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


The Vicissitudes of Prince Chun's Mansion | China Heritage Quarterly

The Vicissitudes of Prince Chun's Mansion

The princely residence (wangfu) known in the late-nineteenth century as the Mansion of Prince Chun was constructed on the shores of a lake in the centre of Beijing where, over nearly two centuries, favourites of the Kangxi Emperor, Qianlong Emperor and the Empress Dowager Cixi had all constructed increasingly grandiose residences.(Fig.1)

The Location

Fig.1 Plaque proclaiming the listing of the Mansion of Prince Chun as a national heritage site in 2006. [Photo: BGD]

A string of lakes runs north to south through the centre of the old city of Beijing. They terminate at Zhongnan Hai (literally, 'Centre and South Lake's), adjacent to the Forbidden City. In the north they feed into the moat and canal complex that once connected with the Grand Canal that linked Beijing to China's south (see China Heritage Quarterly, issue 9, March 2007). The northernmost of these small lakes, not far from where the Grand Canal debouches at Jishuitan, is known as Shichahai (literally, 'Lake of the Ten Buddhist Monasteries'), or more popularly as Houhai (literally, 'Rear Lake'). Complexes of single-storey courtyard housing lend character to the area around the lake in which there is little high-rise construction to mar the vistas around the lake's foreshores (see the Editorial in this issue in which 'new princely mansions' are discussed').

When the Mongols entered the area now occupied by Beijing in the thirteenth century, the natural lakes on the plain formed from the rivers running down from the springs in the western hills appealed to the conquerors, who wanted to graze their horses, and even hunt, in a locale that evoked their homeland on the Mongolian steppe. They named these lakes nur, a word rendered into Chinese as haizi, meaning 'little seas'. Many of the Mongol imperial palaces were constructed on the shores of Beihai, the 'northern sea' or North Lake, but the area around the lake that is today called Houhai largely remained a wilderness park throughout the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). The area continued to be largely uninhabited during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and into the early decades of the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

Mingju and Kangxi

Fig.2 View of the garden of the Mansion of Prince Chun, now the Former Residence of Song Qingling. [Photo: BGD]

Fig.5 View from the garden originally laid out by Mingju towards western wall of the residential compound of the building section of the Mansion of Prince Chun. [Photo: BGD]

Only after the Manchu takeover of Beijing did the rare prominent member of the new Manchu elite look to this area as a residential retreat outside the Tartar City, beyond the city walls behind which most non-military Manchu personnel serving the regime were required to live. Among the first Manchus to make a home along these foreshores was Mingju (明珠 1635-1708), a scion of the Nara clan of the Yehe tribe, part of the Plain Yellow Banner. He rose from the position of imperial guard (shiwei) to become section chief in the Office of the Imperial Household (Neiwufu langzhong), and then in 1664 became a full supervisory director (zongguan) with access to the emperor. He achieved this within the first two decades of the Manchu 'entry' into the Central Plains. He later became head of the Ministry of Punishments and later the Ministry of Military Affairs, known in Chinese as Xingbu shangshu and Bingbu shangshu, respectively. In the latter post Mingju first came to the attention of the Kangxi Emperor in 1673, during a review of Banner troops in the Southern Park or Nanyuan of Beijing. The precision of the manoeuvres and the orderliness of the ranks impressed the emperor, but it was the suppression of restive southern feudatory princes known as the San Fan that made Mingju a favourite of the ruler.

The Manchus were nominally the rulers of all China during the first three decades of their rule, but they had not in fact established their rule in the south of China where several princes loyal to the defeated Ming dynasty still commanded large armies and ruled over extensive tracts of territory. Observing that these princes gave no allegiance to Kangxi, Mingju advised the emperor, 'if they are not soon eliminated then their power will spread like a contagion. Whether or not you issue the order for them to disband their armies, they will most certainly rebel, so the best course of action is to move swiftly against them'.[1] Kangxi issued an edict calling on Wu Sangui and the other southern feudatories to demobilise their armies, and, in retaliation, Wu and his followers immediately declared war on the emperor. Officials jealous of the trust the emperor had in Mingju called for Ming's impeachment for providing bad advice that resulted in civil war, but the emperor defended his minister, 'This was my decision and why should someone else be blamed for it?' [2] Kangxi demonstrated his unshaken faith in his minister by further elevating him to the position of senior scholar (daxueshi) of the Hall of Military Valour (Wuying Dian) and later to the simultaneously held post of chief tutor of the Crown Prince (taizi dashi).

The Villa of Mingju

Fig.3 Plaque in the garden of what is now the Former Residence of Song Qingling and what was originally the garden laid out by Mingju and later the Mansion of Prince Chun. [Photo: BGD]

With the emperor's blessing, Mingju began constructing a large villa and garden for himself on the northern shore of Houhai.(Figs.2 & 3) A poetic, but unfortunately vague, description of the surroundings of Mingju's residence is contained in a collection of lyric poetry (ci) treating Beijing by Zhen Jun (1857-1920) titled Tianchi ouwen (Overheard in the imperial abode). Zhen Jun describes how this area had begun to attract Beijing residents. People planted willows and built kiosks where southern delicacies, steamed in the limpid waters drawn from the lake, were served up to patrons in a setting that evoked the West Lake of Hangzhou. Zhen Jun claims to be describing the environment in which Mingju built his abode, but, although this Manchu writer claimed that his ancestors came to Beijing with the first Mongol influx led by the Manchu regent Dorgon (see 'A Palace Temple'), his description of the northern shore of Houhai as a re-creation of Hangzhou was probably anachronistic fancy.

Most scholars believe that the stretch of Houhai foreshore running northwards from Yinding Qiao ('Silver Ingot Bridge') was desolate when Mingju began construction on the complex that eventually became part of the Mansion of Prince Chun. However, Mingju was so well connected with the Kangxi Emperor that the residence he built soon attracted a constant stream of visitors bearing gifts to curry favour with this highly favoured minister. His power soon attracted enemies, and in 1688 the censor Guo Xiu charged Mingju with 'turning his back on the public good and building himself a private empire', to the extent that he exacted bribes for influencing the outcome of the imperial examinations.[3] Kangxi heeded the charges and stripped Mingju of his position as senior scholar. Although out of favour, Mingju lived on for twenty years as a recluse in his mansion on the northern shore of Houhai until his death in 1708.

Fig.4 View of the canal that runs through the garden of the Mansion of Prince Chun, first laid out by Mingju. [Photo: BGD]

Fig.6 Signpost sketching out the history of Enbo Ting (Pavilion of the Waves of Gratitude) in the garden of the Mansion of Prince Chun, now the Former Residence of Song Qingling. [Photo: BGD]

The mansion and gardens that Mingju had constructed were widely admired by the Manchu aristocracy.(Figs.4&5) Following Mingju's death, his descendant Cheng'an inherited the mansion, as well as Mingju's wealth, but the mansion later attracted the covetous eye of Qianlong's favourite Heshen (1750-1799). This powerful figure rose to become the closest confidante of the Qianlong Emperor and amassed vast personal wealth, not hesitating to seize extensive properties in the Beijing area. These were said to contain a total of 3,000 rooms and cover 32 square kilometres. The mansion and gardens inherited by Mingju's grandson eventually become one of the many properties he occupied. Only with the death of the Qianlong Emperor in 1799 did the despised Heshen lose his imperial protection, and no sooner had Qianlong died, than his successor, the Jiaqing Emperor, moved swiftly to put an end to Heshen and his activities. Heshen's vast wealth and properties were confiscated (as was his large residence near Qianhai, subsequently Prince Gong's Mansion, see 'Prince Gong's Folly' in this section). However, the mansion that had once belonged to Mingju was not returned to Mingju's descendents, but was bestowed by the Jiaqing Emperor on a Manchu prince, namely Prince Cheng. The famous residence had by fiat become a 'princely mansion'.

Prince Cheng was the title of Yongxing, the eleventh son of the Qianlong Emperor and thus a brother of the Jiaqing Emperor. By the time Yongxing was awarded the property on the northern bank of Houhai, most of the surrounding land had been occupied by Buddhist monasteries that gave the lake its name Shicha Hai (literally, 'ten monastry [cha from the Sanskrit ksetra] lake'.[4]

Yongxing, described as 'learned and intelligent' in Qing shi gao (Draft history of the Qing dynasty), had been enfeoffed as a prince in 1789, but by early 1799 had risen to a position in the Military Council (Junji Chu) and was superintendant of the 'three main storehouses' of the Ministry of Revenue (zongli Hubu sanku)—one of which was the government's silver stores. With the death of Heshen, Yongxing was rewarded by his brother, the new emperor, and Heshen's garden villa (yuandi) on the northern shore of Houhai was conferred on him, although Heshen's main residence (zhai) was presented to another brother of the Jiaqing Emperor, Yonglin, better known to posterity as Prince Qing.

Transforming a Mansion into a Princely Residence

Fig.7 Portrait of Yixuan, the First Prince Chun. [Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia]

After Yongxing took possession of the garden villa originally constructed by Mingju, he oversaw the massive task of transforming the villa so that it conformed to the strict building conventions and regulations that governed the layout and decoration of a true princely mansion (wangfu). Ironically, the rules governing the layout of a princely mansion were stricter than those governing the definition of the position of 'prince'. He modified existing buildings and constructed new buildings so that the complex had the attributes of a 'proper' princely mansion. He accordingly erected a formal gateway and an appropriate wall (chongyuan) around the complex. The main hall inside the front gate of a princely mansion was customarily called the Hall of Silver Tranquillity (Yin'an Dian) and it could have either three or five bays (jian) as frontage; the front court was flanked on the left and right by auxiliary wings that, together with outer wall, enclosed the front courtyard of the complex. Behind the main hall is a second court and on its northern side a five-bay spirit hall (shendian). Yongxing also constructed a Buddhist shrine (fotang) and family shrine (citing). He extended the vast garden to the west of the mansion and received special dispensation from the emperor to pipe flowing water, called 'living water' (huoshui), into his garden to irrigate and beautify it. It was strictly prohibited to divert and utilise streams, even for use in the gardens of a princely mansion, without the emperor's express permission. To express gratitude to the emperor for allowing him to construct channels, the excavation of which in turn provided him with the earth to landscape the site, Yongxing constructed the Enbo Ting (Pavilion of the Waves of Gratitude), a name more cloying in the English translation than in the Chinese original.(Fig.6) When the hydraulic project was completed, the gardens were a landscaped splendour of lakes and streams.

After the construction by Yongxing of his princely mansion, however, the Jiaqing Emperor began to feel threatened by the power and authority of his intelligent younger brother who exercised power in the Military Council and was also a superintendant in his government's treasuries. In August 1799, the Emperor removed his brother from his post in the Ministry of Revenue and later, in November of the same year, relieved him of his post in the Military Council, arguing in the latter case that there was no precedent for an imperial prince serving in the Military Council since the time of the establishment of that office. The latter demotion may have resulted from Yongxing's close friendship with the official Hong Liangji, an outspoken critic of the emperor who was eventually exiled to Ili in Chinese Turkestan.

Fig.8 View of the entrance of the wing of the Former Residence of Song Qingling in what was once the garden of the Mansion of Prince Chun. Located where the Changjin Zhai once stood. [Photo: BGD]

Fig.9 View of the garden of the Mansion of Prince Chun, now the Former Residence of Song Qingling. [Photo: BGD]

Thereafter, Yongxing remained secluded within his princely mansion where he devoted himself to self-cultivation and calligraphy. According to one royal chronicler, he acquired a reputation for his calligraphic accomplishment and for his poetry, and the emperor endorsed and distributed his calligraphy as a model.[5] The later untimely deaths of his children and grandchildren seemed to unhinged Prince Cheng mentally, and he grew progressively deranged. When he eventually died, the valuable items in the household had been pilfered by the servants and the family vaults were all but empty.

After the death of Prince Cheng, this princely mansion changed owners several times, but still remained in the family. It was eventually inherited by Prince Cheng's great-grandson, a minor Manchu noble (beizi) called Yusu (1858-1918). In 1888, Empress-Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) seized the residence from Yusu, whom she regarded as a lowly Manchu prince of little influence or use, and conferred it on her brother-in-law Yixuan (1840-1891), Prince Chun, in tacit acknowledgement of the support he had leant her over the two previous decades.(Fig.7) Prince Chun's original mansion had been located on the shores of Taiping Lake in the south-west Inner City where he resided from 1859 onwards.

Yixuan was a member of the Aisin Gioro clan, and was the seventh son of the Daoguang Emperor (r.1821-1850). The title Prince Chun (Chun junwang) was conferred on him when his brother ascended the throne in 1850 as the Xianfeng Emperor. In 1872, Prince Chun was elevated in rank, his Chinese title changing to Chun qinwang. However, after the Tongzhi Emperor attained his majority in 1874 and ruled directly from 1873 to 1875, the wise administration of the Prince Regent Gong (Gong qinwang, Xianfeng's capable brother Yixin) and the two empresses dowager, which had been in place since the death of the Xianfeng Emperor, ended. The decisions Tongzhi reached were disastrous; his edict calling for the complete reconstruction of the extensive Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanming Yuan, see China Heritage Quarterly, issue 8, December 2007), the extensive Manchu palace complex northwest of Beijing, was particularly misguided at a time when the empire was beset by military and fiscal threats. To have proceeded with such a vast and costly undertaking would have all but drained the imperial coffers.

Fig.10 Portrait of Zaifeng, the Second Prince Chun. [Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia]

Princes Gong and Chun, along with top officials at court, submitted a memorial arguing against this decision, and in retaliation Tongzhi proceeded to demote them all to commoner status. The empresses dowager were compelled to reassert their authority, which she did until January 1875, when the Tongzhi Emperor died, in the thirteenth year of his reign. Tongzhi did not leave an heir, creating an unprecedented succession crisis. The dowagers allied with their staunch supporters, Princes Gong and Chun, respectively the sixth and seventh sons of the Daoguang Emperor. Prince Chun's second son Zaitian was selected to be emperor and, in 1875, he ascended the throne as the Guangxu Emperor.

Guangxu had grown up in Prince Chun's mansion on the shores of Taiping Lake. When Guangxu attained his majority in 1887, Prince Chun requested that the Empress Dowager Cixi continue to exercise her regency (her co-regent Ci'an having died some years earlier in 1881). In striking a bargain with Cixi, Prince Chun pointed out that it was a breach of Qing imperial regulations for a mansion in which an emperor had grown up to be later used as a residence, and Zaitian, now the Guangxu Emperor, had grown up in his home. So, in 1888, she ordered that the prince take over the mansion of Yusu at Houhai, and vacate 'the mansion where the dragon had been incubated' (潛龍邸 qianlongdi). Thereafter, the residence of Prince Chun at Houhai became known as the Northern Mansion (Beifu) and that at Taiping Lake, the Southern Mansion (Nanfu). Moreover, the Empress Dowager presented Prince Chun with 100,000 silver taels to ease his relocation.

Fig.11 Entrance to the Former Residence of Song Qingling, once the garden of the Mansion of Prince Chun. [Photo: BGD]

Fig.12 View inside the entrance of the Mansion of Prince Chun. [Photo: BGD]

Fig.16 The bust of Song Qingling in the garden of her former residence. [Photo: BGD]

On taking over the mansion, Prince Chun prepared extensive plans to restore, renovate and expand the long-neglected residence. Money, however, remained a problem despite the throne's largesse. However, the Empress Dowager had placed Prince Chun in charge of appointments, commissions and contracts for the planned Office of the Navy (Haijun yamen). As hopeful contract winners queued outside the new mansion of Prince Chun, his financial shortfall seemed solved, but the Empress-Dowager wisely intervened and presented him with a direct grant of 60,000 silver taels from the Ministry of Revenue to lavish on his new home. Yixuan focused on restoring and enhancing the once magnificent gardens and the buildings around the eastern courtyards. He had the canals running through the estate dredged and oversaw the construction of an outdoor theatre in the garden. He also devoted himself to the construction of two new buildings, Leshou Tang (Hall of Delightful Longevity) and Changjin Zhai (Studio of the Loosened Sash), and constructed a number of new scenic rocky outcrops, arbours and kiosks in the gardens.(Figs. 8&9) He built a walkway with red timber railings through the now resplendent garden. But Yixuan died in 1891, unfortunately only one year after work on his new garden and residence was completed.

The Mansion of the Second Prince Chun

Zaifeng (1883-1951), another son of Yixuan, inherited the title of Prince Chun and became the new master of the mansion.(Fig.10) According to Puren, Zaifeng's youngest son, the renovations of the mansion continued even after Yixuan's death. In its final form it comprised two sections: the large garden to the west and the extensive residential buildings to the east. The garden is now a museum in its own right, the Former Residence of Song Qingling (1893-1981) (Song Qingling guju), the widow of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China established in 1912.(Fig.11) The section to the east comprises the buildings of Prince Chun's Mansion, and although the complex was declared a national protected heritage site only in 2006 and was opened to the public for a short time, it is once more closed.(Fig.12)

Fig.13 View of the Hall of Silver Tranquillity in the Mansion of Prince Chun. [Photo: BGD]

Fig.14 View of the courtyard of the School for the Hearing Impaired established in 1919 in the former stables of the Mansion of Prince Chun. A horse feeding trough still stands at the right side of the court. [Photo: BGD]

Fig.15 Plaque of the Mansion of the Regent Prince, announcing its listing as by the Beijing Western District Government in 1989 as a protected cultural heritage site. This entrance is to that of the Mansion of Prince Chun, with which it connected. [Photo: BGD]

The buildings of the mansion, like those in the Forbidden City, were arranged in three precincts or bands, called lu (literally, 'roads'), running from south to north. The main gate opened into the first courtyard of the central 'road', and along the central axis of the built-up section, buildings were divided into five interconnected courtyards. The first building one sees on entering is the Hall of Silver Tranquillity, which was a hall for receiving visitors.(Fig.13) This building also played a part in many of the formal functions and ritual events observed in the complex. In fact, all the buildings along the central 'road' had ritual, ceremonial or religious functions. The prince and all the members of his family resided in the maze of smaller living quarters arranged around nine smaller courtyards that occupied the western 'road'. This also provided the family with access to the magnificent garden in the western half of the complex. There were few buildings in the eastern 'road' of the complex, and at the front of this 'road' the stables were located. In 1919, the stables were taken over by the first school for 'the deaf and dumb' (mangren) opened in Beijing. This school for the hearing-impaired is still operational today.(Fig.14)

Unfortunately for Zaifeng, the Empress Dowager Cixi was to drag him onto the stage of history. Because of her special relationship with the Mansion of Prince Chun, Cixi oversaw the marriage of her favourite minister Ronglu's daughter, an aristocratic Manchu girl called Youlan of the Guwalgiya clan, to Zaifeng in 1901. Two sons resulted from the union: Puyi was born in 1906, followed by a second son Pujie in 1907. On 14 November 1908, the Guangxu Emperor died, and, on the same day, Cixi issued an edict proclaiming Puyi emperor, and making the twenty-five year old Prince Chun regent. On the following day, Cixi herself died, and Prince Chun found himself China's ruler for the next three years, during which time he did not return to live in his mansion at Houhai. This was only partly dictated by the Qing regulation that no-one could live in a residence where a 'dragon had been incubated'. In acknowledgement of this soon to be overthrown custom, a new entrance to the mansion of Prince Chun was built and the complex was renamed Mansion of the Regent.(Fig.15)

Fig.17 View of the Former Residence of Song Qingling in what was once the garden of the Mansion of Prince Chun. [Photo: BGD]

According to his youngest son Pujie, the 1911 Revolution was for Prince Chun a great relief because it enabled to return to the home he loved.[6] The mansion was far from major events during the Republican years, although Puyi moved there temporarily in 1924 after he was expelled from the Forbidden City, but his stay was short and he soon left for Tianjin. Throughout the Republican period, the mansion fell into decline. Pujie describes how 'because of straitened circumstances, the antiques and paintings from the garden and buildings were pawned or sold off. Of an evening, we lived in fear of thieves and soldiers, and even though the nightwatchman would tap on the walls at regular intervals, we still lived in fear'.[7]

After 1949, the communist central government allocated funds for the upkeep of the mansion, which now housed offices of the Ministry of Health, and in 1959 the residence in Beijing of the honorary state chairman Song Qingling was established in what were once the gardens of the mansion.(Figs.16&17) Although the offices of the Ministry of Health were relocated and the buildings of Prince Chun's Mansion were opened to the public in 2006, in late 2007 the mansion has again been closed to the public. [BGD]


[1] 'Biography of Mingju', Qing shi gao, juan 269, as quoted by Kong Xiangji (based on oral account of Puren), 'Shicha Houhai Chun Wangfu', Lin Keguang et al ed., Jindai Jinghua shiji, Beijing: Zhongguo Renmin Daxue Chubanshe, 1985, p.95.

[2] Zhaolian, 'Lun san ni' (A discussion of three rebellions), Xiaoting zalu (Miscellaneous records of Xiaoting), Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju edition, 1980, pp.5-6.

[3] 'Biography of Mingju', Qing shi gao, juan 269, as quoted by Kong Xiangji in Lin Keguang et al ed., op cit, pp.96-7.

[4] Chen Zongfan (1879-1954), Yandu congkao (Studies on the Yan capital), Beijing: Beijing Guji Chubanshe, 2001, v.2, p.209. Chen uses the term jingye or 'pure enterprises' to designate Buddhist monasteries.

[5] Zhaolian, 'Cheng Wang shufa' (The calligraphy of Prince Cheng), and 'Cheng Zhe Wang' (Prince Cheng), Xiaoting zalu (Miscellaneous records of Xiaoting), Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju edition, 1980, juan 2 & 5 (pp.46 and 516 respectively).

[6] Pujie, 'Huiyi Chun Qinwang Fude shenghuo' (Remembering life in the Mansion of Prince Chun), Wan Qing gongting shenghuo jianwen (Anecdotes about palace life in the late-Qing), p.217.

[7] Idem.