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The restoration of Prince Kung’s Mansion, one of Beijing’s best-preserved imperial residences, has taken a total of 28 years. NewsChina looks into why the project remains tricky to negotiate

By Wang Yan Updated Aug.22

There is an early 20th-century Beijing folk saying that goes: “rooms from Prince Kung’s, walls from Prince Yu’s, and treasures from Prince Su’s.” Demonstrative of the lofty regard Beijingers had for the grand imperial residences of China’s last dynastic house, few today would employ the same phrasing. Of the three palaces listed, only one – Prince Kung’s – has survived the turmoil of China’s last century. 
More than 50 royal residences were constructed within Beijing’s city walls during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Some were destroyed in wartime, others, along with much of the city’s colonial architecture, were taken over by government bureaus, State-owned enterprises or well-connected individuals after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. A few were even partitioned and allocated as public housing, with one grand mansion often providing a home for multiple families. 
Only a tiny number of these royal dwellings have been preserved close to their original state. According to government data, 22 royal mansions remain standing in the capital, of which only eight are categorized as “well preserved.” Despite many of these historic buildings being listed as “major cultural relics protection” projects by the municipal authorities, a lack of financial support and physical protection has led to rapid deterioration. 
Apart from two sites – the renowned tourist attraction Yonghegong, which is the former palace of Prince Yong that today houses the Lama Temple; and the Former Residence of Madam Song Qingling, formerly the gardens adjoining Prince Chun’s Mansion – Prince Kung’s Mansion is the only original, unconverted royal residence remaining in Beijing’s city center, other than the Forbidden City itself.
Originally constructed in 1777 as a residence for He Shen, an official highly favored by the Qianlong Emperor who later fell from grace amid a massive corruption scandal, the mansion was bestowed upon Prince Kung by his brother the Xianfeng Emperor in 1851. 
Prince Kung’s Mansion is located near Shichahai Lake to the northwest of the Forbidden City in downtown Beijing, and occupies an area of over 60,000 square meters. 
The mansion is a complex made up of multiple adjoining siheyuan, or quadrangle courtyard residences. The entire complex consists of two parts: the residential areas at the front and the ornamental gardens in the rear. After the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, Prince Kung’s grandson Puwei mortgaged the property to a priory of Benedictine monks who were active in Beijing. The monks restored the dilapidated mansion before converting it into the Furen Catholic University. After the founding of the People’s Republic, the Communist government appropriated the mansion, along with all other property still in private hands, and divided it between a number of work units. 
The southern part of Prince Kung’s Mansion was allocated to the Beijing Art and Normal Institute affiliated with the capital’s culture bureau, the Chinese Opera Research Institute affiliated to the Ministry of Culture (MoC) and the China Conservatory of Music. 
The gardens were given to the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (one of China’s two officially recognized Christian denominations) and the Beijing Air Conditioning Factory. 
In 1955, the MPS invited academics from the Soviet Union to Beijing, housing them in small residences in the mansion’s gardens. 
When the Sino-Soviet split led to an exodus of all Soviet technicians from China, the same residences were given to ministeriallevel officials for their private use. 
With few voices in government or at the local level advocating for the protection of historic buildings in the New China, waves of demolitions within what had once been the Imperial City of Peking took their toll, with several areas of Prince Kung’s Mansion demolished and replaced with modern office buildings. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the remaining buildings were apportioned even further between hundreds of individual households affiliated to eight different work units. Any restoration project, it became clear in later years, would need to begin with the relocation of the mansion’s new inhabitants. 
“Prince Kung’s Mansion is one of the biggest royal residences in Beijing,” recalled 96-year-old Zhong Qiuyuan, former vice minister of the MoC, in an interview with NewsChina. “People living in it [prior to the restoration] were all from different sectors, so the relocation project alone, before restoration even started, was a huge undertaking.”
In 1962, just prior to the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, academics who studied Cao Xueqin’s classic novel Dream of the Red Chamber posited that Prince Kung’s Mansion, a residence contemporaneous with Cao’s sojourn in the capital, may have been a model for the grand family residence featured in the novel. This supposition caught the attention of high-ranking officials, including Premier Zhou Enlai and Foreign Minister Chen Yi, both of whom were fans of Dream of the Red Chamber, which was also one of the few classic novels that Chairman Mao Zedong openly admired. Zhou Enlai issued instructions and allocated special funds to restore Prince Kung’s Mansion, with the emphasis being on “regaining its original appearance.” The decade-long Cultural Revolution, however, not only halted all restoration work, it saw countless historic buildings across the capital and throughout China razed, demolished and defaced by rampaging Red Guards responding to the call to “smash the Four Olds”: old thinking, old culture, old customs and old habits. Somewhat miraculously, Prince Kung’s Mansion survived the turmoil. In 1975, Gu Mu, previously the deputy director of the State Commission of Construction, became China’s vice premier, and was entrusted by Zhou Enlai with three tasks: choosing a new location for the Beijing Library, the reconstruction and regulation of the city’s Liulichang area, and the restoration of Prince Kung’s Mansion. 
“[Zhou Enlai] told Gu Mu to pay special attention to cultural undertakings,” said Zhong Qiuyuan. “The Premier knew that despite his lack of a cultural background, Gu was the man responsible for the allocation of funds for housing and construction.” Gu had visited Prince Kung’s Mansion in 1934. Its elegant architecture and enchanting landscaping had left a deep impression on his younger self. When the time came for him to shoulder the responsibility of restoring it in the late 1970s, however, the dilapidated mansion had lost most of its former appeal. 
After the trials of the Gang of Four in 1976 officially ended the Cultural Revolution, Gu began to make formal preparations for the restoration work. He presented reports to the central government, and gained support from a few top leaders. In the early 1980s, Gu handed the project over to the State Administration of Cultural Relics, an office within the MoC.

Vice Premier Gu Mu pays a visit to Prince Kung’s Mansion in the early 1980s

One of the main buildings of Prince Kung’s Mansion

Although nominally under the auspices of the MoC, the Prince Kung’s Mansion restoration project was in reality in the hands of four separate institutions: the Beijing municipal government, the MPS, and the MoC, with final say on major decisions retained by the State Council, China’s cabinet. 
Due to the MoC being the lowest-ranked of all government ministries, its remit in terms of actual decision-making was virtually nonexistent. Gu Mu called for quite a number of joint conferences between the MOC, the Beijing government and the MPS, but made little headway. 
On July 19, 1980, Gu Mu inspected the mansion personally. While well known for his mild temperament, his face hardened when he saw the state of the traditional opera house in the mansion’s gardens, which remained overrun with local residents. “Whether the mansion will or will not be opened to the public, everyone living in this opera house needs to be relocated,” he instructed housing official Ren Shenbo. Following the inspection, Gu demanded that all officials related to the project submit their resettlement proposals to him by August of that year. 
The MoC resettlement plan was presented to Gu on July 24. The MoC had earmarked a budget of 15 million yuan (US$2.3m) and secured a 50,000-square-meter construction site to house new buildings for the China Conservatory of Music and other art and literature institutions. 
With the rest of China struggling to rebuild after the Cultural Revolution, it fell to Gu to persuade the State Council to make good on the pledge made by the MoC. He also successfully lobbied the municipal government to set aside a plot of land in the Jinsong area to house relocated staff. 
Finally, in September 1981, a conference on the resettlement project chaired by Gu marked the project’s formal launch. In November of that year, a surveying team did a preliminary investigation at the site. According to team member Lu Mingsheng, they devised a restoration plan for 24 scenic spots in the landscaped gardens and presented it to the MoC in early 1982. The general idea was to “relocate, manage and repair piecemeal.” That same year, the complex in its entirety was declared a Major Historical and Cultural Site of Beijing and placed under nationallevel protection. 
Soon afterwards, Gu called for a second joint work conference. Zhong Qiuyuan, then deputy minister of culture; Zhang Baifa, Beijing vice mayor; and Xi Guoguang, the deputy minister of public security, were all in attendance. 
At the 1982 conference, Gu declared the formation of the Prince Kung’s Mansion Repair and Restoration Management Committee, bringing together representatives of the disparate offices in charge of the site, as well as officials from the National Planning Committee, the National Construction Committee, the Ministry of Finance, the State Council Management Bureau, the Bureau of Religious Affairs and the Beijing municipal government. The general principle was to prioritize restoration of the mansion’s gardens, then the residences, with a goal to incrementally open the site to the public. 
Work began in April 1982. 
Zhang Zhuang was one of the officials on Gu’s taskforce, and today he is the senior engineer of the Prince Kung’s Mansion Management Center. He recalled how, in 1982, there were 200 households crammed into the mansion’s residential areas, with some 60 more living in ramshackle housing in the gardens. 
According to Zhang, the China Conservatory of Music had already demolished several historic buildings and replaced them with concrete office blocks. A promenade gallery in the garden had partially collapsed, and the ornamental pond had been filled in and was being used as a playground for a preschool. 
All over the site, residents had erected lean-tos, kitchens, outdoor furnaces and storage units. 
Zhang’s team was less than optimistic about the task ahead. Gu Mu had previously ordered the relocation of the Beijing Air Conditioning Factory, but its management and staff refused to budge until an alternative site was constructed. Although new workers’ housing had been built for MPS employees, many retired cadres refused to move out. In Lu Mingsheng’s memory, the most unforgettable incident was when a senior police official only agreed to relocate after he was promised six new apartments in other areas of the city. Other residents clubbed together to spy on restoration workers, hoping to halt the project by uncovering evidence of damage to the site. 
Lack of funds was another major issue. 
There was no specific budget from the central government allocated to the restoration of the gardens, which meant the team needed to lobby the MoC every year for more funds.
Gradually, thanks to the courteous attitude of the restoration workers, the resentment of local residents towards the interlopers gradually dissipated, allowing work to proceed more efficiently. Gu personally inspected the site multiple times, urging workers to meet their deadlines. Eventually, work units began to relocate, and in 1984, after concerted lobbying by Vice Mayor Zhang Baifa, the recalcitrant employees of the Beijing Air Conditioning Factory finally moved out of the opera house. 
For the residence’s more senior and wellto- do residents, it fell to Gu to convince them to leave. By 1986, the entire site had been emptied, and the first phase of restoration work was completed by the end of that year. The gardens were largely restored by 1988, and ready to be opened to the public – a move designed to bring in sufficient revenue to finance the reconstruction of the residences. 
Both the MoC and the Beijing municipal government agreed to share management rights to Prince Kung’s Mansion as a tourist site. According to Wu Jie, former deputy Party secretary of the Prince Kung’s Mansion Management Center, Gu asked the MoC to present him with a sound project plan for the mansion’s future development. In 1987, the MoC proposed the creation of a museum. 
The plan was approved by Gu and later by the municipal government, giving management rights to the MoC. 
Gu retired from his post as vice premier in 1988. By August 17 of that year, the gardens of Prince Kung’s Mansion had already become a tourist attraction. However, the residential areas, home to the bulk of those housed in the complex after the Revolution, remained a rabbit warren of homes, small factories and offices. It was not until 1999 that Vice Premier Li Lanqing decided to confront the holdouts. By 2002, the China Art Research Institute was relocated to northern Beijing, and by October 2006, the middle school affiliated to the China Conservatory of Music, the last work unit left in Prince Kung’s Mansion, moved out. 
Since 2005, the central government invested a total of 183 million yuan (US$28m) in repairs and renovations, anticipating a coming tourist boom. 
Work was duly completed on August 20, 2008 – in time for some of the Beijing Summer Olympics. Today’s visitors are rarely aware of the recent history of Prince Kung’s Mansion – the restoration is so complete that few traces of its former legion of local inhabitants remain. While the complex today is a jewel in Beijing’s architectural crown, there are those who remember how close it came to complete destruction.