CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 24, December 2010


Tear Down the Palace! | China Heritage Quarterly

Tear Down the Palace!

Joel Martinsen

Through much of the twentieth century the imperial palace, or the Forbidden City, in the centre of the former dynastic city of Beijing, was the object of dread and debate. Its fate, from the time of the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, an event that brought an end to millennia of dynastic rule, was subject to the changing political landscape, and moods, of modern China. In my 2008 book The Forbidden City (London: Profile Books), especially Chapter 1, 'A Palace of Blood and Tears', and attendant online footnotes (published as part of the China Heritage Project that produces this e-journal, see here in particular), I discuss this unsettled history at length. In previous issues of China Heritage Quarterly we have published various accounts of Beijing, its city walls, princely palaces, some of its temples and the abiding, and contested, heritage issues to do with the city's preservation. For the present issue, and in light of our concerns with the fate of late-dynastic era China as seen through a focus on the work of Ernst Boerschmann, we have invited the Beijing-based editor, writer and translator Joel Martinsen to discuss an imaginative/imaginary plan to do away with the Forbidden City altogether and to replace it with a 'Chairman's Palace'.—The Editor

Fig.1 Beijing City Layout Plan #4, 1963

The Forbidden City 紫禁城 sits at the heart of Beijing's old city. As the Palace Museum 故宫博物院, the complex was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985. It welcomed 11.9 million visitors in 2009, and receives well over a hundred thousand tourists a day during peak periods.[1] The Palace and Tian'anmen Gate are such integral parts of Beijing that it is hard to imagine that plans were drawn up in the 1950s and 60s to modernize and even demolish the entire complex.

Once Liang Sicheng 梁思成 and Chen Zhanxiang's 陈占祥 proposal to locate modern Beijing to the west of the ancient city was rejected in favor of a Soviet-inspired plan to modernize the existing city, the Palace presented urban planners with a difficult problem. Smack in the middle of the city, it was a major inconvenience as well as a symbol of feudal imperialism. The idea that it could simply be demolished was a natural one.

In 1955, He Zuoxiu 何祚庥, a physicist working for the Central Propaganda Department, alluded to the notion in an essay attacking Liang's preservationist aims:

Is there not a single deficiency in the urban design of Beijing's old city? For example, Beijing's city wall is a considerable obstruction to traffic between the city and its outskirts and within the city itself, such that we have been compelled to drive numerous holes through the wall. And in the center of Beijing is a great Palace around which pedestrians must detour, which greatly inconveniences traffic.[2]

The idea was adopted by city authorities in the Master Plan for Beijing, drafted in 1957. A description published in 1958 explained:

As to the fundamental transformation of Old Beijing, we must resolutely break the shackles and limitations of the old city. Reconstruction must begin on the Palace; city walls and altar walls must all be torn down; once the city wall is torn down, the Second Ring Road shall be built along the moat.

Not that this proposal was universally acclaimed. City Construction in Beijing Since the Founding of the People's Republic of China (Jianguo yilaide Beijing chengshi jianshe 建国以来的北京城市建设) published as an internal reference book in 1986, gives a dry summary of the opposing viewpoints at the time regarding the treatment of older buildings:

Some comrades believed that older structures (such as the Qianmen gatehouse, Archery Tower, and Zhonghuamen) were insignificant compared to the great buildings of the new era, and after a while, when the time came, they ought to give way for new buildings whose size would represent socialism and communism. Other comrades thought that the existing ancient buildings were the historical heritage of our country and ought to be preserved.[3]

Such sentiments were said to be shared by many local residents, according to an essay on the class analysis (jieji fenxi 阶级分析) of the artistic worth of the Palace and Tian'anmen published by Tsinghua University in a 1965 collection of scholarly papers which recorded attitudes of 'laboring people'. Wang Jun 王军, a journalist who has written extensively about Beijing's urban development, excerpted several no these responses in his book The Story of a City (Cheng Ji 城记), including that of a disappointed PLA soldier, 'Comrade Liu':

I went to the Palace not long after liberation. After taking a look at it, I felt it was empty and slack. An old chair on a platform—boring! More exhausting than the army! And today's Great Hall of the People is so much larger, yet I don't feel at all tired walking up and down. Things we all aren't interested in don't fit our needs.... I entered the city in '49, and as soon as I saw Tian'anmen, my first reaction was discomfort: this is the nation's economic and cultural center, but it didn't have an atmosphere to match. Looking to one side, there was the city gate; to the other side were five black holes. All through the middle was a narrow street bounded on either side by red walls. Lots of things had been constructed, but they had little use. The three gates and the red walls were certainly useful in the past to protect the Forbidden City and keep commoners from getting close. I felt at the time that such a big country ought to have a good center.[4]

And an old man named Zhang told the authors, 'Tian'anmen is just a city wall tower with a hall on top. What old person has never seen a gatehouse? If a new building could be put up, twice as tall as the Great Hall, think of the prestige. It would be more inspiring than Tian'anmen Gate!'

In The Ancient Capital Beijing: a record of fifty years of change (Gudu Beijing wushinian yanbianlu 古都北京五十年演变录), Dong Guangqi 董光器 notes that one of the major issues faced by the planners was the question of what to do with the Palace and its moat:

This was a highly sensitive issue at the time. The Municipal Committee and government had given no clear instruction, but in the academy then even historians held the idea that nothing was permanent in the world, and that everything was in a state of change. Besides, at that time the plans were just trial simulations, not plans for implementation, so why not let loose a little? Thus, some of the proposals included plans for redeveloping Tian'anmen Gate and the Hall of Supreme Harmony, and one plan covered over the moat in front of the three gates, laid out a tree-lined pathway overtop, and extended Tian'anmen Square to the south.[5]

In his book, Dong reproduces draft plans made in the late 50s and early 60s for redeveloping the old city.[Fig.1] Several renderings show a redesigned Tian'anmen Gate and enormous western-style buildings populating the former palace grounds. Another proposal retained most of the palace complex, but solved the traffic issue by cutting the area in half with an east-west road, and put the space to use by converting the Halls of Literary Glory and Military Eminence into entertainment venues.[6]

Why were the proposals to demolish or re-purpose the Forbidden City rejected? After all, the replacement of Beijing's city wall with a transportation network was carried out according to plan (although first moves in this direction were made in the 1910s—see 'Zhu Qichen's Silver Shovel', in China Heritage Quarterly Issue 14, June 2008), and many other remnants of the ancient city disappeared with little opposition. Dong records that Premier Zhou Enlai had balked at the high projected cost of the 1958 master plan (more than 15 billion RMB). Noting with disapproval a major new government complex to the west of Zhongnanhai, he said, 'While I serve as Premier there will be no new State Council building.'

Dong also suggests that once the plans had undergone a lengthy process of drafting and review, times had changed:

Work on the project lasted for over three years. Figures for demolitions and new buildings were calculated for each plan, and a comparison was made of their advantages and disadvantages. However, in 1964 the Socialist Education Movement started up across the country, and a revolution in design began in the architectural world, as designers were successively 'sent downstairs and off campus'. Then, with the start of the Cultural Revolution, the project was unable to proceed and was forced to discontinue.[7]

Although the Cultural Revolution may have prevented the plans to redevelop the Forbidden City from being carried out, it provided an opportunity for them to be put to use in a different way.[Fig.2]

Fig.2 Peng Zhen, the draftsman, installs Liu Shaoqi as emperor

An entry in Liang Sicheng's diary for 16 August 1967 notes that two city planners 'visited Peng Zhen to ask about the matter of demolishing the Imperial Palace and rebuilding it for the central committee, and about the redevelopment of the Square and Chang'an Avenue.'[8]

Peng Zhen 彭真, Beijing's Municipal Party Secretary and Mayor, was attacked and ousted as as a counter-revolutionary and revisionist in the early years of the Cultural Revolution. Following their visit, the Bureau of City Plan Administration published the first issue of City Planning Revolution (Chengshi guihua geming 城市规划革命), a collection of five broadsides against the poison of 'revisionism and capitalism' which had up until then been manifested in Beijing's urban development, most notably in Peng's support for enlarging the city and its population.[9]

'Pulling Back the Curtain on the “Palace Reconstruction' Plan', authored by the East is Red Combat Force, found in the proposals to redevelop the Forbidden City a cunning plot to undermine the Party and government: indeed, Liu Shaoqi 刘少奇, the party's biggest capitalist roader, and Peng Zhen, a counter-revolutionary traitor, had it turned out been conspiring to install themselves as 'emperors' in a 'new imperial palace'.

This particular denunciation dug up arguments from the planning debates of the 50s and recast them as the conspirators' crafty attempt to lay the groundwork of public opinion in support of their cause. 'Sometimes they dropped hints', the witch-hunting authors claimed:

'What do we need the palace for?' 'What's the use of leaving all that stuff in the palace?' At other times, to cover their political ambitions, they put up smokescreens by saying things like, 'It'd be enough just to give the palace to Hou Baolin for [comic] crosstalk.' 'Should the palace expand its green space?' 'It should be a library, or a tea house', and so on. Sometimes they simply shouted, 'Tear down the Meridian Gate [Wumen] and construct a big building for the Central Committee', or 'Pull down Duanmen Gate [between Tian'anmen Gate and Meridian Gate] and put up a large building.' Sometimes they attacked the Palace through innuendo: 'Tian'anmen Square is not the center of Beijing. The true center is the Palace.' 'Tian'anmen Square is just a big plaza', or 'Tian'anmen Square is the courtyard for the Emperor's horses and carts.' What poisonous words![Fig.3]

Fig.3 Emperor Liu and Traitor Peng's Scheme to Usurp Party and State Power—Plans for Restructuring the Palace: 1. New Tian'anmen Gate (the 'new review stand'); 2. Gate for Liu's 'Party Central Committee' (the 'Central Portico', formerly the halls of Supreme, Central, and Preserving Harmony—Taihe Dian, Zhonghe Dian and Baohe Dian); 3. Liu's 'Party Central Committee' (formerly the Palace of Heavenly Purity—Qianqing Gong); 4. Liu's 'Chairman's Residence'; 5. Residential area for 'central' leaders (the area around Pudu Si Temple at Nanchizi); 6. Xinhuamen; 7. The Great Hall of the People; 8. The Museum of Revolutionary History; and, 9. The Monument to the People's Heroes.

Illustrating the piece was a rendering of one plan, with a legend pointing out where the new emperors would conduct their business. The text elaborates:

Some of the plans put a terrazzo floor into the Hall of Supreme Harmony, and linked it by a porch with the Hall of Central Harmony. Their counter-revolutionary aims were these: The Hall of Supreme Harmony would be where 'Chairman Liu' met with foreign ambassadors and exchanged credentials; the Hall of Central Harmony would be were 'Chairman Liu' would hold discussion with those ambassadors. See! Isn't the wolfish ambition of this handful of conspirators all too clear?

Even worse, some of the 'major' plans completely tore down and cleared away the Palace, putting up new buildings to serve as the 'Central Committee', 'State Council', and 'Chairman's Residence' following Liu, Deng, and Peng's counter-revolutionary coup. They also planned to split Nanchizi and tear down all of the houses south of the river to use as some sort of 'luxury housing' for their gang.[10]

By imagining Liu Shaoqi using the new government buildings to receive state guests, the critics were able to charge him with violating Zhou Enlai's rejection of a new State Council building. Turning Zhongnanhai, 'the place where our great leader Chairman Mao lives and works', into a 'backyard' for the 'new emperor' was tantamount to an assault on Mao Zedong's authority itself.

But the fiercest criticism was saved for an aspect of the plan that threatened one of the founding symbols of new China: Tian'anmen Gate.

More than just a question of altering Tian'anmen Gate, this is a giant counter-revolutionary conspiracy, a deluded hope to restore capitalism, tamper with the national emblem, and wipe out the sacred ground of revolution toward which the hearts of all of the world's revolutionary peoples turn!

The proposed demolition was attacked not for the catastrophic loss it would be to history, but because the architects had been plotting to usurp the rightful leadership of the Party-state.

In August of the previous year, Red Guards had set their sights on ransacking the Palace, but were stopped outside of the northern gate.[11] Ironically, or perhaps by design, the ferocity of the city plan administrators' condemnation may have made the Forbidden City politically untouchable for the rest of the Cultural Revolution.

Although readers of that era may have taken the charges seriously, both Dong Guangqi and Wang Jun suggest that the plans were more imaginative than practical, and anything actually implemented would have been far less radical. At the close of his account, Wang relates the following anecdote:

After the plans were submitted, Beijing Municipal Committee Second Secretary Liu Ren 刘仁 looked them over and, laughing, tossed them aside.

Related material from China Heritage Quarterly:


[1] Jiang Wanjuan, 'Renovated Forbidden City expands for tourists', Global Times, 26 August 2010, online at:

[2] He Zuoxiu, 'Tan Liang Sicheng dui jianzhu wentide ruogan cuowu jianjie, Xuexi, 1955:10. Digital version at Baidu Wenku: See also Barmé, The Forbidden City online footnotes, at:, notes for p.9 of Chapter 1.

[3] Beijing jianshe shishu bianji weiyuanhui, ed., Jianguo yilaide Beijing chengshi jianshe, 1986 (internal reference), p.44.

[4] Wang Jun, Cheng Ji, Beijing: Sanlian Shudian, 2003, p.262.

[5] Dong Guangqi, Gudu Beijing wushinian yanbianlu, Dongnan Daxue Chubanshe, 2006, p.33.

[6] Writing for Phoenix Weekly, Ouyang Bin attributes this claim to Xie Chensheng, a cultural heritage expert. In a subsequent article for the journal Duku, Wang Jun cites the 1964 'Work Report on Beijing City Construction', which detailed redevelopment plans for Chang'an Avenue. See Ouyang Bin, 'Gugong bashi nian: xiugai zhongde Zhongguo 'mingpian',” Fenghuang Zhoukan, No.192, 15 August 2005, online at:; and, Wang Jun, 'Gugong gaijian jihua shimo', Zhang Lixian, ed, Duku, No.0602, May 2006, online at: See also Barmé, The Forbidden City, p.14, and the online notes to Chapter 1.

[7] Dong Guangqi, Gudu Beijing wushinian yanbianlu, p.34.

[8] Wang Jun, Cheng Ji, p.264.

[9] Also included in that issue was an essay entitled 'A Paradise for the Chinese Khrushchev: Revealing the Plot of the Revisionist “Beijing City Plan”!' It attacks Peng over the 1959-1963 Beijing Master Plan.

[10] 'Jiekai “Gugong gaijian” guihuade heimu', in Beijingshi chengshi guihua guanliju geming dapipan cailiao xuan, ed., Chengshi guihua geming, 1967: 1, 30 September 1967 (2nd ed., 10 November 1967), p.11.

[11] For details, see Barmé, The Forbidden City, Chapter 1, 'A Palace of Blood and Tears', pp.16-19.


Beijing shiwei guihua lingdao xiaozu, Beijingshi Zongti Guihua Shuoming, September 1958.

Daphon David Ho, 'To Protect and Preserve: Resisting the Destroy the Four Olds Campaign, 1966-1967, in Joseph Esherick, Paul Pickowicz and Andrew Walder, eds, The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History, Stanford University Press, 2006, pp.71-73. Online at Google Books:

Lao Zhe, 'The Forbidden City's Demolition, Overridden', at Caixin Online, 11 August 2010, at: