CHINA HERITAGE NEWSLETTER China Heritage Project, The Australian National University
ISSN 1833-8461
No. 1, March 2005


Beijing: The Fate of the Old | China Heritage Quarterly


Fig. 1 Taimiao, one of the recently restored large imperial temples in Beijing Fig. 1 Taimiao, one of the recently restored large imperial temples in Beijing

In a broad brush approach to the city's conservation crisis, Beijing in 2004 adopted a General Plan for the City of Beijing stipulating that urban planning observe the general principle that the city is crossed both by an east-west and a north-south axis. The east-west axis is demarcated by Chang'an Boulevard, while the axis from south to north runs through the centre of Tian'anmen Gate and the Forbidden City, the central axis for Ming city planners. The plan also stipulates that the western part of Beijing will be retained as an "ecological area" while the eastern city will be developed into a business and high-rise residential district. Beijing's Overall Urban Planning Program for the period from 2004 to 2020, passed at the end of 2004, characterises Beijing as China's "national capital" and "international cultural and residential city".

This is in marked contrast to the Maoist plan for Beijing adopted in the early 1950s, although it is equally destructive of the character of the city. Ignoring advice from conservationists of the day, including the architectural historian Liang Sicheng, Mao forged ahead with a vision of Beijing as a modern anti-feudal industrial city housing the nation's proletarian elite. As the vision unfolded, Tian'anmen Square was created, the ancient walls and gates were demolished and a number of colossal monumental structures, such as the Great Hall of the People, the Museum of Revolutionary History and Beijing Railway Museum, were erected. More than 2,000 operational temples, which served as public spaces rather than private spiritual sanctuaries, were put to other uses or demolished. The vision faltered when it came to providing housing for Beijing's growing population and so much of the remaining old city was left to accommodate gradually swelling numbers of new denizens. Four-storey housing blocks were erected on available land but the onus to provide housing was turned over to China's social cells – the danwei that accommodated society's coteries and cohorts. Maoist urban planning was largely an assault on the monuments of feudalism, but development in the 1980s and 1990s also constituted a total makeover of the original city.

The exigencies of planning new Beijing in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics have resulted in a new stress on cultural heritage, as the city scrambles to list and renovate its remaining ancient monuments. By the early years of the 21st century, the lack of heritage guidelines was keenly felt. It was only in mid 2004 that the city drafted its Regulations on the Protection of the Historical and Cultural City. The municipal authorities have tried to ensure that the new plan for Beijing is transparent and its framing has none of the secretive and mandatory style that characterised the re-direction of Beijing's urban plan in the early 1950s. In February 2004 the official website of the Beijing municipal government posted the new draft regulations designed to protect the city's historical and cultural relics. After soliciting feedback from Beijing netizens, the draft regulations were placed on the legislative agenda of the municipal people's congress. They stipulated that construction in protected areas of the old city districts must not destroy the original street layout, the planning and building of major city roads should avoid protected areas, and new buildings in the old city section could not exceed prescribed heights. In addition, organisations or residential buildings could be ordered to move out of areas where historical and cultural sites require protecting. Anyone in breach of the regulations would be fined heavily. Officials, who, without approval, give directions to infringe protected zones or demolish, restructure, expand or move protected buildings will face legal action. At the state level, in early January 2004, China's Ministry of Construction had issued regulations designed to strengthen the protection of historical city streets and buildings throughout China, requiring Chinese cities to set up specific protection areas demarcated with purple lines, for historical streets, blocks and buildings, and to supervise all construction activities within these areas.


Before discussing the extent to which traditional urban housing has been overlooked by government planners, it is salutary to appreciate the massive financial commitment that the restoration of Beijing's major monuments and world heritage sites alone entails. The upkeep and the refurbishment of Beijing's ancient buildings are ongoing tasks as the fragile structures succumb to pollution and the rigours of the climate. At the beginning of 2003, Beijing announced plans to invest 600 million yuan (approx. USD 72.6 million) between 2003 and 2008 to maintain and renovate 100 heritage sites, including ancient temples, imperial gardens, residences and tombs. As early as July 2003 the Beijing Cultural Relics Bureau, now renamed the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage, called a press conference announcing that more than 30 projects to repair and protect Beijing's cultural relics would be undertaken in 2003 alone in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. It is difficult to keep track of the many restoration projects underway in Beijing, the situation complicated by the fact that most temple and palatial complexes often comprise dozens of individual buildings.(Fig. 1) Topping the agenda is the renovation of historical sites and landscapes along the city's two axes.(Fig. 2) The renovation of Tian'anmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) rostrum, lying at centre of both axes, was completed in 2003. Adjacent to Tian'anmen, the Forbidden City is undergoing a massive renovation program that will continue through to 2020. The renovation of Wuying-dian (see Fig. 1), one of the major halls in the palace complex, drew to a close in late 2004, and it was announced that the second phase of the restoration of Xuanren Temple, the Wind Temple on the north-eastern side of the palace grounds, had commenced.

In October 2004 the year-long reconstruction of Yongdingmen gate, lying at the southern end of the south-north axis, was also completed. Demolished in 1957 by Mao's mobilised citizenry, Yongdingmen gate was originally erected in 1553 during the Ming dynasty, when it became the largest city gate tower in the outer city of ancient Beijing. The new gate tower was built using traditional building materials and techniques; and the restorers aspired to replicate the original. Construction continued around the clock, with more than 300 construction workers and artisans engaged in the restoration. The new gate enhanced the integrity of the original 7.8 km long south-north axis that bisected the Ming city plan. However, there is a complication – Yongdingmen gate was not rebuilt in its original location. The south-north axis of the Ming dynasty has been enhanced spuriously. To further emphasise this new planning aesthetic, encroaching structures in the area between the Temple of Heaven and Xiannongtan Altar are being removed, opening up visual perspectives at the southern end of the central axis. As part of this project, work on the reconstruction of Zhengyangmen gate that backs Tian'anmen gate across Tian'anmen Square also began at the end of 2004.

Fig. 2 View of the newly restored Wuying Hall in the Forbidden City complex, Beijing
Fig. 2 View of the newly restored Wuying Hall in the Forbidden City complex, Beijing

The six UNESCO-listed world heritage sites in and around Beijing are undergoing preservation and conservation work. These are: sections of the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, the Ming and Qing Tombs, grouped together as a collective listing, and the Zhoukoudian Peking Man site in the south-western Fangshan district. By 2008, a total of RMB 300 million yuan (USD 36.27 million) will have been spent on repairing the five remaining non-refurbished Ming tombs alone. The State Administration of Cultural Heritage, formerly termed in English the State Bureau of Cultural Relics, is also investing RMB 18 million yuan (about USD 2.2 million) on the renovation of structures at the Eastern Qing Tomb complex in Zunhua, Hebei province, and large sums are earmarked for the Western Qing Tombs located in Yixian county.

Beijing municipal authorities are also not neglecting locally designated cultural heritage sites. In the Fangshan area of south-western Beijing alone these include a Ming dynasty xinggong (imperial lodge), four pagodas (two Liao, one Yuan and one Ming), and Zhengjue Temple.

Located in the Daxing area in Beijing's south, Tuanhe imperial lodge is being rebuilt from scratch. Representatives of the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage, announced on 27 October 2004, that this lodge, originally constructed by the Qianlong Emperor in 1772, would be rebuilt according to designs made during the Guangxu reign period (1875-1908). The complex once covered 33 hectares and the project will be completed in 2007.

In the background of all these restoration plans looms the lingering question of the rebuilding of the Yuanmingyuan imperial garden complex, and although proposals surface at intervals in the mainstream press, for the moment rebuilding the Yuanmingyuan is off the agenda: The often unauthorised efforts of a group of "conservation" activists to rebuild the once fabulous park in its entirety were again thwarted in late March 2005 when an "ecological disaster" in the making was exposed in the local media. A plan to install an impermeable layer of poly sheeting at the bottom of the lakes in the Yuanmingyuan was halted only after the plastic was already in position. Ecologists pointed out that the plastic covering would reduce natural water flow, turn the lakes into stagnant pools and adversely affect Beijing's water table and underwater water resources.


Beijing's efforts to restore its major ancient buildings are not matched by the ability or willingness to preserve the look and feel of the old city created by its winding hutong alleys and siheyuan courtyard houses. Traditional vernacular housing is included only grudgingly in the city's conservation plan, largely to placate critics of the massive destruction of traditional siheyuan courtyard housing that took place over the past decade. In 1990 Beijing undertook a massive demolition of courtyard housing within the old city - a 62.5-square-kilometre area inside the Second Ring Road - where the city wall, moat and gates once were. About 40 per cent of the old city area was leveled by 2002. Concerned that the old Beijing would be totally lost, conservationists contacted journalists and lobbied bureaucrats, but progress in formulating and implementing heritage plans addressing traditional housing was slow, while development accelerated. For residents of courtyard houses property rights are ill-defined, and this is part of the problem. Most residents of ramshackle subdivided courtyard houses dubbed zayuan are happy to be compensated with new housing, however grand the courtyard house may once have been. It was perhaps only in reaction to journalists' questions at a press conference that a spokesman for the Beijing municipal government hastily announced on 16 July 2003 that it had selected 200 siheyuan for preservation. This was after the Beijing Administration of Cultural Heritage spent a year investigating 132 city areas earmarked for demolition and identified a "first batch" of 539 courtyards for preservation. In its 13 August 2003 issue, China Daily reporters Yu Nan and Jia Heping followed up the progress made on the protection of Beijing's traditional courtyard housing and their report on the ongoing destruction of old Beijing makes depressing reading. Learning that a plate designating "Courtyard House #1" now hangs by the gate of a siheyuan at no. 39, Dongsi 12th Lane, China Daily reporters determined to learn the whereabouts of "Courtyard House #2" and the other 198 on the list of 200 selected siheyuan. However, no official from Beijing's municipal bureaux of cultural heritage and city planning could provide them with this information.

Progress in conservation has been slow. In February 2004 the Ministry of Construction implemented a system of "purple lines" that city planners will incorporate into all maps to designate areas in which preservation efforts will be made. However, this is no more than a precautionary delineation of potential protection areas with no regulatory force. Planners in Beijing already use "red lines" to highlight areas where public infrastructure facilities are located and "green lines" to denote green belt areas.

In May 2004 Beijing's Administration of Cultural Heritage announced that the traditional names of places in Beijing will be soon be added to the historical and cultural protection list. This is fundamentally no more than an archival move. In August 2004, its director, Mei Ninghua acknowledged that the 3,000-year-old city is facing a dilemma safeguarding its cultural heritage presented by urban development. He stressed that the restoration and upgrading of facilities in courtyard housing would cost as much as 40,000 yuan (US$4,800) per sq m. This is roughly five times the cost to the general public of a new apartment in this area. This was also virtually an acknowledgment of defeat.

A number of residents, including foreigners, have been photographing and documenting the old hutong alleys and siheyuan houses before they fall prey to the wrecker's ball. Beijing had a total of 458 hutong alleys in the early Ming dynasty and 978 hutong in the Qing dynasty. A total of 6,000 alleys existed in Beijing when the PRC was founded in 1949, and 1,330 of them were then designated "hutong". The seeds of the problem go back to the 1950s when the property of landlords was confiscated and the ownership of siheyuan passed into an area of grey uncertainty, where in many cases it still remains. The peculiar nature of title and the exorbitant cost of inner city land prevent the government from adopting European approaches to the preservation of traditional housing, and mean that it is impossible for Beijing to have old and new cities as is the case in many European urban centres. In 2004, a further 250,000 sq m of old housing belonging to 20,000 households was demolished, which means a lot more hutong disappeared. It was only in late 2004 that the Beijing government announced that a total of 539 siheyuan courtyards are under local government protection, demonstrating that a second batch of siheyuan houses had probably been selected for preservation. In future, the history of Beijing's courtyard houses and alleys will be found in the records of the Beijing Local Archives Compiling Committee.

While Beijing municipal authorities are doing much to renovate the city's better known ancient monuments, the preservation of siheyuan seems to have been turned over to the private sector or the individual. After years of prevarication, in mid 2004 the government announced that private and corporate owners could purchase old siheyuan compounds. According to a document promulgated recently by the Beijing Municipal Land and Housing Administration, enterprises, social groups, governmental departments and individuals in and outside Beijing are allowed to purchase, sell, lease or inherit any of the siheyuan in the city's old downtown areas. They may also donate or mortgage a siheyuan, the document says. Buyers will enjoy favourable taxes and charges on land-use right transfer for the siheyuan trade. Under the new rules, enterprises from abroad or foreigners are also permitted to own a siheyuan with the same preferential treatment enjoyed by domestic buyers, unless specified otherwise by laws and regulations. In the trade, prices will be set through negotiations between buyers and sellers.

Beijing's housing crisis that hampers the preservation of old siheyuan housing also impinges on the restoration of showcased ancient buildings. Although Beijing has around 3,500 historical buildings, 1,000 of which are under protection at district, city and state level, at the end of 2004 60 percent of them still accommodated legal "squatters". Intrusive housing covers 40,000 sq m of the Summer Palace's space, and on the grounds of the Temple of Heaven there are 3.74 sq km occupied by schools, shops, factories and even a radio station. Station 582, affiliated to the Ministry of Radio, Film and Television, is situated in one corner of the Temple of Heaven's outer enclosure, and its thirteen clusters of antennae give it the appearance of a military base. More than half of the original grounds of the Forbidden City are still occupied by offices of the central government.


Princely mansions (wangfu) fall into a grey zone in the eyes of Beijing heritage planning, being neither siheyuan houses nor grand palace buildings. From the outside princely mansions cannot be readily distinguished from ordinary siheyuan houses; they replicate palace courts in the Forbidden City, reduced to the dimensions of an extremely large siheyuan courtyard house. Once inhabited by princes, most have been divided into multi-functional areas in the style of zayuan. The warren of shops, residences and small government offices occupying Prince Fu's mansion – Fu Wangfu - on Chaoyangmennei Street, for example, makes it very difficult to find the original central buildings. On finding them, it is clear that they were refurbished extensively in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century.

During the Ming dynasty princely mansions were built in the area of Wangfujing, named after the ten palaces of princes and princesses once there. However, none remain. The Qing princely mansions conformed to highly codified building regulations appropriate to twelve different ranks of prince that integrated the Manchu Banner system with Ming ritual building codes. The grades of nobility were set out in Da Qing huidian (Collected Statutes of the Great Qing), revised several times down to the end of the 17th century. A map of the Qianlong period (1736-1795) indicates that Beijing contained 42 mansions for princes of the fuguogong rank and above, although a textual source - Xiaoting zalu - indicates that there were 89 mansions belonging to princes of this ranking down to the end of the subsequent Jiaqing period (1796-1820). Only 22 still remain standing in hutong alleys in the area around Shichahai and Beihai lakes, and of these only eight are in any state of preservation. Only two have been officially partly opened to the public.

China's first museum dedicated to these mansions to be called the Museum of Princely Mansions (Wangfu Bowuguan) is currently being built inside the Palace of Prince Gong, and is due to open before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The gardens of the Palace of Prince Gong covering 61,000 square metres, tucked away in Liuyinjie Hutong beside Shichahai Lake, were opened to the public 17 years ago. The mansion, known as Gong Wangfu, is believed to be one of the largest and best preserved of Beijing's princely mansions. Kong Xiangxing, director of the consultative committee of the new museum, who was vice-director of the National Museum of China before taking up his new post, believes the preservation of these palaces is a matter of great urgency. Of the 22 that remain, four – Yi Wangfu, Ding Wangfu, Heng Wangfu and Tui Wangfu – all located along Ping'an Avenue, have only broken walls and are basically now dilapidated zayuan. Seven still preserve some of the appearance of the original princely mansions, with either the palace gates or a few major buildings remaining. Qing official archives rarely referred to the princely mansions, perhaps because their owners often flouted the regulatory building codes to which they were meant to adhere. The rich collections of antiques that they once held have also been dispersed. Prince Gong's Mansion, for example, once housed a Tang dynasty equestrian painting by Han Gan, but the work titled Zhaoyebai tu, was sold to the Metropolitan Museum in 1936. Gone also are the gardens, some of which are said to have rivalled those of Suzhou. It therefore seems that the one hundred rooms of Prince Gong's mansion will serve as museum - and cenotaph - to the princely mansions of Beijing.[BGD]