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Grand Theater, Prince Kung's Mansion

Beijing, China

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.

Watch Day

A Watch Day event at the Grand Theater in Prince Kung's Mansion on May 18, 2018, coincided with International Museum Day, a yearly celebration since 1977. On this day, the Grand Theater took center stage with a series of activities that highlighted the nineteenth-century building—the largest and best preserved theater of any prince’s mansions in Beijing—and its inclusion on the 2018 Watch. A public lecture and guided tour focused on the architectural style and decorative color paintings of the Grand Theater. Watch Day participants also enjoyed a play performed at the Grand Theater’s stage.

A second Watch Day was held on November 9, 2019. Watch Day events welcomed more than 400 attendees from the local community and schools, and included traditional Chinese opera performances, an ancient Chinese architectural art exhibition, a student workshop, and guided tours of the site.

One of eight sites awarded funding by American Express

In June 2018, American Express announced $1 million total in funding to support preservation efforts at eight 2018 Watch sites. Included among these was the Grand Theater. With support from American Express, WMF started a project to build an international, scientific conservation partnership aimed at recovering the original appearance and historic authenticity of the theater during Prince Kung’s era. The ongoing project is expected to finish in 2022. 

Last updated:
January 2021

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