2018 World Monuments Watch
The eighteenth-century residence of Yixin, Prince Kung (1833-1898), a statesman and a member of the Qing imperial family, was the most celebrated of all the princely residences in Beijing. Located to the northwest of the Forbidden City, the estate originally belonged to Heshen (1750-1799), an influential and notoriously corrupt official in the court of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-1796).
Prince Kung lived in the palace with his wives and children for more than four decades, until his death in 1898. During his life he served in many official functions, and at the time of the Tongzhi Restoration he briefly exercised control over the imperial government together with the Empress Dowager Cixi. It was around this time, at the height of his power and influence, that Prince Kung added a large pleasure garden to the north of the sprawling palace complex. In one part of the garden, to the east of the main axis of ponds, pavilions, garden follies, and rockwork, Prince Kung placed a Grand Theater. The theater was housed in a large building with a broad, shallow roof, covering an unencumbered, column-free space. In several poems, Prince Kung described the staging of plays in this theater, where he also entertained friends and other guests on festivals and birthday celebrations, especially during his long retirement. During performances, Prince Kung’s guests were seated at tables around the stage and enjoyed refreshments in the lantern-light.
Prince Kung’s life coincided with a period of crises and decline for the imperial government, which was overthrown a few years after his death. During the 1930s, the property was used as a campus for Fu Jen Catholic University, and later it housed various government agencies and officials. Finally, beginning in 1978, it was transformed into a heritage site and prepared to receive visitors. Now open to the public, it remains the largest and best-preserved princely residence, receiving 3 million visitors annually. While the theater building was renovated in the 1980s, it continues to be used for performances, and is now in need of a scientific restoration program to recover its original appearance, taking advantage of recently discovered documentation. The 2018 World Monuments Watch brings international attention to this project and to the potential for international technical exchange.