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


Downward Spiral: from Palace to Mansion to Temple to Museum | China Heritage Quarterly

Downward Spiral: from Palace to Mansion to Temple to Museum

Fig.1 The plaque over the entrance to the first hall at Yonghe Gong lama temple. [Photo: GRB]

Under the Qing dynasty's imperial household regulations, princely mansions in which a future emperor had lived could no longer be used as a normal aristocratic residence, but they could be converted into either a non-residential palace or an imperial temple, to name the two most favoured options. Indeed, two mansions once occupied by future emperors were accordingly transformed into Tibetan Buddhist temples, to cater to the religious affiliations and political ambitions of Qing rulers. The most famous of these is today's Yonghe Gong, known in English as the Lama Temple and a major tourist destination in Beijing.(Fig.1)

Yonghe Gong, literally the 'Yonghe Palace', located in the north-eastern quarter of the old Inner City of Beijing, was built originally by the Kangxi Emperor to serve as the city residence of his son and heir Yinzhen (1678-1735), who was elevated to prince of the first rank with the title Prince Yong (雍親王) in 1709. Prince Yong was also granted a spacious garden palace at Peony Terrace (Mudan Tai) north of Kangxi's own Garden of Delightful Spring (Changchun Yuan), which was west of present-day Shao Yuan at Peking University. Constantly embellished and expanded, that country seat would become famous as the Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanming Yuan), one of the centres of imperial power from the time of Yongzheng, the title under which Prince Yong reigned as emperor, until 1860, some 140 years later.(Fig.2)

Although also a devotee of Chan (Zen) Buddhism and Daoism, the Yongzheng Emperor had the residence in which he had lived as a prince duly converted into the Yonghe Gong Tibetan Buddhist temple in 1732, a few years before his demise in 1735. The temple is the largest of its kind in the old Inner City of Beijing and it is now a major attraction, along with the Confucius Temple (Kong Miao) and the State Academy (Guozijian) which are situated immediately to the west of it off Chengxian Street, a narrow east-west thoroughfare.(Fig.3)

A Heritage Rebuilt

Fig.2 A bronze lion in front of the Yonghe Gong lama temple. [Photo: GRB]

Another princely mansion converted into a Tibetan Buddhist temple is rarely visited by tourists, even though it is proximate to the Forbidden City itself. Known as Pudu Temple, it is far less celebrated than the Yonghe Gong, which eventually became the residence in Beijing of the Panchen Lama and a shrine to Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug-pa school to which both the Panchen and Dalai Lamas belonged. Pudu Temple was dedicated to the worship of Mahakala, a Tibetan deity first raised to prominence in the pantheon by the Mongols and also popular with the Manchus.(Fig.4)

In 2001, twenty-five protection zones of historical and cultural significance (lishi wenhua baohuqu) in the old city of Beijing (the former Imperial City, Inner and Outer City) were promulgated.[1] Shortly thereafter, a number of areas were selected as pilot sites for 'heritage renewal'. One of these is the zone southeast of Donghua Men (East Flourishing Gate), the eastern entrance to the Forbidden City, that includes Pudu Temple. Designated the Nanchizi 南池子 zone, it is located on the east side of Nanchizi and north of what is now called the Changpu River Park (Changpuhe Gongyuan 菖蒲河公園). Running between the Grand Hotel on Chang'an Boulevard and Nanchizi, the Changpu River Park follows part of the course of the Outer River of Golden Waters (Wai Jinshuihe), a major channel linked to the complex moat system running through the Forbidden City and the former Imperial City (Huang Cheng). This part of the river was covered over in the 1960s to become an underground stream, so that the land above could be utilized as a storage area for props used in the mass celebratory parades staged during the Maoist years.

Fig.3 The recently renovated main hall of the Confucius Temple on Chengxian Street, west of the Yonghe Gong lama temple. [Photo: GRB]

While the recovered river and surrounding park have created something of a new inner-city haven, an entertainment district consisting of a number of theatres along the northern flank of the park takes its lessons in heritage from theme-park versions of the past.

The process of recovering lost eras of Beijing history is complex. The 2004-2020 Beijing city master-plan called for the protection of the old city as a whole and ostensibly brought an end to the wholesale destruction of traditional buildings and the rapid building of new structures. The reality has been quite different. Major sites are earmarked for preservation (a process that often resulted in extensive rebuilding programs—see, for example, 'Prince Gong's Folly' in this section), while average traditional courtyard houses and hutong lanes are not protected under existing legislation. As a result, developers have been quick to take advantage of re-zoning to built new premium heritage properties in place of traditional, if rundown, structures.

The Nanchizi heritage zone just north of Changpuhe Park was the focus of one of the first and more radical recent attempts to invest in the heritage value of the old city. The restoration effort was aimed ostensibly at preserving courtyard dwellings and repairing those that could be saved. However, the involvement of developers anxious to profit from the pre-Olympic economic boom resulted in a part of Beijing known for its dilapidated charm being destroyed in the name of protection.

The Southern Within

Fig.4 Statue of Tsongkhapa at Yonghe Gong lama temple.

Located near the centre of this heritage zone is an extensive raised platform on which sit a number of Qing-dynasty buildings.(Fig.5) During the Ming dynasty the area was originally part of the 'Southern Within' (Nan Nei), alternatively known as the East Garden (Dongyuan 東苑) because of its positioning symmetrical to West Garden (Xiyuan 西苑), the imperial garden palaces on the other side of the Forbidden City that are now commonly called Zhongnan Hai (the Lake Palaces), site of the government of China and central Communist Party headquarters. According to explanations in the small museum that commemorates the history of this cultural heritage enclave, the Yongle Emperor (r.1403-25), who created modern Beijing, once established a garden here, just outside the walls of the Forbidden City, which he often visited in the company of the royal princes.

One of these royal scions, Zhu Zhanji, developed these old gardens into a series of palaces, the Southern Within, also known as the South City (Nan Cheng), when he eventually assumed the throne as the Xuande Emperor (r.1426-36). These palaces later became important as a place of imprisonment (known in Chinese as a 'cold palace' or lenggong), albeit luxurious, during the reign of the Jingtai Emperor ('the caretaker emperor', r.1450-57). Jingtai's predecessor, the Zhengtong Emperor (Zhu Qizhen, r.1436-50), had been captured by Oirat Mongols during a disastrous Ming military campaign. At a loss as to what to do with the discarded emperor, however, the Mongols had eventually returned him to Beijing whereupon his enthroned successor, his younger brother the Jingtai Emperor, imprisoned him in the Southern Within.

Eventually, as Jingtai lay mortally ill, Zhu Qizhen was restored to the Forbidden City by his followers and ruled again, but under the reign title of Tianshun (r.1457-65). The demise of Jingtai and the resumption of rule by Zhu Qizhen brought an end to an extraordinary era during which there were two 'emperors' and two imperial 'palaces' in Beijing. After Zhu Qizhen resumed the throne, the Southern Within continued to be used as a royal park, and a number of its palaces were converted into temples.

Fig.5 Overview of what was once the South Within, or East Garden, now Pudu Temple and surrounds.

The area was supposedly damaged during the tumultuous events of 1644, when the city was first overrun by Chinese rebels led by the 'Marauding King', Li Zicheng. June of the same year saw the victorious entry of the Manchu armies under Dorgon, who occupied the palatial grounds. Although only designated prince regent, Dorgon was the effective ruler during the early years of the Manchu occupation of Beijing as the Qing dynasty established its reach over the remains of the Ming empire.

Uncle Regent Dorgon

Dorgon (多爾袞 1612-50, Prince Rui 睿親王) was a son of Nurhaci and a brother of the recently deceased emperor Huangtaiji (Abahai, 1592-1643). He led the Manchu coalition forces on the Ming imperial capital and occupied it while directing armies under the command of his brother Ajige (see below) to pursue the rebel Li Zicheng into western China while the other Manchu forces under Dodo (多鐸 1614-49, Prince Yu 豫親王) pushed on south to conquer Ming China. Dorgon lived for a short time in the badly damaged imperial palaces of the Great Within (Forbidden City), but soon removed himself to the vast grounds of the old Southern Within, where he had the Mansion of Prince Rui built for himself on the site of the Ming-era Palace of Vast Celebration (Hongqing Gong 洪慶宮). It was one of only two such mansions within the area of the Imperial City which surrounded the Forbidden City. The other was that of Ajige (阿濟格 1605-51, Prince Ying 英親王). The other princely mansions were all established outside the Imperial City in the Manchu-occupied Inner City.(Fig.6)

Fig.6 The main hall of Pudu Temple, formerly the Manchu Regent Dorgon's princely palace. [Photo: GRB]

Fig.7 The entry hall of Pudu Temple that now features a small display about the history of Dorgon's princely palace. The late-Cultural Revolution era Peking Hotel can be seen to the right. [Photo: GRB]

Fig.8 The approach to Pudu Temple showing the new sihe lou that have been built in place of older courtyard houses. [Photo: GRB]

Dorgon arranged, soon after the occupation of Beijing, for the young Shunzhi Emperor to be brought in royal procession from what was now the former Qing capital in Manchuria through the Great Wall, to be enthroned in the Forbidden City which, heavily damaged during the fighting, would undergo extensive rebuilding. Dorgon established himself nearby in the Mansion of Prince Rui; his power and influence were such that his titles changed from 'Uncle Regent' (shufu shezhengwang, 1644) to 'Imperial Uncle Regent' (huang shufu shezhengwang, 1645). Finally, he was granted (presumably by himself) the title 'Imperial Father Regent' (huang fu shezhengwang) in 1648, around which time he was also excused from prostrating himself before the emperor, his young nephew. Dorgon's rise to power has remained the subject of controversial disagreement among historians. There has been speculation that Dorgon long plotted to usurp the throne, and that he had vied to succeed Hungtaiji in contestation with another brother, Haoge (豪格 Prince Su 肅親王, 1609-48). Unsuccessful in his bid for power, he was forced into a compromise that saw his young nephew Fulin ascend the throne as the Shunzhi Emperor. It is also said that Dorgon wrested supreme power during the young Shunzhi Emperor's minority by effecting an entry into the Inner Court of the palace by covertly marrying his brother Abahai's widow, the influential Empress Dowager Wen (1613-88) of the Mongol Borjit clan. Such apocryphal stories would form part of a scabrous literature of 'unofficial' or 'wild' histories (yeshi), particularly popular after the fall of the Qing dynasty in the early twentieth century.

Regardless of these colourful speculations, the reality was that during Dorgon's regency the centre of imperial power was effectively removed to his mansion. Imperial memorials were issued without reference to the young emperor and the imperial seals, which were affixed to all major instruments of rule, were kept in the Mansion of Prince Rui. The early Qing ci poet Wu Weiye 吳偉業 wrote: 'For seven years the imperial seal was in his grasp, all the horses and vehicles of the officials converged on South City' (七載金滕歸掌握,百僚車馬會南城).[2] As one biographer noted, Dorgon encouraged court ministers to accord the emperor greater respect, remarking that 'such orders served only to demonstrate how great his power really was.'[3]

The omnipotent prince regent is now celebrated as an able and exacting administrator determined to end the corruption and lassitude of late-Ming rule. During his years of control, nonetheless, it was decided that much of Ming-era governmental organization would continue under the Qing. Dorgon was thus canny in enlisting the support of competent Ming officials, as well as the Jesuit missionaries active in Beijing. He also oversaw the enfeoffment of the other princes of the ruling dynasty, their strategic placement in mansions around the Inner City, and the allotment of tithes from rich farming lands to support their increasingly lavish lifestyles.

Fig.9 Pudu Temple, the Beijing Taxation Museum. [Photo: GRB]

Whatever the truth regarding the extent of Dorgon's imperial ambitions, and impropriety, his dramatic and complete fall from grace came only after his sudden demise in 1650 from illness at the age of thirty-eight during a hunting expedition at Kharahotun, near present-day Chengde, Hebei province. He was canonized as the Righteous Emperor (Yi huangdi). However, when the Shunzhi Emperor attained his majority in the following year he abolished the regency. Dorgon was declared to have been guilty of treason and was posthumously stripped of all titles. Furthermore, he was denied an acknowledged heir and, as a result, his tomb fell into disrepair. All of his properties were confiscated and his followers at court were variously punished. Even his deceased brother Dodo (d.1649) fell from favour, and he was condemned in the following year (Dodo's princely mansion, Yu Wangfu 豫王府, is now the site of Xiehe Hospital next to Wangfu Jing). While Dodo was posthumously only demoted from prince of the first rank to the second degree (that is, from qinwang to junwang), Dorgon was effectively expunged from the imperial family and his sumptuous mansion in the Southern Within lay neglected for decades.

Salvation for All

The main buildings of the mansion were, however, eventually repaired and expanded in 1755 during the mid Qianlong reign, a time when many aspects of early-Qing rule were reconsidered. Dorgon's title as Prince Rui was reinstated and the descendant of his adopted son was allowed to inherit the rank of prince. From the time of this rehabilitation, Dorgon's family and those of seven other princes were known as the Eight Noble Families (Ba Da Jia), or the Princes of the Iron Helmet (Tie Maozi Wang). Their titles were hereditary and protocol required that their residences, or princely mansions, were of concomitant scale and magnificence.

Fig.10 The main hall of Pudu Temple which houses the Beijing Taxation Museum. The low windows are rare in Qing-era buildings but reflect an older Manchu building style. [Photo: GRB]

As previously noted, princely mansions whose occupants were enthroned (or awarded the honours of emperor) were to be converted into temples or non-residential palaces. Since Dorgon's mansion was so close to the Forbidden City, it was decided to convert his former residence into a temple. As early as 1694, Dorgon's palace had been rededicated to the Tibetan Buddhist dharma-protecting deity Mahakala (also known in Chinese as Da Heitian) by the Kangxi Emperor (the Ming-era Hongqing Gong had been used for the worship of Mahakala, a martial deity particularly popular with imperial rulers since the Yuan dynasty). In 1775, following Dorgon's complete rehabilitation under the Qianlong Emperor, the buildings were refurbished, and the temple considerably expanded and named Pudu ('salvation for all') Temple (普度寺) in the following year. It is said that in the temple there hung an archery set used by Dorgon, and there was even a portrait of the long-deceased Father Regent, along with many of his other belongings.

Following the abdication of the Qing imperial house in early 1912, the main hall of the temple was converted into a school that functioned throughout the Republican era and into the early decades of the People's Republic, its name changing from Guomin Xiaxiao to Pudusi Xiaoxue and eventually to Nanchizi Xiaoxue. The main hall was used for classrooms and the open area before it as a sports field. Over the years, most of the surrounding buildings were demolished. Although it was listed as a protected site in 1984, little was done to preserve the remaining structures. The display in the small museum devoted to the site's history located in the entry hall of the temple glosses over this willful neglect and arrant destruction with the standard muted observation that 'due to historical reasons all that remains of the temple today is the entry hall and the main building'.(Fig.7)

A Taxing Renovation

Fig.11 Brochure for the Beijing Taxation Museum.

In the course of the revamping of the temple and surrounding area from August 2001 onwards in the name of heritage renewal, it was determined that some 90% of all existing structures in and around Pudu Temple were in a dangerous state of disrepair and that 5000 square metres of old housing and illegal buildings were to be demolished. In total, 186 families living on the platform of Dorgon's mansion and in the tangle of houses nearby were relocated. Nanchizi Primary School was also removed. In June the following year, construction began on the new, more luxurious, heritage structures for the historical district.

In practical terms this meant affixing an imagined point of historic authenticity for the area, relocating most of the residents crowded into the 'tenement courtyard houses' (dazayuan) and then razing virtually everything but the remaining buildings of Pudu Temple itself. While the jerry-built structures inside the courtyards were removed and the area was entirely renovated, the old courtyard houses themselves were replaced with two-storey modern interpretations of the old housing stock; not sihe yuan 四合院 but what are called sihe lou 四合樓.(Fig.8) The latter are mostly modern modular structures made from poured concrete with simple mock-traditional wood work, cement tiled roofs, a veneer of faux traditional brickwork, though with all mod cons, as well as a premium price set to match the hungry luxury real estate market of the Chinese capital.

Reflecting on the less-than-successful pilot project and how it affected nearby buildings that were merely given a cosmetic enhancement during the furious heritage rehabilitation of Nanchizi, Caroline Wang and Lily Wang wrote in a recent issue of the architecture journal FuturArc:

The hutong that survives demolition always gets a new look. Old run-down doorways are pulled down, replaced by imitation antique doorways smelling of pungent fresh paint. Renovated beauty is only skin-deep: only the houses on the side of the roads are fixed up. A new layer of mesh windows is added above the old windows; walls are smeared with a layer of cement and lines are drawn on the cement to imitate brick patterns; a coat of antique brick-coloured paint is applied; uniform fake copper lion-head doorbells replace old ones; dragons which used to be exclusive to royalty become common ornaments. The 'antiquity' is nothing more than a gaudy patch on a drained cultural tradition—the houses are still on the verge of tumbling down.[6]

The resulting 'restoration' during 2002-2003 created a sanitized version of a traditional Beijing neighbourhood, but one enjoyed by few of its original residents. This led to criticisms that the pilot scheme had created not a heritage area but an up-market real estate project.[4] Other commentators bewailing the guiding principles behind the whole project dubbed it an 'awkward failure'. Writing in Southern Weekend, Li Xiaoshi remarked that if this was to be a model for other historical neighbourhoods in Beijing then little of the old city would survive.[5]

Fig.12 The open area between the entry hall and the main hall of Pudu Temple, formerly used as a sports ground by the Nanchizi Primary School. [Photo: GRB]

While the history of Dorgon's princely mansion and Pudu Temple are relegated to the small entry hall of the complex (once a store used for the allocation of staple grains), the main hall is now the site of the Beijing Taxation Museum (Beijing shuiwu bowuguan) which commemorates the history of taxation and marks the fact that, for many years, Pudu Temple was also used by the local government.(Figs 9, 10&11)

Today, locals use the open space that was the old school sports field for tai chi practice, dancing and group callisthenics.(Fig.12) [Photo: GRB]


[1] See

[2] Wu Weiye 'Du shi ou shu' 讀史偶述.

[3] Fang Chao-ying, entry on Dorgon in Arthur W. Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period (1644-1912), Washington: Government Printing Office, 1943, p.217.

[4] 'Seeking proper way to protect old city', China Daily, 20 August 2003.

[5] Li Xiaoshi, 'Nanchizi moshi bu yi tuiguang' (The Nanchizi model should not be pursued), Nanfang zhoumo, 24 October 2003.

[6] (Caroline Wang and Lily Wang, 'Historical Loss', in FuturArc: Conservation/Hospitality, third quarter 2007,