This splendid imperial residence belonged to several people, including the sixth son of the Guangxu emperor (Prince Gong) who, at the age of 27, was left to sign the Convention of Peking in 1860, after the Qing royal family took an early summer holiday when British and French forces advanced on the capital. The convention (which ratified the ill-enforced Treaty of Tianjin) is reproduced in an exhibition hall. But other than one picture, there's little information concerning the original owner, Heshen (1750-1799), the infamously corrupt Manchu official. Thought to have been the Qianlong emperor's lover, he ruled China for his own gain when Qianlong abdicated in 1796, embezzling funds earmarked for suppressing the White Lotus rebellion. After Qianlong's death, his demise was swift. While he was mourning in the Forbidden City, officials were dispatched to this mansion. Though the extent of his graft was widely known, officials were shocked by the piles of gold and silver ingots uncovered. His remaining friends at court managed to persuade the Qianlong emperor's son to spare him from "death by a thousand cuts," but he was soon hanged. The labyrinthine combination of rockeries and pavilions here offers plenty to see, but you're only seeing half of the mansion and it's often overrun by tour groups. Short but sweet performances of opera and acrobatics are served up in the three-story "Grand Opera House."
Going, Going, Gong? -- Beijing's most remarkable building, Heshen's opulent pleasure house (constructed entirely from precious nanmu) is found in the southern half of Prince Gong's Mansion. It should be a major tourist attraction, but the site is currently occupied by the China Arts Research Council and a high school. When ordinary Beijingren are served with an eviction notice, they often have as little as 24 hours to move out before the demolition crews arrive, but when government ministries are involved, the game is rather different. In the 1980s, offices occupying the site were allocated relocation funds and ordered to move. New headquarters were duly built, but 20 years on, the mandarins have yet to quit their imperial surroundings. They have now been instructed to "act in accordance with the Three Represents," and move out before 2008 to make way for a "Princes' Museum" (Wangfu Bowuguan).
- © Frommer's 2013
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