong tours that give tourists, Chinese and foreign, a speedy overview of the old district while pedicabs drivers offer a running commentary on what lies behind the anonymous grey walls of the courtyard houses. The cabs jostle for custom outside Prince Gong's Mansion, as well as such places as the former residence of Guo Moruo, a major historian, antiquarian and poet of the period from the 1920s to the 1950s (known also for his political alacrity during the Maoist heyday), Yinding Bridge and the former residence of Song Qingling.(Fig.5)

Fig.4 An advertisement for a lakeside bar at Houhai, Beijing.

According to details given in the Capital Museum, at the time of the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 there were 48 former princely mansions or noble residences (wangfu, fudi) in Beijing. In 2003, it was claimed that 22 mansions were still extant, of which eight were in relatively sound repair. These were the mansions of Prince Gong, Prince Chun, the Former Prince Chun's mansion, Fu Junwang Mansion, and the residences of princes Yong, Li, Qing and Chun (some of these will be discussed in a future issue of our quarterly).[1] In reality, as we have noted, only two mansions, or parts of former princely palaces are accessible, these are the mansions of Prince Gong and Prince Chun (see the relevant stories in the Features section of this issue), although the former mansion of Prince Yong (who reigned as the Yongzheng Emperor), later the Yonghe Gong (Lama Temple), is also accessible, as is the Mansion of Prince Rui, later Pudu Temple, both of which are discussed in the Feature story 'Downward Spiral'.(Fig.6)

Before the Princes

Fig.6 Part of the garden of Prince Gong's Mansion, November 2007. [Photo: GRB]

There is evidence that mansions for imperial princes were built during the Yuan dynasty in thirteenth-century Dadu in what is roughly the area of modern Beijing. Although royal princes were generally enfoeffed with lands and residences throughout the empire, dwellings were provided for those who visited or sojourned in the city. This practice continued into the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the most famous early-Ming princely residence being that of Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan, who following his usurpation of the throne ruled under the reign title of Yongle in the early fifteenth century and established the dynastic capital in Beijing. Although there is some debate about where Zhu Di's princely residence was, many think that he lived in the remains of the Yuan dynasty palaces in what is now known as the Lake Palaces (Zhongnan Hai) while the new imperial centre, the Forbidden City, was under construction.[2]

Fig.5 A guide to the post-2003 bar zone of Houhai, Beijing.

During the Ming, imperial princes maintained fiefdoms outside the capital, although it is thought that a vast complex was built to accommodate their sojourns in the capital. Somewhere west of Dong'an Men (long since demolished along with the Imperial City wall, although its foundations are now uncovered and visible next to the Cuiming Zhuang hotel) and near modern-day Wangfu Jing (a street name meaning, 'the well of the princely mansions;'), the 'residence of the ten princes' (shiwang di) was constructed in 1417, around the time that the Forbidden City was being built.[3] Numerous other grand residences were also provided for imperial clan members and nobles throughout the city.

With the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644 and the establishment of the Qing dynastic capital of the Manchu ruling family in Beijing, the city underwent a major transformation. In 1648, an imperial expulsion order (yi cheng ling 移城令) forced the Han-Chinese residents out of the Inner City to live in the Outer City (Wai Cheng, also known in English as the Chinese City) of the capital. Although Han were allowed into the Manchu enclave during the day, at night before the city gates were closed they were required to return to the southern suburbs. The Inner City was given over to the jurisdiction of the Manchu imperial clans and the military Eight Banners under which the Manchus organized themselves. Within these areas princes were allocated residences according to individual rank and merit, often displacing Ming-era occupants from their grand homes.

Qing rulers were mindful of the threats to stability during the Ming that had resulted from princes being granted territories far from the capital in which they also resided. In keeping with a policy of divide and rule over the nobility typical of the early Qing, princes were generally assigned residences in areas of the Inner City controlled by military banners that were not their own. Thus, founding princes of the dynasty were granted titles and allotted an income from lands outside the capital, yet they were kept under relatively close supervision by being required to reside in Beijing. Their descendants and newly created princes also had garden residences near the imperial garden parks to the northwest of the city, where emperors from Kangxi to Xianfeng (late seventeenth to the mid nineteenth centuries) spent much of the year.

A Ranking of Princes

Fig.7 Shirong, the Prince of Beijing, from Gai Qi (1774-1827), illustrated, Hongloumeng tuyong, Beijing: Beijing Tushuguan Chubanshe, 2004, n.p.

Fig.8 The main building at the campus of Fu-jen University, built on what were the garden and stables of the mansion of the beile Tao (Tao beile fu). From Furen Yingwen xuezhi, 1931, reprinted in Gu Changjiang and Shen Hong, eds, Lao zhaopianzhongde Da Qing wangfu (Old Photographs of Princely Mansions of the Great Qing), Beijing: Wenhua Yishu Chubanshe, 2006, p.159.

As the nobility evolved, eighteen princely ranks were devised, the final form of rankings being fixed in 1748. Each was allocated an appropriate title, income and residence. In fact, 'prince' was not a title reserved solely for the brothers and sons of emperors, but was also conferred on the leading male members of the Manchu nobility who originally belonged to the eight major military banners which had formed the Manchu-Mongol-Han force that had conquered the Ming empire. The eight leading figures in this force, the 'Eight Princes of the Iron Helmet', were given princely titles, properties and grand residences in the new Qing captial.

'Prince' is the simple English translation of a range of hierarchical Manchu and Chinese titles, including qinwang, junwang, beile and beizi, 親王,郡王,貝勒,貝子), to name only the four top, and best known ranks of princes of the blood.[4] Strictly speaking, princely mansions were the province of first and second rank princes—qinwang and junwang—although in the confusion of China's market socialist heritage culture, it is popular to claim virtually any noble residence as being a wangfu. The epithets attached to princely titles related to neither place nor residence, but to moral-ethical qualities recognized by the throne, ones that were rewarded accordingly. In many ways, these princely titles eventually came to be used more like surnames. Among the various rankings of princes, from the time of the Kangxi Emperor there were also two basic categories: those who had hereditary titles (like the members of the Eight Grand Families) known as shixi wangti 世襲罔替 and others whose princely ranking would decline with each successive generation, called shixi dijian 世襲遞減.

The location of princely residences would also change over the generations. If a princely title was devalued over time due to the failure of a descendant to contribute to the ruling house, his family would be forced to move out of a larger mansion, or would see it divided and used by other more virtuous members of the aristocracy. Grave errors or egregious failures also led to confiscations, fines and other punishments that saw even the most powerful reduced in stature. Meanwhile, princes born of the reigning emperor would be 'given a mansion' (fenfu 分府) upon reaching their majority at the age of fifteen. As the Qing historian Evelyn Rawski has pointed out, however, fenfu had a much wider significance than that related to the allocating of a princely mansion, for it 'refers to the transfer of men, land, and goods that took place when an emperor decided to separate a son or brother from the palace family by providing him with a separate establishment.'[4] In The Last Emperors, her social history of Qing imperial institutions, Rawski also provides details of the mid-Qianlong era reform of princely rankings, a complex process that is hinted at by a simple statistic:

Princes of the first rank, hosoi cin wang, received an annual stipend of 10,000 taels of silver and 5,000 piculs of rice; princes of the lowest rank received 110 taels and 55 piculs of rice a year.[5]

Fig.9 'The Last Princely Mansions', cover story of Life Weekly, produced by Sanlian Books, 22 December 2005.

When the recalibration of princely ranks was determined by the Qianlong emperor in the mid-eighteenth century, a reconsideration of the contribution to the dynasty of the early martial princes was also undertaken. The previously denigrated figures of Dorgon, Dodo and Ajige were 'rehabilitated' so that their descendants and other princes of the blood could be made better aware of the grand traditions of the dynasty's founders and the origins of their own inheritance (for the fall of Dorgon and his brothers in the 1650s, see 'Downward Spiral' in Features in this issue).[6]

The arrangement of a princely mansion was determined by strict codes set out in the Collected Regulations of the Qing dynasty (Da Qing huidian). In general, mansions, like the Forbidden City itself as we observe below, were organized along three main south-to-north axes. The central axis with symmetrically arranged courtyards contained the main social and ritual buildings, the style, height, colour and decorations of which were determined by the rank of the occupant.

Inside the main gate of the mansions would be two halls of three bays (jian) width, beyond which would be a 'Hall of Silver Tranquility' (Yin'an Dian) of three to five bays, again depending on rank. This led to a second gate and courtyard with spacious rooms on either side and a main Spirit Hall. Reception rooms would be arranged along this main axis, while private quarters would be on the east or west axes.

An Encounter with Nobility

Princes and their residences were closely supervised and at the height of the Qing the princes were required to maintain a lifestyle concomitant with their elevated status, something that could prove to be financially draining, if not disastrous.[7] But their position, education and social world also made the Qing nobility a focal point for the creation of a particular late-dynastic culture that continues to have resonances in China today.

Something of the style, if not the substance, of the princely culture of mid-Qing Beijing is hinted at in a short episode in the literary masterpiece of the Qianlong era, Cao Xueqin's The Story of the Stone (Shitou ji, also known as Dream of the Red Chamber, Honglou meng, more of which is said in John Minford's 'The Dark Lane' in Features, and David Hawkes in Articles below). In chapters 14 and 15 of the novel, during a memorial procession for Lady Qin-shi, Jia Baoyu, the central character of the story, encounters the comely Shirong 世榮, the Prince of Beijing (北静郡王, the 'Prince of Northern Quietude'), who has just come from morning duties at the imperial palace. Shirong has inherited his royal title from a distinguished martial predecessor and, aware of the close relationship between his own ancestor and the Duke of Ningguo—'both having found in the same campaigns and shared hardships and triumphs together'—he orders a mourning booth constructed by the roadside so that he can personally make a libation to the coffin of the wife of one of the duke's prominent descendants.

Long fascinated by stories of Jia Baoyu, the young man famous for being born with a piece of jade in his mouth, when the procession stops and the chief mourners of the Jia family acknowledge the prince, Shirong asks to see Baoyu, and the two exchange pleasantries. Baoyu also notes the prince's costume, modified in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion, but still reflective of the grand style of the nobility:

[His] princely headgear was embellished by way of mourning with white bands, a white hatpin, and filigree silver 'wings'. As a further token of mourning his robe, though heavily bordered with a 'tooth and wave' design of rainbow-coloured stripes and gold-emblazoned with the royal five-flawed dragon, was of a white material. It was confined at the waist by a red leather belt, studded with green jade. The splendid costume, the luminous eyes, the finely chiseled features really did make him an arrestingly handsome young man.(Fig.7)

During the exchange Shirong admits to youthful laxity of a kind that he fears Baoyu, himself a striking young man much indulged by his family, may well also fall prey. Nowadays, he notes, however, the leading writers of the empire gather at his princely palace whenever they visit the capital. He invites Baoyu to share their company. Addressing himself to Baoyu's father, Jia Zheng, the prince observes that, 'By constantly mixing with such people at my palace, your son could do much to improve his education'.[8]

Cao Xueqin's novel reflects an imaginative reality at the height of the Qing dynasty in the mid eighteenth century. The princely mansions, their splendour and extensive properties also reached a height around that time. In the nineteenth century, the strict control the court had exercised over the Manchu inhabitants of Beijing's Inner City was relaxed. Han-Chinese began to move back into the once privileged world of the invaders, and the Manchu banners had to accommodate Han neighbours and merchants. With the disastrous denouement of the Second Opium War in 1860, which saw the sacking of the Garden of Perfect Brightness and the other palace gardens to the north-west of Beijing (see China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 8, December 2006), foreign diplomats began to move into Beijing and a number of embassies were established on the grounds of former princely mansions.

Selling off the Patrimony

The story of the princely mansions of Beijing following the abdication of the Qing imperial house is, not surprisingly, one of precipitous decline. Deprived of a source of income that would enable the upkeep of their palatial residences, extravagant lifestyles and large families, the progeny of the imperial clans were soon reduced to selling off heirlooms and even parts of their mansions to survive the early decades of the Republic of China.(Fig.8)

Fig.10 The Deng Xiaoping family compound between Jingshan and Di'anmen, Beijing, November 2007. [Photo: GRB]

Fig.11 The Ye Jianying family compound on Jishuitan, Beijing, November 2007. [Photo: GRB]

Many of the mansions and their rambling gardens suffered long years of neglect. Some had been plundered in the mayhem resulting from the Boxer Rebellion of 1900; while with the establishment of the Republic and the end of official careers, emoluments and privileges, many nobles and their families had been forced to sell off family treasures or drastically reduce their extravagant lifestyles and quarters build to accommodate large extended families. Some of the dozens of princely mansions changed hands, or were open to numerous occupants.

With the increasing interest in cultural heritage in China, it is understandable that in recent years princely mansions and their fate have come into focus.(Fig.9) In the process of heritage revival, it is common for commentators to criticize decisions made during the early years of the People's Republic. When the Communist Party and its forces occupied the former imperial city in 1948 they requisitioned not only the Lake Palaces, they also moved on many of the remaining princely mansions and their spacious accommodations (for some details, see 'Prince Gong's Folly' in Features of this issue). In doing so, however, the bureaucracies of the nascent People's Republic were following a tradition that had seen the Qing appropriation of former Ming properties and indeed the wholesale conversion of princely residences into schools and government offices under the Republic of China from the 1910s. Nonetheless, while the depredations visited on the grand residences of Beijing/Beiping during the Republican era (1912-49) were considerable, there is no denying the fact that dozens of extant mansions were further benighted, if not destroyed, during the careless (and willful) early decades of socialist China.

In the Maoist era, many of the old garden mansions were figured as representing a politics and culture of leisure, exploitation and elite self-indulgence. In the early years, the impetus was to convert a city of consumption into a place of constant movement, tension, remodelling and struggle. Many of the formerly grand princely compounds and the spacious dwellings of defunct nobles and the wealthy were already run down. But with their high secure walls, numerous interconnected buildings, capacious gardens, lakes and ponds, they offered an ideal environment, and respite, for the military and civilian cadres who had spent long years in the wilds or the countryside fighting a guerrilla war, as well as underground Party leaders from the former 'white zones' under Nationalist control. The previously privileged realms of power and ostentatious display had, for a while, been open to a more public gaze. However, with the arrival of the Communists who had a need for office and residential space, the mansions gradually became secret gardens once more.

By no means all leaders occupied mansions or parts of them. Many new vast residences were built for Party leaders in and around the old Imperial City or at secure places in the Inner City (the walls of which would be demolished from the 1950s). These new residences would have space aplenty for the revolutionary leaders' extended families, the many functionaries who would man their offices, as well as cooks, drivers, servants and often considerable security forces. New residences were built in the alleys to the west of the Lake Palaces, in streets north of the Forbidden City and near Di'anmen, as well as around the lakes near the princely mansions of Prince Gong and Prince Chun.(Figs 10&11)

The rise, fall and rediscovery of Beijing's princely mansions is a complex story that encompasses 350 years of Chinese history. We will return to the subject in China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 14 (June 2008), which takes as its focus 'Beijing, the Invisible City'. [GRB]

* The editors would like to express our thanks to Di Tang, Jude Shanahan and Dane Alston for their assistance in the production of this issue of China Heritage Quarterly.


[1] See:

[2] See 'The location and distribution of princely mansions' (Wangfu jianzhude xuanzhi yu fenbu) in the chapter by Li Xiaocong, in Hou Renzhi, ed., The historical geography of Beijing (Beijing chengshi lishidili), Beijing: Yanshan Chubanshe, 2000, p.217, notes 14 & 15.

[3] Li Xieping, 'Shi wangfu yingjiande lishi beijing' (The historical background to the construction of the Ten Princely Mansions), in his Collected Studies on the Construction of Ming-era Beijing (Mingdai Beijing ducheng yingjian congkao), Beijing: Zijingcheng Chubanshe,2006, pp.186-209.

[4] Evelyn S. Rawski, The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, p.105.

[5] Rawski, The Last Emperors , p.76. A list of the eighteen ranks of imperial princes is given in the appendix on p.304.

[6] For a detailed account of the complex evolution of the princely system, see Rawksi, The Last Emperors, pp.76-81.

[7] See Puren's description of the cost of maintaining a princely residence in his article 'Wan Qing fengwang fenfu' (Being made a prince and allotted a princely estate in the late Qing), Zijincheng, 1989:3 (no.52), pp.40-41.

[8] See Cao Xueqin, Honglou meng jiaozhuben, Beijing: Beijing Shifandaxue Chubanshe, 1995, vol.1, pp.230 & 239; and, Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber, translated by David Hawkes, Penguin Books, 1973, vol.1: The Golden Days, pp.285-290. The description of the Prince of Beijing's attire is taken from Hawkes, p.288.