A Brief History of Beijing’s Former Princely Mansions (and their Latest Challenges)
When in 1949 the new communist authorities moved to Beijing, there was a severe lack of readily available buildings to house the public institutions, and, as a result, the authorities requisitioned many princely mansions. Most of these mansions have, over the years, fallen into disrepair, because of a lack of renovation, or have been turned into social housing with the sheer human density damaging the buildings. In recent years, the authorities in charge of heritage protection wish to seize the opportunity created by the capital’s big restructuration projects to negotiate the renovation and the opening to the public of these historical heritage sites.
Many princely mansions were built around the Forbidden City under the Ming and Qing dynasties. These palaces, consisting of interconnected courtyards with large ceremonial halls and spacious gardens, were emblematic of the last emperors’ reigns. Nowadays, more than forty of these princely mansions remain in Beijing and are being used for various purposes: 12 house public institutions, 12 are party residences and the rest are used as schools, hospitals, or social housing. To date, only two mansions have been opened up to the public and only thanks to 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Even though these buildings are recorded on local and national heritage lists, their protection is not always guaranteed in the face of the capital’s rapid modernization, and only a few have remained unchanged. Access to mansions housing State bodies being limited to an elite, it is difficult to estimate the current state of these heritage sites. Moreover, in the case of the palaces used by the State, the bodies working there are often more powerful than the administration in charge of heritage protection. Nevertheless, their state of preservation is thought to be comparatively better than in the case of the mansions turned into housing, which have had to survive overpopulation, partial demolition, and even fires, like in the case of prince Fu’s mansion.
The preservation of princely mansions is made more complicated by property rights’ issues, and by the exorbitant cost required to relocate the residents and institutions. Moreover, even if a State institution were to accept vacating their premises, it would be extremely difficult to relocate it inside the city center, where property prices remain very high. Nevertheless, two recent trends aiming at relocating the old danwei – the project of transferring the secondary industries to the neighboring cities and the moving of a large part of the municipal government to Tongzhou – should provide opportunities to change this situation and maybe ensure the continued existence of these historical sites.