Stepping into History - The Grand Theater of Prince Kung’s Mansion
In October 2017, WMF's Hunghsi Chao visited 2018 World Monuments Watch site, the Grand Theater of Prince Kung’s Mansion in Beijing, China, just weeks after the campaign’s announcement. In this blog, he discusses the rehabilitation challenges facing the iconic theater.
The Grand Theater within Prince Kung’s Mansion is truly an eye-catching gem. Among all imperial mansion theaters in Beijing, it is the largest and the only one open to the public. The space can accommodate up to 220 people to appreciate traditional performance together, such as Peking opera, music concerts, acrobatics, and poetry recitals. Every year, three million visitors appreciate the theater building from outside, and one-third of them come inside to see the beauty of the interior.
Deterioration, nonetheless, has become an issue both inside and outside the theater building. The paint on pillars, windows, and doors is obviously shelling and cracking in multiple places. Cracked bargeboards and decayed roof sheathing are observed in many places. Because the Grand Theatre was misused as a factory, floor tiles pillars are badly scratched. The fragmented flooring needs to be restored soon to ensure the safety of tourists.
The significant challenge of the theater’s restoration relates to its authenticity. Deputy Director PENG, also the head of the Craftsmanship and Restoration Department, explained that they recently discovered new historic documents that exhibit its original appearance. According to these documents, the current roof style, interior decorations, and stage level seem to be different from their historic appearance. Therefore, it will be necessary to implement historic research, documentation, and assessment of the theater as the first step to recover its authenticity and historic allure.
The mansion’s museum has decided to restore the theater to its historic appearance during Prince Kung's era. However, closing the theater for restoration is a crucial decision: the theatre is one of the major income resources. Separately, the conservation will require a combination of advanced conservation technology and traditional Chinese architectural craftsmanship.
During my visit, I was given the privilege of attending a performance at the theater – a traditional acrobatic and gymnastic show, one of the most popular programs to visit in the mansion’s museum. The history of Chinese acrobatics can be traced back 2,000 years, and this performance art challenges limitations and exhibits the beauty of human body. A dozen talented acrobatic performers, wearing vivid and colorful costumes, displayed sensational skills including juggling daggers, walking on high stilts, and exhibiting human pyramids. I was inspired both mentally and physically by the unforgettable experience.
Aside from the Grand Theater, I visited other iconic buildings within Prince Kung’s Mansion, which was built originally by and for Prime Minister Heshen. Duofu Hall, which literally translates to “Abundant Happiness,” was restored with support from UNESCO in 2004, because of its historic role in foreign policy during the Qing Dynasty. Additionally, I was surprised to find that Xijin Studio shares similar materials and decorations to Juanqinzhai, or “the Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service,” in Qianlong Garden at the Forbidden City, whose design was intended only to serve the emperor. This error in ettiquette was ultimately one reason among many for Prime Minister Heshen’s execution.
With Qianlong Garden project on track to be completed and opened to the public in 2020, in celebration the 600th anniversary of the establishment of the Forbidden City, it is our hope to utilize developments and methodologies that we acquired from this project to advance our mission in China. Our partnership with Prince Kung’s Mansion for the conservation of the Grand Theater will become another significant adventure.